BEIRUT: Down a narrow lane in the heart of Ras al-Nabaa lies a tree-shaded garden where chickens strut their stuff in front of what locals call the “Yellow House.” A peaceful oasis in the heart of a clamorous city, Beit Waraq is the base of a multidisciplinary collective that seeks to dissociate art from elitism, engaging a wider public with their socially driven program of workshops, film screenings, interactive installations and immersive performance art.
Joan Baz, Ashley Phebe Choukeir, David Habchy and Hussein Nakhal aren’t easy to pigeonhole. Ask what each of them does and the resulting list is bewildering. From animation and illustration to interactive performance art, photo editing, film and art direction and installation, between them they span most of the visual arts. But what really interests the Waraq collective is what happens when the boundaries between these practices are blurred.
“We like to overlap disciplines,” Baz explains. “It was something that each of us used to do independently, and then when we met each other it encouraged us to say: ‘Yeah, why not?’ ... This is the power of us [working] together. ... You don’t get scared when you throw in an idea that’s completely out of the box.”
The four artists co-founded Waraq in late 2012, after discovering that they shared a common vision. “We had a few discussions,” Nakhal says, “and [realized] that although we’re all coming from different disciplines, we see things from the same perspective. We aim toward the same kind of project, which is not concentrated in one theme or one discipline. ... Bit by bit, we started to vocalize our aims, which [are] interactivity and getting inspiration from social issues.”
A year ago, the four opened Beit Waraq, renovating a traditional Beiruti house with towering ceilings, colorful tiled floors and enormous arched windows. The space serves as a collective studio and an art hub, hosting regular events including public film screenings and workshops.
Their decision to make their base in Ras al-Nabaa, one of few neighborhoods that retains the urban texture of prewar Beirut, was a reflection of their desire to reach out to an audience that might not attend events in commercial areas such as Hamra and Gemmayzeh.
A registered NGO, Waraq offers a program of regular public events with a diversity and frequency unmatched by most of the city’s cultural hubs.
“Consistency is very important,” Habchy explains, “because in Lebanon, we’ve been to workshops, but they happen [erratically]. We’re trying to make the space a reference point in the cultural community. ... [Currently] the spaces are a bit distant from the actual audience – you only go there if there’s an activity. Here we have people coming in every day. ... We need more spaces like this in different fields.”
At first, Baz laughs, the neighbors were curious, amused and wary of Waraq collective, surprised by the bright yellow house, amazed by the chickens wandering the garden and bewildered by the strange parade of visitors – from artists with piercings and bohemian clothing to a bus full of school children coming to take part in a workshop.
Gradually, however, the group has found ways to engage people in the area in Waraq’s activities. A vintage market lined up for next month will include stalls manned by some of the neighborhood’s antique dealers, whose wares may appeal to interior designers and vintage fans that wouldn’t usually shop in Ras al-Nabaa. An evening hosted by Dutch food writer Merijn Tol, centered on recipes using labneh, also aims to draw in a local crowd.
Habchy stresses that the thematic content of Waraq’s program is as important as the form of the events, which are divided into four basic types: “Wirash” (workshops), held at least twice a month; “Baqarat” (film screenings), which take place thrice monthly; “Diwan” evenings facilitating mingling and making new connections while enjoying traditional food; and “Layali,” one-night only interactive performances or parties.
The focus of events is driven by quarterly themes, this year consisting of revival, joints or articulations, metamorphosis and adaptation.
“It’s not always literal,” Baz clarifies. “For example, next quarter, ‘joints’ can also mean family and bonds, so one idea we want to do is have storytelling nights where people come with their fathers and every father has five minutes and we just give them ‘cars’ or ‘1982’ and they have to say an anecdote.”
“This is working on getting back the old social tapestry,” Nakhal adds. “We’re missing having conversations with our fathers, and it’s not only in our families. It’s something social that’s changing.”
As well as their regular program, the collective organizes periodic interactive performances. They have been invited to give workshops and create immersive, socially driven installations in Aleppo, Tehran, Sharjah, Dubai and Armenia, and already staged several works in Beirut.
Last fall they put together an immersive theater piece as part of the Beirut Street Festival. Entitled “Monopoly,” the performance involved two actors driving three audience members around Beirut, allowing them to purchase areas and buildings, reclaiming control of the city while reflecting on ownership and notions of public and private.
Another piece, the “Hully Gully,” created as part of last year’s Beirut Animated festival, saw Waraq transform the spinning bride in Luna Park into an enormous zoetrope, a device used to animate simple frames. Using colorful plastic cups, the team came up with a way for the public to create their own designs and then watch them appear as a projected animation when the ride began to spin.
“By the end of it, people who had no idea how animation works ended up animating on a day out in Luna Park,” Baz says, “drinking beer, with their families and children. [This] goes back to our main aim as a collective ... we want our work to be interactive and for a purpose, because at the end of the day it’s not supposed to be art for the elite.”
To find out more about Waraq and their upcoming events, please visit www.waraq.org.