BEIRUT: The July 2006 war destroyed many things – lives, homes and crucial infrastructure. For Lebanese artist Said Baalbaki, it served both as an obstruction and an unexpected creative catalyst.
Baalbaki, who lives in Berlin and punctuates his year with regular trips to Beirut, trained as a painter and until 2006 it was for this skill that he was known. In the summer of 2006, Baalbaki was in Lebanon. He witnessed firsthand the chaos of the July War. In the aftermath he began to work in an entirely new field – conceptual art.
“After the 2006 war in Lebanon I made a rupture with painting,” he explains, “which lasted around a year and a half. At the same time I started a master’s ... in museum studies. I’ve always had a handyman side. I love history, I love archaeology, I love museums. ... I had a theoretical interest and perhaps an emotion that needed to be expressed.
“Since 2006 I’ve been living something close to two parallel experiences,” he adds, “because the conceptual has taken on a major role in my work. This doesn’t leave me a lot of time [for] my painting.”
Among his ongoing conceptual projects is Al-Burak, a stunningly detailed installation piece in the form of a fabricated museum display, ostensibly presenting archaeological evidence of a winged horse with a human head, uncovered in Jerusalem by a team of scientists just after World War I.
Modeled on the steed said to have transported the Prophet Mohammad from Mecca to the Dome of the Rock and back in one night, this meticulously faked display combines Baalbaki’s interests in archaeology, regional history and its falsification, museum display and fine art.
Another long-term project is focused on the history of the Martyrs’ Statue and the arm it lost during the Lebanese Civil War.
“Working on paintings and conceptual work,” he says, “is almost a contradictory experience. ... One starts to evolve in the head and is afterward produced by the hands. The other is a more emotional experience. ... It’s an energy that comes more from the stomach than the head. Even the rhythm of life changes. I prefer to work on my conceptual pieces at night, when it’s quiet, whereas for the painting I only work during the day because I use natural light.”
This autumn it is paintings that Baalbaki is exhibiting. His solo exhibition “Belt” is currently on show at Agial Art Gallery in Hamra. In the meantime an overlapping solo show at Qatar’s Anima Gallery also displays recent paintings, attesting to the fact that – however consumed with the conceptual Baalbaki has become – he still has time for his first passion.
The artist, who was born in 1974, a year before the outbreak of the Lebanese Civil War, spent his childhood fleeing from one home to another with his family. Heaped suitcases feature prominently in his work, a motif that reveals the artist’s dominant personal recollection of conflict. His work, he explains, has been deeply influenced by these childhood memories.
Interestingly, heaps of baggage also appear in the work of his younger brother, Ayman, a painter and installation artist. The younger Baalbaki has created several installation pieces from heaps of suitcases, boxes, assorted bags, furniture and other personal possessions, often perched precariously on a vehicle and tied together with rope.
“We live in a region where war has not ceased for a hundred years,” Said Baalbaki says. “I think that the experience of a painter is linked to this biography. We cannot live in a place without being influenced by the society that encircles us.”
The paintings in “Belt” combine two elements from earlier series. Most capture piles of debris. Suitcases, boxes, clothes and books lie jumbled with a mass of unidentifiable odds and ends. These works, all entitled “Heap,” recall Baalbaki’s earlier series capturing piles of suitcases but are more chaotic, lacking the geometric symmetry and blocky simplicity of the earlier works.
Two of the paintings on show, both entitled “Belt,” depict human figures seated amid the debris. One captures what appears to be a male torso, clad in a scarlet hunting jacket. The figure’s back is broad and muscular, his hands raised to either side, as though conducting a symphony. He has no head. This startling omission focuses attention on his hands, clenched into fists, and the leather belt that lies beside him, half buried in the mass of discarded objects.
Baalbaki explains that he was drawn to belts because of their symbolism.
“A belt is a whip,” he says. “It’s the authority of the institution, the authority of power, the authority of the father. It’s violence.”
These paintings too, have their roots in earlier work.
“At the end of 2005 I did a series of paintings that were of military uniforms on mannequins,” Baalbaki says, “viewed from in front with a heap of suitcases and boxes. ... At a certain point I felt that I needed to give this uniform, which had a theatrical scenography to it, a bit of dynamism. I started to do a series of studies of uniforms where we see the back, without heads.
“The lack of a head has several symbolic reasons. ... People always have a tendency to identify. They want to know who is hiding themselves behind that head. After everything that has happened in Iraq, in Syria, in the Arab world, I think that this motif is very relevant, because a lot of heads have fallen and a lot more will fall.”
Said Baalbaki’s “Belt” is up at Agial Art Gallery in Hamra until Sept. 28. For more information please call 01-345-213.