BEIRUT: How was the University of Balamand’s Lebanese Academy of Fine Arts founded? What are its objectives? Who was responsible for devising such a project?It’s true that all these questions could be answered by browsing ALBA’s website. A more entertaining route is “Les Chroniques Illustrees de l’ALBA, 1937-2012” (The Illustrated Chronicles of ALBA).
Published by the Académie Libanaise des Beaux-Arts itself, this French-language graphic history chronicles the history of Lebanon’s first fine arts academy.
Illustrator Ralph Doumit – an alumnus and teacher at ALBA – has sharpened his pencils to share the saga of the prestigious Lebanese school of fine arts in Sin al-Fil.
Visually, this slim volume oscillates between black-and-white and color drawings. Comic strip-style dialogues are interspersed among a layout of vintage etchings, with capsules of text presented upon facsimiles of torn bits of old paper and printed duplicates of photographs from the academy’s archives, apparently held in place by scotch tape.
The colored sections of the book present information on how everything started for Doumit in 2005; “The Genesis” of ALBA itself; how the academy developed and attracted international attention; the Civil War and the academy’s program of artistic events.
“Chroniques” uses Doumit’s memoir to form a playful tale of the academy’s foundations.
To start, Doumit draws himself explaining his intentions and the extent of his studies. After having studied for two years in France, the artist follows his parents’ advice and returns to Lebanon and enrolled at ALBA.
Doumit’s starting point is his great-grandfather, Fouad Rizk, who played a role in the development of the academy.
In the book, the author shares a warehouse with another illustrator, Maria, when they receive a visit from an odd old fellow, who is drawn to resemble Christopher Lloyd’s character in Robert Zemeckis’ 1985 comedy “Back to the Future.”
This big-haired gent has invented a machine that enables Ralph and Maria to return to the time when ALBA first started, enabling them to visit the academy’s founding fathers.
Architect and cellist Alexis Boutros collaborated with Sami Aboussouan around 1937 to create the AMA (Association for Nonprofessional Musicians), along with Wadad Cortas.
From there began the development of the public’s interest in the academy, which was officially founded in 1943.
Maria is transported to the period when Nicolas Dale was director of the association’s music school. This part of the academy’s history is illustrated in black-and-white drawings. Ralph is transported back to his great-grandfather’s office.
ALBA evolved through conventions with such prestigious foreign schools as France’s Ecole Nationale des Beaux-Arts de Paris (National School of Fine Arts of Paris).
Both created in 1943, the schools of architecture and visual arts offered a different perspective of the academy. Other faculties – urbanism and cinema and audio-visual production – provided new educational tools.
The reader follows Maria and Ralph to Jerusalem, where they spend time with some academy musicians during a tour, and back to their apartment in the 1970s.
Two pages are dedicated to ALBA during the 1975-90 Civil War. During these years, ALBA is depicted as a shelter to many inhabitants of the area, since its basement level was strong enough to protect citizens from shelling.
Classes were still scheduled during the war, but they were taught in improvised classrooms or at professors’ homes.
Doumit’s graphic history ends with a touching reunion that brings together each of the founding figures of the academy to celebrate ALBA’s 75th anniversary.
Over the years, ALBA continued to develop academic and cultural projects and public programs – concerts, exhibitions and festivals. This chronicle mixes the documents and photographs of the academy’s documentary history with the readings of Doumit, one its favored sons.
“Les Chroniques Illustrees de l’ALBA, 1937-2012” is available at ALBA and at Librairie Antoine.