BEIRUT: Lebanese mahjar poet Gibran Khalil Gibran once wrote that “beauty is not in the face; beauty is a light in a heart.” It’s not quite a century since Gibran died and, in Lebanon it seems, “beauty” has become associated with “surgery.”To comment on a woman’s beauty nowadays is, implicitly, to compliment the craft of her plastic surgeon, and the size of her bank account. It’s enough to make you wonder what happened to natural beauty, to the beauty of the soul.
In his most recent series, Lebanese photographer Nijad Abdul Massih reflects upon the beauty of eight women who remain untouched by cosmetic surgery. In an effort to add a wrinkle to a show that might be dismissed as a parade of pretty faces, the artist conflates popular culture’s obsession with physical beauty with a disease that attacks the very attributes that so many heterosexual men most prize: breast cancer.
Whether they have been touched by the disease directly or indirectly, Abdul Massih’s muses embody femininity and exemplify the real meaning of beauty.
Packaged in the exhibition “Looking for the next Sophia,” now up at Gemmayzeh’s Joanna Seikaly Gallery, the series sets out to inspire all women to accept the bodies they’ve inherited. The title refers to Italian actress Sophia Loren, who throughout her career has epitomized femininity.
The photographer chose his eight models – Leila Jabbour, Mirella Hodeib, Mathilde Della Porta and Roula Safa, to name a few – on the basis of their response to a Facebook campaign Abdul Massih launched one year before.
The exhibition’s 17 photographs depict these women in various situations and poses. All are hung alongside a small text, composed by each model, expressing her views on cancer, life or her body generally.
“I think that in many cases,” Della Porta wrote, “plastic surgery is nothing more than a way to escape from what we truly are.”
“Nowadays,” Jabbour wrote, “each woman should be aware of the importance of early diagnoses ...”
Several of Abdul Massih’s photos are set within door frames – whether in the frame itself or in the photograph. When asked about his use of door frames, Abdul Massih explained that it was a leitmotif of his. He always tries to incorporate architectural bits into his work.
In this case, the frames are among the architectural themes that are layered into the various photos.
Abdul Massih’s object is to represent an embracing vision of femininity, one that abjures the impossible ideal types thrown up by Fashion TV and the advertising industry generally, yet he hasn’t shied away from selecting models that are pinup material.
In the piece entitled “Kahraba Loubnan” (Electricity Lebanon), Leila Jabbour wears a white dress that shows her feminine assets to good advantage. Her image is set within one photo of a narrow Beirut street and another of something that appears to be a running stream or a waterfall.
Combined, this photo montage creates the impression that the model is holding the buildings’ facades in her hands – not unlike Samson about to bring down the temple of the Philistines – or clutching the rocks framing a waterfall.
Abdul Massih carefully added electrical cables of different colors from one side of the door frame to the other, emphasizing the title’s electrical system.
In “Life is Now,” 140x200 cm, Roula Safa is depicted sitting seductively in a chair. Here again, Abdul Massih creates a montage of this scene with another shot of a seashore.
“Life is a humbling experience,” onlookers can read on the nearby exhibit plaque, “never plan, be grateful for NOW.”
Italy’s Stefania Pochesci posed for “I Guerrieri.” Unlike the other models discussed so far, Pochesci actually had breast cancer. To demonstrate that her femininity has not been eaten away by the disease, Abdul Massih’s muse posed wearing a shirt that reveals parts of her bust.
She might be embodying Sophia Loren, saying, “I am all woman.”
Abdul Massih set out to demonstrate that natural beauty still exists in a world, despite the pressure imposed by contemporary culture to alter your appearance. It seems many people told him he’d never find a Lebanese woman untouched by plastic surgery. Abdul Massih appears to have proven them wrong.
Nijad Abdul Massih’s “Looking for the Next Sophia” is now up at Joanna Seikaly Gallery in Gemmayzeh until Feb. 15. Parts of the proceeds will go to May Jallad Foundation for cancer. For more information, please call 70-776-711.