Culture

New Mathaf guide questions history

BEIRUT: Lebanon’s National Museum has a new audio guide for its archaeological exhibits. Unlike the electronic tours of other museum collections, this guide provides no information about the Mathaf’s artifacts. Launched at Mathaf Friday, International Museum Day, “Chou Hayda?” (What’s That?) is a work of sound art that seeks to ground the museum’s ancient works in a contemporary context by creating an audio tour from amateur reflections on 25 objects on show.

Commissioned by the still-nascent Beirut Museum of Art in collaboration with the National Museum, the work has been devised by Lebanese-American artist Annabel Daou and curated by Temporary Art Platform’s Amanda Abi Khalil.

In November 2017, Daou invited Beirutis into the Mathaf and asked them to lend their voices to the artifacts, to reimagine their histories, functions and significance today.

“The project was very much about access, authority and the voice,” Daou told The Daily Star. “We went to NGOs and asked them to send us people and ended up with 150 people over a couple of days.

“I chose a bunch of objects, created some questions around them and told the people, ‘Sometimes you’ll answer in the voice of the object. Sometimes you’ll answer about the object, just answer.’ We didn’t read the [exhibition descriptions]. There were no wrong answers.

“We really aimed to try and get people who don’t necessarily come into the museum,” Daou added, “or feel like they have access here.”

The guide can be accessed by scanning a QR code at the museum’s entrance with a mobile or tablet with internet access. Tablets are also available at the museum entrance. Daou was adamant the guide would narrate in Lebanese colloquial Arabic.

“I want to stop this idea that the only language for art is Western language,” she explained. “That’s very restrictive ... you’re saying that people who can’t speak these languages can’t speak art or have relevance in this context.”

“Oddly enough,” she mused, “the more educated the [participants] were, the harder they found it to express themselves in Arabic, which is telling.”

Created by DB Studio’s Nadim Mishlawi, the sound design of “Chou Hayda” begins with an introduction voiced by Lebanese actors Julia Kassar and Georges Khabbaz.

Arriving at each exhibit, the public hears questions followed by a montage of participant’s responses.

“There this eye upstairs,” Daou recalled, “and I asked, ‘What is the most difficult thing you’ve seen?’ One woman said, ‘I’m looking in all of your eyes to see trying to see if you’re seeing the world I am seeing.’

“You have people responding and they got into acting in the role of the object but what they put into that was their lives as well.

“It became a really beautiful and moving experience,” she continued.

“Many people said it felt like therapy, in the sense that they were putting their voice in a place that they don’t get to, a place that they don’t feel their voice matters because [they feel] there is something ‘known’ here and [they] don’t know it.”

The project was not about the weight of a single voice, Daou said, but rather the collective, generic language that exposes the beauty in ordinary life.

Contemporary political concerns also woven into the work.

“The other part that is important,” Daou said, “is the power of cumulative voices to change things right now, given that we have less and less power and the voices in power hold us in their grasp.”

The first exhibit the guide visits is a large double-headed bull, with each head facing opposite directions and a ‘seat’ in the middle.

“I asked everyone who came in, ‘Which side would you sit on?’ I first thought that was the most boring question in the world,” Daou said. “There’s really only three answers but once you listen to the answers your start to wonder, ‘Where would I sit?’

“You feel your decision-making, the political aspect of it and what side would you face.” Selecting the objects was a fairly organic process, Daou said, who initially chose 10 artifacts, none of which made the final cut.

“Then I came and sat here for weeks and I started asking questions about authority, sight, identity, touch etc. and those things started to arise in the object I chose,” she recalled.

“People’s voices kind of led me in a way and there are lots of things people will jointly become interested in.”

“Chou Hayda” ponders only 25 objects from the Mathaf exhibition, but Daou intends to archive the 40-odd pieces to which people responded during the project.

“I’m interested in doing this project again in different places and different ways,” she said, “and I might make it a broader project because it was so interesting.

“The objects gave people a place to put their voice and the people gave a voice to the objects,” she added. “The stones gave a lot of liberty because you can’t really be right or wrong about a rock, history aside.”

“Chou Hayda’ will be available at the Nation Museum, Mathaf through Dec. 30, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on May 22, 2018, on page 16.

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