Skeptical visions of a home that is Beirut

BEIRUT: Like other cities, Beirut polarizes opinion. Some residents retain an almost adolescent admiration for the place. Others are more jaded.

Lebanese illustrator Barrack Rima’s latest French-language graphic novel “Beyrouth Bye Bye ...” falls on the more skeptical side of things.

Now on show at Makan, a new multidisciplinary exhibition space in Mar Mikhael, the work’s exhibition tag describes it as “a dark graphic novel featuring a nightmarish Beirut drowning under garbage and attacked by crocodiles and ninjas.”

Organized by Plan Bey, the show also includes collages and a selection of mixed-media illustrations and pen-and-ink works in limited edition prints and posters.

The bleak world Rima depicts is more pessimistic than his previous graphic novel, “Beyrouth.” A portrayal of postwar Beirut, that book – first self-published in Brussels in 1996 – was a graduation project from his fine arts studies in Belgium.

“I was 23 years old [and] very optimistic,” Rima recalls. “That year everyone wanted to go back and construct something. ... It was very naïve in a way.”

With its stark aesthetic, the comic reads like a memoir of disillusionment. The story begins with Rima heading for a walk along Raouche with his daughter and lover. They encounter more than they bargained for.

Along the way they encounter a figure slumped upon a rock facing the sea – Rima’s interpretation of Handala, the iconic figure of the Palestinian witness devised by cartoonist Naji Salim al-Ali.

Drawn with his back to the reader, Rima’s rendition of Handala’s retains his anonymous mystique. Unlike Ali’s 10-year-old figure, Rima’s version has a full head of hair.

Rima feels the Handala figure can be read to represent a disillusioned attitude toward one’s own home.

“When I come here,” he declares, “I feel like a refugee.”

Rima’s three protagonists also face mounds of concrete blocks and a pack of sinister construction machines and cranes inside the Dalieh cove, which he renames “crocodiles.”

“They are the ones who close the public spaces and make them private spaces,” he adds.

The three characters later flee in a taxi, only to be greeted by a slew of hostile, black cloaked figures – “ninjas,” he calls them. The figures greet the trio with a warning. “‘This city is the coffin of liberty,’” Rima translates, “‘so get the hell out of here. You have three minutes.’”

“It’s about power,” he says of the ninjas, who are meant to represent authoritarian religious figures.

After an absurd comic experience at the Naameh landfill, the three characters flee for the airport.

“Don’t you think this story is a bit exaggerated?” Rima’s lover asks.

“I cannot see Beirut otherwise,” he replies.

Rima is one of the founding members and editors of Samandal, Beirut’s pioneering multilingual comic publication. Most of the works on show at Makan have been revived from past issues of the magazine, where they were episodically published.

“Send Khadijeh & Rami to Carry the Stuff,” his 111x165 cm inkjet poster, is from Rima’s comic “Nap Before Noon,” which appeared in Samandal’s “Genealogy” edition.

The works feature the print illustrations, yet text from the dialogue box is missing, making for an intriguing opportunity to consider what should go in that blank space.

The mixed-media illustration presents the profile of an all-white figure, holding a bag made out of what looks like beige paper as he looks up toward a grim-looking gray building that towers over a pitch-black skyline. The figure is meant to be Rima’s father.

Beside it is a scribbled 111x165 cm poster, which apparently took only 24 seconds to draw.

Elsewhere in the show, Rima’s “My Father & Grandfather at The Countryside,” offers an alternative to what people have come to consider a typical family portrait.

The mixed-media collage is from his “Family Photos” series, first published in Al-Akhbar newspaper.

To construct his off-center scene, Rima used test strips of photographic paper as base, from which he cut out the two figures that appear in the print. With an arm around each other’s shoulders, the pair gaze upon a barren, rocky landscape with two leafless trees. The photographic test strips’ color gradations provide the piece with a compelling color scheme.

The dismal narratives Rima concocts may be a bit too grim for those preferring lighthearted comics about Beirut.

What’s gripping about Rima’s approach is that he doesn’t sugarcoat. He embellishes reality with a bit of his own imaginative flair.

Barrack Rima’s exhibition “Beyrouth Bye Bye ... ” is on view at Makan through Sept. 12. To purchase the book or limited edition prints and posters contact 01-444-110.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on September 08, 2015, on page 16.




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