BEIRUT: In 2011, a few weeks before Ashkal Alwan formally opened its Home Workspace in Jisr al-Wati, Lebanese photographer Tanya Traboulsi visited the unfinished space and stumbled upon the subject of a new series.
The raw, concrete walls of the wood factory-cum-militia headquarters had not been painted since the Civil War and Traboulsi was fascinated by what the previous occupants left behind.
She spent the next few days photographing the fading collages the soldiers had plastered over the walls decades before. Incongruous images of women, motorcycles, family, politicians, religious symbols and newspaper clippings blended into a wallpaper testimonial of the personal side of war.
“What intrigued me was who put up these photos?” Traboulsi recalled. “What was the story of the photos? Were the soldiers happy or sad? Did they kill people? Were they regretful? What touched me was that I felt the soldiers putting the posters up with their own hands, feeling sad or longing for a woman.”
When Home Workspace opened to the public a few weeks later, the soldiers’ memories were concealed beneath a layer of fresh white paint. Traboulsi then set out to find a home for her photo series.
Initially, she included three of the photos in a traveling exhibition. She had other offers to show them but was not convinced the works should be hanging in frames on a wall. Antoine Sfeir agreed, and suggested that he and Traboulsi reproduce the images for a poster series to sell at Plan Bey, his new store in Mar Mikhael.
Traboulsi doesn’t usually believe in rushing her work into commercial production. “With another series of mine of course I would mind,” Traboulsi said. “But these were different. It was about taking them back to the wall, from-wall-to-wall.”
Within two weeks, Plan Bey had printed two sets of the eight-piece series, “Collection 1983,” and held a launch event at the store as it does for each of the new projects [or products] it sells. In the four months since “Collection 1983” went on sale, the posters, each retailing for $30, have been reprinted in small batches multiple times.
Since Plan Bey opened in June 2010, Sfeir has launched similar collaborations with at least 25 Middle Eastern artists, including photographers Fouad Elkoury and Cherine Yazbeck, artist Rafic Mazjoub, and calligrapher Samir Sayegh.
Sfeir sees Plan Bey as the natural extension of a concept he originated a decade ago when CD-teque (his now-defunct CD/DVD shop) began partnering with local artists like Elkoury and Mazen Kerbaj to print graphic books and sketch collections.
Many of these books are still for sale at Plan Bey, along with alternative guidebooks to Beirut, jams made in the Syrian port town of Latakia, a line of locally made recycled glassware called Kas Kon, and a host of other items that straddle the boundary between art and commerce.
After Sfeir shut CD-teque [“Because, he said, “CDs are dead”] he and his partner, graphic designer Karma Tohme, decided to take the book publishing concept a bit farther, opening a shop that works with artists to develop salable products, thereby making their work accessible.
“It was all very grass-rooted and organic,” Sfeir explained. “We realized there was a big tranche of people who feel they are somehow excluded from the art game in Lebanon because it is exclusive, elitist, and expensive – the three E’s.
“When photography becomes too expensive, you go buy a poster but there was no place to do that here. Now there is one, but we are different. We’re about the artist. We’re not a shop that sells posters. We’re a shop that sells the work of Fouad Elkoury or Cherine Yazbeck.”
Inspired by Walter Benjamin’s 1938-treatise on Art in the Age of Industrial Production, Sfeir says Plan Bey is a hybrid sort of retail space – part publishing house and art gallery with a dash of farmers’ market, old neighborhood record store, MOMA gift shop, and a Taschen store thrown in the mix.
The shop’s design is sleek and modern and at first glance so is the merchandise within – most of which is artistic, if not outright art. Since 80-85 percent of Plan Bey’s stock are objects conceived and produced in partnership with Middle Eastern artists, the results are unique: battle-scarred, pockmarked, self-aware, and at times imbued with an ironic sense of ennui.
Much of the art here tackles personal subjects.
Mazjoub’s “Sober Diaries,” a diary of sketches he created while in rehab, was published and launched here. All 99 copies of the scruffy, black, unedited musings and drawings – complete with the original coffee-cup rings – have sold out.
Though the artist admits that “Sober Diaries” might not have worked for him personally, the companion piece, “The View from the Inside of a Broken Glass,” a follow-up diary about his relapse, turned out to be therapeutic.
“I was working on it knowing it would be printed and was drinking hard last summer, Mazjoub recollects. “I don’t know if [that] changed it, but I wanted to get it out of me. I wanted to kick out alcohol again, but do it on my own this time. And it helped because once I finished I didn’t touch whiskey again. I hope the two books are good together.”
Mazjoub is considering a third collaboration with Sfeir on a topic that has nothing to do with booze. “I just work and whatever happens, happens,” he said. “But I am satisfied with printing and telling a story because I am not painting now.”
Many of the artists whose work is on show here are part-time expats who seem to be searching for ways to reconcile tradition and the legacy of war with the unwieldy, turbulent, socio-economically stratified worlds where they live.
This aesthetic is evident in Chaza Charafeddine’s photo series “The Unbearable Lightness of Witnessing,” a collection of artist self-portraits masked and reflected in mirrors. Apparently inspired by the work of Francis Bacon, the series seeks to “materialize the images of violence that have become part of our daily lives.”
Some of the artists take a lighter, more tongue-and-cheek approach but conflict always seems to be lurking in the background. Sfeir interprets this not as cynicism but as a collective exorcism of the past. It expresses a mentality shared by the generation of Lebanese adults who grew up during the Civil War.
“This period, 1991 to 1999, was very hopeful for us,” Sfeir said. “We are more realistic now. It doesn’t mean there is no hope in reality, but those people who had their twenties in the 1990s, we were sort of dreamers.”
Does hope still exist? Sfeir nods, cautious. “In some manner.”
Curious? See http://www.plan-bey.com