BEIRUT: “Graffiti ultimately wins out over proper art,” the street artist known as Bansky observed a few years back, “because it becomes part of your city, it’ s a tool; ‘I’ll meet you in that pub, you know, the one opposite that wall with a picture of a monkey holding a chainsaw.’ I mean, how much more useful can a painting be than that?”
These days the line separating street art and fine art is being blurred. Graffiti artists increasingly find themselves creating work with nothing “illicit” about it, spraying onto canvases for sale in private galleries, or the walls of swanky restaurants, rather than covertly on the streets at night. Lebanese artists Ashekman even have their own high-end clothing line.
“White Wall,” currently on show at the Beirut Art Center, showcases graffiti and street art in an indoor setting, the latest in a series of graffiti exhibitions around the world which aim to translate an art form commonly associated with rebellion – vandalism anyway – into an institutional context.
The project is a collaboration between the BAC and Saradar Foundation, a non-profit organization managed by “graffiti maniac” Tania Helou. It is curated by a three-man team, Lebanese hip-hop musician, filmmaker and artist Siska, French graffiti artist Charles Vallaud (aka Prime), and Don Karl (aka Stone) from Germany.
The exhibition displays the work of thirteen international artists as well as eighteen local street artists, whose work is on show both inside the BAC and tagging outdoor locations around the city.
The work on display inside the BAC – painted directly onto its once-white walls – is a hodgepodge of painting, sculpture and installation, the clutter of styles that fall under the umbrella of street art.
Belgian artist Parole’s beautiful semi-abstract scrawls are created using a unique Latin script invented from an amalgamation of tags from around the world. Parole recounts the story of his first night in Beirut, written in a black circle on the white wall. Atop the text the artist adds strategic lines to reduce legibility, rendering the work abstract and open to individual interpretation.
Some three-dimensional pieces seem less immediately like graffiti. Outdoors they would be considered street art – in a gallery space they become something approaching sculpture or installation.
American artist Mark Jenkins has scattered his realistic human-scaled sculptures around the gallery. In the main hall a girl sits on a toilet, leggings pulled down around her knees, her featureless face staring at a roll of toilet paper on a hanger up near the ceiling.
In the ladies toilets, meanwhile, one of the cubicles is permanently occupied by another young girl who appears to be throwing up, face planted in the toilet bowl, feet splayed out from the cubicle’s open door. The figure looks real enough to illicit questions and offers of assistance from anxious passersby.
“The idea was to bring together people who work in graffiti but in different styles,” explains Siska. “Our main object was to bring a new, fresh evolution for the Lebanese graffiti scene.”
The BAC exhibition doesn’t possess the raw, spontaneous energy of genuine street art. The smooth white surface emphasizes the technical capabilities of the artists, but lacks the character added by stained, cracked walls and odd protrusions, which many street artists find ways to incorporate into their work.
Aware of the problems posed by exhibiting “street art” in a gallery, the team chose outdoor locales around the city for larger works, marked on a map available online and from the gallery. What the BAC work does do is provide a good overview of the participating artists’ range of different techniques and styles, giving visitors an indication of which artists’ work they might want to hunt down on Beirut streets.
“The BAC functions as a venue to highlight what’s going on in the streets, that people tend probably not to see, or not to recognize, or not to value as an art,” Helou explains.
“What we wanted was to focus the attention of the public on street art ... It’s like a piece of jewelry that you put in a box – we wanted to put it somewhere that people would come and look at it and change their perception.”
Running parallel to “White Wall” is a series of workshops, talks and film screenings. For those interested in the local graffiti scene, the highlight may be “Evolution and Revolution,” a roundtable talk at BAC on Sept. 19, which will focus on how Lebanon’s graffiti has evolved from war-related messages to an art form.
Of the 15 or so works dotting the city, one piece in particular stands out, if only due to its scale. Chilean graffiti artist Inti’s piece covers the entire side of a seven-story residential building on the corner of Hamra and Mahatma Ghandi streets. The resulting work, which Stone claims is the largest piece of graffiti in the Middle East, took 60 hours and an industrial crane to complete.
The piece shows a hooded figure with small raisin eyes and a doughball nose whose gloved hands clutch a baby goat. “The subject is the same as I always do – I have my style and I try to do it everywhere,” Inti says. “I travel a lot around Latin America and each place I visit I take some elements or designs, then I mix them all into my work. It’s a sort of present – my vision of Latin America.”
Though impeccably executed and certainly an improvement on the filthy surface it covers, it seems a little sad that this new landmark is so culturally removed from Lebanon and the surrounding region.
That said, it is notable that very little of the work on show in the gallery or on the streets bears any kind of localized political or social message. Graffiti, as an anti-establishment art form, can be a vehicle for social and political dissent, particularly in states where censorship is an issue for artists and writers.
The organizers say they did not present the artists with instructions or restrictions. It could be seen as a positive sign that the resulting works are so politically neutral and family-friendly. Yet, like the BAC’s clean white walls, it contributes to the oddly sanitized impression the work leaves.
“White Wall” continues at Beirut Art Center and at outdoor locations all over the city until Nov. 3. For more information, please visit www.whitewallbeirut.com or www.facebook.com/whitewallbeirut.