Culture

‘Ouga Ouga’: Doodling our postures of civility

BEIRUT: A peculiar figure welcomes anyone entering Galerie Cheriff Tabet these days. He’s half cave man, half hipster, dressed in both a leopard skin skirt and a shirt and a tie, as attached to his spear as he is to his smartphone.It’s a your-face-here-style cardboard cutout. He screams, “OUGA OUGA!” like a cave man might.

An exhibition of doodle-style acrylic-on-canvas illustrations by Benoit Debbane, “OUGA OUGA!” is a playful exploration of how civilization is no more than a pose.

“Even though we think we’re evolving, we’re not,” Debbane tells The Daily Star, “because we’re still acting like savages, destroying the planet and getting more and more distant from our values. We’re acting like primitive animals with a civilized facade.”

Debbane started as a street artist in the 1990s. He says all his paintings from that period were destroyed during the reconstruction of Beirut. His work disappeared but the vibe of urban art is very much alive in his technique.

As exuberant as his art, Debbane exudes a subtle balance of criticism and high spirits. Above all, he doesn’t want to take himself too seriously. He believes humor is critically missing from the arts.

“We have the tendency to believe that art is something sacred, academic, serious,” he says. “Not at all. I’m very pop [art]. I make fun of things, I mix things that have nothing in common. My art is tragicomedy. I tackle serious topics but in a fun way.”

Maybe that’s why he pokes fun at Rodin’s “The Thinker,” one of the most important sculptures in art history. In Debbane’s hands, Rodin’s male figure - posing deep in thought, often associated with philosophy - is X-rayed.

His thoughts, we discover, are far from rational thinking, though perhaps there’s a trace of Freud. This thinker is deeply obsessed by several women who are, as Debbane points out, “grabbing his doodle.”

Another topic addressed is social media fame. “Influencers ... all those famous people who don’t do much,” he says. “Celebrity nowadays is absurd. I’ve found the sentence to describe all this foolishness and absurdity. ‘OUGA, OUGA!’”

Visitors to the gallery said they found the messages in Debbane’s paintings relevant.

Hala Habr thinks his diptych “Trophy Wife” is especially perceptive. “It exaggerates all the funny stereotypes of the trophy wife. The man wears a [Ralph Lauren] shirt with a big polo logo and a cigar bigger than his face. His wife is literally a trophy with big boobs.

“When you say doodle, you don’t think you can create something meaningful from doodles,” she reflects, “but he uses doodles to deliver ideas in a very entertaining and smart way.”

Gallerist Cheriff Tabet says he makes it a point to encourage young artists, to bring freshness to the art world. “OUGA OUGA!” marks the first time he’s exhibited street art, in hope of encouraging younger audiences to come.

He insists on the centrality of Debbane’s messages. He sees them as both local and universal, as visual humor strives to be. “The objectification of women, people shooting at each other. ... Those are Lebanese topics but they could be understood anywhere.”

Debbane and his art feel at ease on the white walls of the gallery, which he admits he’s trying to influence. “I am trying to change the setting, he says. “It’s an intervention. Walls are very white, very nice and for the duration of the exhibition I shake them up.

“Above all, I don’t want people to be indifferent. I want them to realize. Yes, we’re always on our phones, give too much importance to appearance and why are there no women with normal eyebrows on TV? Hey! What is going on?”

Is there anything Debbane would like to add? Only two words, he whispers, “OUGA, OUGA!”

“OUGA, OUGA!” is up at Galerie Cherif Tabet through July 4.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on June 18, 2019, on page 12.

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