BEIRUT: It’s tough having mental and physical disabilities in Lebanon. There have been several cultural interventions lately seeking to shed a light on conventional views of disability in this country and what should be done to change that perspective for the better.
Zeina Daccache has been a pioneer on this front. The founder of Catharsis (Lebanon’s drama therapy center), Daccache directed the stage play “From the Bottom of My Brain” in July 2013. Its cast was drawn from the residents of Al-Fanar Hospital for Neuropsychiatric Disorders, and her goal was to raise awareness of the experiences of those with psychological disabilities. The play was warmly received.
Amin Dora and Georges Khabbaz’s feature film “Ghadi” tells the story of a child afflicted with trisomy (a condition caused by having an extra chromosome) and the lengths to which his parents go to make the child happy. Well received since its Beirut theatrical release, Khabbaz’s movie highlights and challenges social stereotypes toward those with special needs.
The latest project intended to bridge the gulf between the realities and clichés of such physical afflictions has more international roots.
Some years ago, AbbVie, the pharmaceutical spinoff business of U.S.-based Abbott Laboratories, created an art and design competition called “Perspectives – Art, Inflammation and Me.” The most recent edition of the contest is said to have attracted submissions from 500 international applicants, 50 of which were selected as finalists.
Among the finalists is “7 Cabins,” a project by Lebanese architect and designer Jean Bou Doumit. The designs will be unveiled Friday evening at a by-invitations-only event at the Zaitunay Bay yacht club.
“The idea was to choose a designer from each country and let him meet with a patient,” Bou Doumit told The Daily Star. “Then the designer has to create a piece of art that reflects the disease and how it affects the patient.”
Bou Doumit was inspired to collaborate with the afflicted in his project. “I wanted to let the patient express [himself] more, tease him more and push him to do his piece of art,” he continued. “So I came up with the idea of making workshops with seven patients, and work with them as if they were designers.”
After AbbVie chose the patients, Bou Doumit worked with them for two months. “I only told [AbbVie] I didn’t want somebody who had an artistic background,” he recalled.
Patient confidentiality makes it impossible to identify Bou Doumit’s collaborators, but all are 20-66 years of age. Some are afflicted with ankylosing spondylitis (a chronic inflammatory disease, thought to be connected to the immune system, that can cause fusion of the spine), psoriasis (a chronic immune-mediated skin disease that may affect the joints) or Crohn’s disease (a chronic inflammatory disorder, in which the body’s immune system attacks the gastrointestinal tract).
AbbVie compensates its artists by shouldering the expense of sending the works on tour – which no doubt bolsters the pharmaceutical company’s public profile as well. After its private premiere at the yacht club, Bou Doumit’s project will embark on an international trip to visit medical exhibitions, conferences and museums.
Bou Doumit shot a documentary about the making of his project, which will also be screened Friday evening during the private debut.
“The concept about the cabins is that they are known to be the place where we express our feelings,” Bou Doumit said. “It is a closed place but in a public space.”
The shapes, colors and designs employed in each cabin are unique, he said, a reflection of each patient’s experiences, fears and hopes.
The event’s public relations agent Suzan Dargham said the Beirut opening was supposed to be public event. “Hopefully when the exhibition comes back [to Lebanon], we will do something for the public to see those cabins.”
Dargham shares Bou Doumit’s concerns about how society perceives those who suffer disabilities. “All those experiences they have lived with came out in the cabins.”
“Patients need more care beyond medication,” she said.
This isn’t Bou Doumit’s first semi-public intervention. A few years back, he worked with prisoners from Roumieh Prison on a project that combined art, design and therapy. In this case, inmates didn’t make cabins but beds. Regrettably, he said, difficult conditions prevented the final designs from being exhibited to the general public.
Bou Doumit said that working with the seven patients in constructing these cabins was a highly emotional experience. “They were the designers,” he said. “They expressed their stories.”