BEIRUT: Anyone steeped in the urban lore of lower Manhattan in the 1980s probably knows a thing or two about the adventures of Maripol. Born in Morocco and raised in France, Maripol arrived in New York like a crash-landing cosmonaut in the mid-1970s, a time she describes as “the end of Motown and the beginning of disco. There was danger in the air, downtown had been overtaken by artists, and there wasn’t that much to do but get involved in the community.”
Immediately, Maripol fell in with a crowd of renegade creative figures including everyone from Andy Warhol and Debbie Harry to Jim Jarmusch, Fab Five Freddie, and the B-52s. Rents were cheap and she had a steady job, as creative director of the fashion brand Fiorucci.
She is famous, then and now, for dressing Madonna in lace, rosary beads, and electric blue leggings for the “Like a Virgin” video, and for producing the cult film “Downtown 81,” starring a very young and vibrant Jean-Michel Basquiat.
Less well known and before all of that, however, Maripol embarked on an adventure of an entirely different kind. Her and a boyfriend decided to drive from France through Turkey to Lebanon. It was 1975 and the war was on. Beirut was crippled by a cholera epidemic and Maripol was totally unfazed.
“We stayed for a month in Turkey and decided to go all the way,” she says, stretching in her chair at the cafe of the Beirut Art Center on a recent afternoon, wearing a breezy navy sundress with espadrilles and a sharp, hot pink necklace.
“I had been to Beirut before, in 1970,” she explains. “My parents were living in Saudi Arabia then. We all met here. I think it was the best holiday I ever had. After that I went back to France to boarding school. I tried to sneak in my shisha. The nuns didn’t know what to do with me.”
Five years later, Maripol had to sell the car, run through the streets to the port, and leave the country by boat, a journey that circled the Mediterranean, visited a half dozen quarantine grounds, and picked up hundreds of soldiers along the way.
But for most of her time on that trip, she simply hung out with her extended family in the mountain village where her Lebanese grandmother Mathilde is from (to her credit, she won’t say which one, and doesn’t divulge her family name). Whenever the fighting abated, she came down to the beach.
Now, Maripol is back for an exhibition of photographs – including a stunning portrait of Sitt Mathilde in an elaborate gown – a book signing for “Maripol: Little Red Riding Hood,” and a film screening for “Downtown 81” and “Keith Haring: The Message,” a documentary she wrote and directed earlier this year.
The show – featuring Maripol’s legendary Polaroids of Madonna, Debbie Harry, Grace Jones, Keith Haring, Basquiat, Vincent Gallo, and more, all printed on canvas and either blown up big or arranged collage-style – marks the inauguration of Station, a new, multipurpose venue for cultural events located in Jisr al-Wati, next to the Beirut Art Center, Ashkal Alwan, and a slew of real-estate developments under construction.
Nabil Canaan, the Lebanese expat who is running Station with the Moroccan photographer Leila Alaoui, remembers when this part of Jisr al-Wati, perhaps most widely known these days for its proximity to the Sunday flea market and for its center of gravity in the car emporium Impex, was a purely industrial neighborhood of furniture factories and wood-making workshops.
“In 2006, I visited my family’s old furniture factory, wondering what could be done with it,” Canaan recalls. “Having worked in Berlin and living in New York at the time, I saw many parallels between this area and the once-industrial neighborhoods of Soho and Chelsea. They had undergone similar changes in their urban development, taken over by early pioneers from the art scene, who started all sorts of alternative projects that brought life back to these areas.”
A few years after that, the Beirut Art Center opened, Ashkal Alwan moved in, and the architect Nabil Gholam took over a floor in the red building on the corner. Canaan saw an opportunity to put his ideas into action – no small thing at a time when nearly galleries are strangled by Lebanon’s bureaucracy of doing business and, in the current economy, seem financially unsustainable.
In addition to her Lebanese grandmother, Maripol is tied to Beirut through her long-standing friendship with Johnny Farah, owner of the restaurants Casablanca, Lux, and the once-wonderful, since-shuttered Babylon, as well as the mutli-locational fashion boutique IF.
When Canaan visited her studio in New York, in the same loft where Maripol has lived for 30 years, he realized that not only was she “the soul of downtown.”
“It struck me that Maripol epitomized the very transformation that Jisr al-Wati was undergoing,” he says. “She was in New York at a time when artists were pouring into old factories, injecting fresh ideas and bold initiatives into the empty industrial spaces.”
To an extent, Maripol concurs, and like Canaan, she walks a fine line just shy of the standard clichés, comparing Beirut to New York like so: “It’s noisy, it’s polluted, it’s on the edge of the water. Beirut is like New York in the explosion of its art scene.”
Maripol’s enduring wanderlust is clearly ingrained.
Her grandmother was born in South America, part of an earlier, 19th-century, famine-induced wave of migration from Mount Lebanon to Chile, Venezuela, and Colombia. She came back at the age of 16 and fell in love with a French general. From that union, a scandal in its day, Maripol’s father was born.
Her grandparents moved to Fez. Maripol was born in Rabat. She attributes her creativity and her sense of color to her time in Morocco, her tendency toward rococo-style to her grandmother’s business as a dealer of Damascene furniture.
Of course, returning to Beirut isn’t all textbook urban regeneration and gentrification. “It’s a surprise after seeing it destroyed by the war,” says Maripol.
“It’s like going to Berlin. It’s very weird. War is a terrible thing. We live a hard life. The wild construction is very disturbing. But it’s great to see so many young artists.”
And with that, she pulls out a bag of pens and markers the same shocking pink of her jewelry, and begins embellishing the portrait of her grandmother, as if getting down to work in a gritty half-finished, formerly industrial exhibition space were the most natural and gratifying thing in the world.
“Maripolarama: New York 1980s” is on view at Station in Jisr al-Wati through Oct. 20. For more information, please call 71-684-218 or visit www.stationbeirut.com.