On borders, belonging and art

BEIRUT: On a gallery wall hang two paintings. In one of them, a young boy sits forlorn beside his heap of shoe-shine equipment. The other shows a mustachioed man, his head wrapped in a keffiyeh, cradling a child on his lap as he crouches on a flight of steps, hand outstretched. In the distance, a figure walks away, oblivious.

Assessing this vista, a balding man in a suit stands, hands clasped behind his back. Nearby, another visitor strolls past the paintings. Behind him a young man clutching his own wooden shoe-shining stool tries to capture his attention, while a tousle-haired child stretches out his palm for money. The visitor, face averted, hand raised in negation, strides onward.

Entitled “The View,” this painting is itself hanging on the wall of 392Rmeil393, Gemmayzeh’s nonprofit, “non-aligned project space.” The work, part of the first solo show of Lebanese artist Dona Timani, is the fruit of a project grant from the Arab Fund for Arts and Culture (AFAC).

The exhibition, “Paint a Vulgar Picture: On Bordering and Othering in the Arab World,” serves as a forthright critique of injustice in this region.

Standing before her work, Timani discusses “The View” with the same candid disregard for political correctness that she evinces in her paintings.

“This is quite personal,” she says, “because I ran into this problem when I was working on the region. One of the things you can’t avoid is the Syrian problem – you want to talk about it but there’s sort of a sense of entitlement. Of course the Syrian artists are the ones entitled to talk about the war, but the work I saw was not interesting enough. It was more emotional, a gut reaction.

“I felt guilty too. I felt that I was exploiting this theme ... [but] I thought that this is what artists are doing. Some artists are becoming very successful because of the war in Syria. So I just tried to put all this into a painting.”

Informed her painting has provoked guilt in a gallery visitor – who’d passed an elderly Syrian lady on the street without giving her money – Timani breaks into a smile. “Oh good,” she beams. “It’s working!”

Originally an exploration of borders in the Arab world, Timani conceived “Paint a Vulgar Picture” while living in Qatar.

“Once I found myself abroad I really knew my worth in the world according to my nationality,” the artist explains. “It was a very humiliating experience ... I started reading about borders and nationality and [national] discrimination.

“I got the grant [from AFAC] and I came here with a very vague notion of what I wanted to do. Returning to Lebanon, reality struck again and I realized that I can’t justify our international border politics because we as a community are rotten. So I had to go back to internal borders and how we deal with and treat each other.”

Exploring the causes of socioeconomic subjugation along sectarian, ethnic and national lines, and their normalization, Timani’s work is both humorous and bleak. From Sunni-Shiite relations to the Israeli army, mistreatment of migrant workers to the Palestinian right of return, her paintings are powerful, satirical advocacy for social change.

A portrait of her husband, mouth wide open in a scream, is executed in painstaking photorealistic detail. Timani is technically able, but has chosen to employ a simplistic, cartoon-ish style in most of the works.

“There is a general theme but there are subthemes,” she says, “and I couldn’t deal with them in the same way ... I haven’t developed a unique style yet. I’m still experimenting. I was worried that the ‘art circle’ says you have to come up with a very harmonious style, but I thought, ‘I’m talking about a multiple identity crisis, and of course I have it, so it’s fitting in a way.’”

Images of migrant domestic workers cleaning up the poop trailing from their employers’ pets, and of Sunni and Shiite men dancing cheek-to-cheek might raise eyebrows in Beirut.

Timani says they are not intended to be controversial, noting that taxi drivers are discussing these topics in their cabs every day. “Everybody says it’s controversial but I have yet to see somebody who comes inside and gets offended,” she shrugs. “Maybe I wanted that. I don’t know.”

The only piece she worried might be misunderstood, she says, is an homage to Sigmar Polke’s “Three Girls” featuring female Israeli soldiers semi-clad and standing atop the carcass of a pig.

“You can’t talk about the Arab region without talking about the [Israeli army],” she notes. “It’s such a big entity that controls the destiny of a national and thus the entire Middle East crisis. The moment I Googled it ... I just saw pictures with the girls getting undressed ... and it was very interesting because that’s the opposite of what you have here when you talk about nationalism and patriotism.”

Other works were influenced by her own experience. “Peace and Prosperity (part 2)” shows a line of plastic road blocks. Beside them a sign reads in English “Men at work.” Above it is the Arabic, but the dot over the “ghayn” is missing, changing the meaning to “Men on fire.” The work was inspired by a real sign that Timani saw on her first day in Qatar.

The exhibition is not only about drawing attention to discrimination and inequality, Timani says, but about encouraging action. “I am hoping to make a change, otherwise I wouldn’t have ventured to make art,” she explains. “I don’t believe in art just for its own sake. I need to do something more, and I’m not the sort of person who would go and start an NGO. I’m balancing maybe a bit of vanity and a bit of good intentions.”

She chose the venue because of its street-side location, she says, hoping to attract a diverse crowd. “I’m definitely not an artist’s artist,” she declares. “I’m more interested in people on the street.”

Dona Timani’s “Paint a Vulgar Picture: On Bordering and Othering in the Arab World,” is up at 392Rmeil393 until Sept. 26. For more information, call 01-567-015.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on September 03, 2014, on page 16.




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