Culture

From the rubble of a fading memory

BEIRUT: Nabil Abou Hamad is searching for hope in the demolition of the past in his latest exhibition “Rubble” now on display at Remomero Italian Authors Gallery. These paintings are visceral. There is no consistent style. The techniques vary from piece to piece. The one theme uniting all is destruction.

“You can’t do something new unless you destroy,” Hamad said.

Hamad was born in the coastal town of Haifa to a Lebanese father and a Palestinian mother. His family fled to Lebanon during the Israeli occupation. He studied in Damascus before returning to Lebanon to become a cartoonist.

Throughout the ’60s, Hamad joined a circle of some of the most accomplished Lebanese artists of the period – including Paul Guiragossian and Rafik Sharaf. He spent years sitting with fellow artists, journalists and writers at the old Horseshoe Café – then a Hamra institution – arguing, debating and discussing the most pressing issues of the day.

During the Civil War, he moved to London to be art director for Al-Hawadeth newspaper.

In the decades since, Hamad has been featured in at least 11 art exhibitions and published 11 books. Though he has spent decades in London, he says he still feels attached to Beirut.

“When you come to Lebanon you feel that you should be involved in the atmosphere in which people live here,” Hamad said. “I’m living in London, but my feelings, my brain, is mostly here.”

The artist’s work channels the chaos of Lebanon.

In the Remomero’s main gallery, “Rhapsody” depicts instruments, sheet music and a fallen bust of Beethoven over a fiery explosion of orange and blue.

“Roots nowhere” portrays a fallen tree above a multicolored patchwork house with shovel in front.

To the left of a door leading outside from the main gallery, “Once a church,” represents stained glass and wooden debris. To the right of the exit is “Once a mosque,” a painting of a leaning domed building emerging from among wreckage.

Some of Hamad’s works are darker in tone.

“Black wound [after Fontane]” simply depicts a hunting knife slicing through a blank canvass.

“Comedy” shows a dark, somewhat creepy-looking hallway with the picture of a laughing clown hanging on one wall.

Perhaps most disturbing is “Container,” which depicts a child’s stroller piled with miscellaneous junk. Mickey Mouse lies next to it, a limp, decapitated body beside a smiling head.

Hamad’s intentions are not merely to shock. He says his mix of styles speaks personally to Lebanon, comparing layers of rubble to other layers of history.

“Especially in Lebanon, there are layers of civilization,” Hamad said.

“These layers, they are inside the Lebanese man, inside his subconscious,” he added.

He equates this blend of civilizations to the stylistic diversity of the exhibition’s works. He points to one painting entitled “Breeding.” It uses abstract figurative elements to represent a screaming child hugging a lifeless female body. In the background, a giant knife sticks into the dirt.

“There are many things in the same work,” Hamad explained. “And why not, if they serve what you want to say?”

Hamad’s career has seen its own share of destruction and change, from the Nakba to the Arab Spring. He celebrates the tearing down of the old, and seeks to inspire others to do the same. Quoting Napoleon’s remark that “revolutions are like the most noxious dung heaps which bring into life the noblest of flowers,” the artist feels authoritarianism is no solution to the region’s ills.

“If I compare my memories with the present, it is very difficult,” Hamad admits. “I walk now down Hamra and nobody knows me. I feel that this is not my history. It is not the thing in my nostalgia. Not all.

“It’s a pity, of course, but you know how with time, dreams are better than the reality.”

The artist smiled at Remomero founder Remo Ciucciomei.

“But it’s nice to find an Italian man ... establishing a gallery in Beirut,” he continued. “He still believes that this country has the variety, dedication and the openness to all ideas and civilizations. This is encouragement, encouragement to be optimistic for the future.”

“Rubble” is up through May 21 at Remomero Italian Authors Gallery. For more see http://www.remomero.com/home.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on May 04, 2016, on page 16.

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