BEIRUT: Nowadays Ayyam Gallery is populated by mixed-media works depicting odd-looking elephants, and unnamed creatures possessing geometrically shaped heads, and detailed stainless steel sculptures of equally exotic fauna. The entire menagerie forms the corpus of “Urban Zoo,” an exhibition of new works by Lebanese artist Nadim Karam.Born in Senegal, Karam has been living in Beirut since 1994. Tallied among the more recognizable artists to emerge from Lebanon’s diaspora, he draws upon recollections of his travels to make his art. Known internationally for his whimsical metal statues of wildlife, Karam’s works at the Ayyam Gallery return to these themes, placed against an urban landscape.
These 29 pieces (paintings and sculptures) form an artistic jungle through which the viewer must trek, all the while confronted with the challenge of deciding what it is exactly that one is gazing at.
Several members of Karam’s bestiary – sculptures made of domestic knickknacks like buttons and colored beads – graze near the center of the gallery. Residing at the formal juncture of animal and human, these figures provoke one to wonder whether the artist wants to represent the human side of the animal or the animal side of humanity.
Arguably, that is exactly the artist’s game – to reflect upon the ambiguity between the human and the bestial. This is anthropomorphism at its best.
In conversation with The Daily Star shortly before his show’s Thursday evening opening, the artist confided that animals were meant to seem “innocent, humorous and observatory.”
With statues like “The World in a Flower,” “Amber,” “Ornicar” and “Queen of Spades” the onlooker is drawn into Karam’s wry observations of human society.
Outside the gallery, three stainless steel sculptures guard the area, immediately showing what the viewer will witness while entering. One of these sculptures represents Hannibal – the Carthaginian commander (247-182 BC) – atop an elephant holding a flag. Karam explained the shape of the flag could be assimilated to a cloud, as could be thought of Hannibal’s headdress.
The cloud is a favorite leitmotif in Karam’s work – in fact it afforded the title of his previous Beirut exhibition, “Shooting the Cloud.”
The elephant too seems omnipresent in the artist’s practice. He says this animal is like “a wide, wild canvas allowing [him] to express memories and stories.”
One of the sculptures outside the gallery uses the elephant motif as a base, upon whose back the artist affixes minimalist characters and symbols, forming an image resembling a ring of stainless steel flower petals.
The elephant, Karam says, has “such a presence that [the artist] can experiment through it.”
In the case of his Hannibal, the artist says the elephant embodies the “creation of things rather than the destruction of things.”
Another representation of Hannibal can be found on Karam’s tapestry “ Hannibal on the Elephant in Aubusson” (185x160cm). The title of the piece refers to the origin of the work’s primary medium. The French town of Aubusson was known in the 17th-18th centuries for its manufacture of tapestries – being recognized as a major competitor of Gobelin, the sine qua non of tapestry-making.
The mixed-media on canvas work “Escaping the Urban Zoo,” 150x200 cm, conjured up all of Karam’s creatures and arrays them upon buildings, on roads and in the sky. Only two human beings – a boy and a girl, painted duplicates of whom can be found in one of Karam’s sculptures – are depicted trying to escape the chaos.
The creatures loom above the two human-looking figures, like gargoyles protecting precious edifices. Setting off the canvas’ gray and black hues, and enlivening the scene, is a pink curtain at the center of the canvas. Though the pink pigment has been allowed to run down the face of the canvas, like the gray, the curtain clearly represents the door to freedom.
“The Urban Zoo” (140x205 cm), another mixed-media canvas, also portrays the creatures of the artist’s menagerie and the pair of fleeing hominids. Here, though, the landscape is a more jungle-like, with shards of a few urban structures scattered among them.
The imbalance between the animals and the buildings is striking. The creatures are much larger in scale than the architecture, as though suggesting something of the superiority of the animal to the human. With the urban space apparently having slumped into obsolescence, Karam’s animal figures acquire the aspect of totems.
“The animals,” the artist remarked, “are pitying what humans are doing with their cities.”
Nadim Karam’s “Urban Zoo” is on show at Ayyam Gallery until Oct. 10. For more information, please call 01-374-450.