Walking backward into the future

BEIRUT: Light bulbs feature prominently in Hanibal Srouji’s childhood memories. As a child, Srouji used to visit a neon bulb factory, where two of his uncles worked. As a 10-year-old, he recalls watching in fascination as his father painted all the old-fashioned filament bulbs in the house blue. The 1967 war was on, and the idea was to avoid attracting the attention of Israeli bombers, he laughs. All that mattered to the young Srouji was the magic of the colored bulbs.

The artist’s latest solo exhibition, now up at Galerie Janine Rubeiz, features his signature semiabstract canvasses shaped with fire. For “Tête dans les nuages” (Head in the Clouds) Srouji has also introduced handcrafted neon light bulbs into his work.

After almost four decades, the artist returned to his uncles’ factory, working with the artisans to create the handmade tubes in intricate shapes and luminous colors used in this show.

“This is a technology that came to Lebanon in 1946,” he says. “They learned from the English, who were in Palestinian at the time. ... If you think of Time Square in New York, [where] you go to see all the lights flashing, Beirut used to be like that. I was a kid and everything was flashing and flickering.”

The addition of the neon bulbs to Srouji’s work is in keeping with his practice. The artist’s semiabstract works are open to multiple readings – in a previous show he suggested viewers turn the works upside down – but their components are rooted in personal experience.

“I consider my work concrete,” Srouji says. “That means it’s not abstract in the sense that I’m just working with color and surfaces and lines and dots. It’s always referring to something in my own life. ... Most of my work is about memory.

“It’s abstract because of the haziness of memory [but] the work that I do is related to [concrete] motifs. I just bring it back and work with it differently, the same way I use fire. I don’t use fire because I like working with it. I use fire because it’s a symbol of energy and because it can be positive and negative – it can be destructive or constructive.”

The neon works transform depending on whether or not they are switched on, feeding into Srouji’s interest in duality. Formally, though, the bulbs are a radical departure from his previous work – characterized by muted colors and understated simplicity of line and form.

Many of the new works are influenced by the minimalism of Japanese painting, the artist says, and the attention to detail seen in Persian miniatures.

“Persian miniatures and Japanese paintings are very complex,” he observes. “I like the complexity of space and thinking and the economy of the making in these works. The whole thing is constructed – it’s mathematical in the thinking. I’m very scientific in how I go about constructing an image. Every little dot counts.

This meticulous painting style ties the neon pieces to bulb-free works in the “Terre/Mer” (Earth/Sea) series, which consists of larger paintings inspired by Lebanon’s geography.

“The landscape [component] goes back to my first paintings,” Srouji continues, “when I was talking about memory, about the village, the little mountain – very basic childhood references – but the treatment is different. The ‘Terre/Mer’ series started in 2009 when I was still in Paris, although at the time I didn’t know that I would come back.”

The artist lived in Lebanon until 1976, when he was evacuated to Cyrus. He remained abroad for 35 years, returning to Lebanon in 2010.

“Throughout my first childhood years, I was standing on the land and looking at the sea and the sky,” he says. “When you’re on the boat you’re seeing sea, land, sky. ... I’d never seen Lebanon that way.

“I was leaving and I was 18 at the time and I was like ‘Wow, my country is disappearing.’

“Emotionally I was fixated on that image. So I started making these very tall paintings, slices of vision, and playing around with ideas – where is the land, where is sea, where is sky? Where am I, always lost in space? What am I trying to find?”

“Tête dans les nuages” marks a thematic shift for Srouji, whose previous work was concerned with a darker theme, Lebanon’s wartime experience. Held at Janine Rubeiz in 1997, his first show in Lebanon shocked local viewers.

“Twenty years ago it was too early to talk about it,” he recalls. “When you go through a trauma, then you have to go through the psychological healing. So I was always trying to make things move faster, and I think many artists picked up on that and these exhibitions opened up the possibility of people talking about things that they [think] it’s taboo to talk about.

“Now they have gone through a time of digestion and made peace with themselves, and I think it’s much easier today to talk about it. ... I think the artist in this sense helped society to advance and heal itself.”

Now, Srouji says, he wants to focus on the possibility of a brighter future. “It was a conscious decision,” he says. “I don’t want to see black anymore. ... I’ve always thought we go into the future looking backward into the past.

“People thinking we’re striding into the future, but we’re just walking backward,” he laughs. “Probably we can stumble – most of the time we stumble. ... The blue light bulb could become a reference [in my work], but at the same time, I have to give it more sense. It has to look forward. What is art about anyway, except ourselves?”

Srouji’s “Tête dans les nuages” is up at Galerie Janine Rubeiz in Raouche until March 19. For more information, please call 01-868-290.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on February 25, 2014, on page 16.




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