Culture

Divine inspiration for reimagining paradise

BEIRUT: “Lemonade Everything Was So Infinite,” an exhibition of 30 new works by Lebanese artist Hiba Kalache, assembles works emerging from her examination of sacral depictions of paradise.

“The series started with a specific reading through religious texts,” Kalache told The Daily Star. “I was literally taking the sentences describing the heavens out of context and trying to work with them.”

Showing at Saleh Barakat Gallery in Clemenceau, Kalache’s paintings are highly decorative and meticulously detailed, awash with colorful hues and bustling with renderings of lush foliage.

In preparing the exhibition, Kalache worked closely with curator Natasha Gasparian. “We were having long conversations for the past year and a half,” Gasparian said, “and I have been following Hiba’s process from the beginning.”

The show is roughly divided into two sections.

The works in the first were executed when Kalache was working directly from religious texts.

Those in the second reflect the artist’s move toward abstraction.

The initial section, Gasparian explained, “is the beginning of the process where Hiba was thinking about the notion of hope, which relates to some of the older work that she was doing around mapping.”

“I’d started working with the notion of hope when I was still in San Francisco,” Kalache interjected, “and just from a very autobiographical standpoint, being Lebanese and having lived through the war, [examining] ... the strength that brings us back as survivors.

“From that point I decided to pick on the same starting point from older works and it [made] me interested in what really was historically described in the heavens.

“To me the heavens had a very direct relation with hope as a human being,” Kalache added.

In her first series, bright, colorful forms erupt off the canvas. Vegetation blossoms from never-ending branches. The wings and beaks of birds emerge from the leaves.

The artist soon became disillusioned with this direct reading of the religious texts, she explained, and began to question the relationship between text and image.

Stylistically, the pieces in Kalache’s second series become less constrained, more free-flowing, their motifs less fixed.

“Her process started. What then happened is a sort of thinking about language and the relationship to the word and the image, the thought process,” Gasparian explained.

“The key word is ambivalence – the ambivalence you feel toward a text or a disjuncture with something that is so familiar that then is strange, the moment of confrontation with it because of all of these other interpretations.”

During an intense six months of stimulation, Kalache explained, she moved away from the direct transposition of scripture to canvas and instead began exploring the secular works of Helene Cixous.

In particular, Kalache was interested in Cixous’ writings on Clarice Lispector’s book “Agua Viva,” which echoed the artist’s conflict with the word and the image. The titles of these works, Gasparian said, are derived from Lispector’s book.

“[It’s] a very fragmented text,” the curator explained.

“Hiba paralleled the process that the book attempts to do in some way, addressing [such concerns as] social belonging [and] sexuality.”

Colorful flowers, rendered in such detail in the first series, now appear distorted.

Echoes of human forms emerge freely from the canvas, detached from the body.

“It’s about individual questioning,” Kalache said, “life after death ... the banality of our daily routine.”

Titled “I hear the mad song of a little bird and crush butterflies between my fingers,” the final piece in the series, dominates the entire back wall of the gallery.

Comprising 99 paper drawings, the piece takes motifs from across the entire exhibition to create a unified work.

“It’s the end piece that ties everything together,” Kalache explained.

“There are fragments and drawings,” Gasparian added. “The fragment is also very important.”

The exhibition title also works to subtly unify the whole show.

Derived from what are purported to be Kafka’s last written words, Kalache allows the ambiguity to linger for onlookers. “Lemonade Everything Was So Infinite” is up at Saleh Barakat Gallery, Monday-Saturday, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., until June 30.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on May 18, 2018, on page 16.

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