Travelogue Beirut: Art as a space for politics

At the beginning of her talk about the Beirut art scene, artist Lamia Joreige said, “In the mid-nineties, Beirut was just coming out of what is commonly called a civil war, and a new generation of artists was coming of age.” Lamia’s presentation was the last in the Travelogue series ICA has been presenting all year, in which curators, writers, and artists from across the globe come to ICA to talk about the art world where they live. Sitting in ICA’s auditorium, we have traveled to Vilnius, Singapore, Paris, and Santiago. But Beirut was different. In Vilnius, we heard how artists responded to the end of Soviet rule, a complex historical situation; but only Beirut was dealing with the immediate aftermath of war.
Miranda: Lamia-talkingA

Photo: J. Katz

While Lamia didn’t talk at length about particular artworks, she did relate how the artistic vocabulary of the city seemed to change after the Lebanese war, moving away from traditional painting and sculpture to installation, video, and hybrid experimental forms. The lack of infrastructure, too, led to the crossing of boundaries between genres, so that video, visual art installation, fiction film, and documentary often blended together. The lack of funding brought about a freedom of experimentation. It’s as though a people picking itself up, rediscovering itself, needed new frames to hold and explore its new world. “Nothing is easy in Beirut,” she said, recalling the assassination of the Prime Minister, the Israeli bombings, and other horrors. “We have no funding from the government. Actually, we don’t have a government.”

Lamia described the creation of the Beirut Art Center (BAC), which she started with Sandra Dagher in 2009—not only to curate shows, but to create a platform for discussion in the city. “For me, BAC was a political gesture,” she said. “I’m a big believer that art is a space for politics.” BAC made art accessible to everyone. It was also a place where art could be a springboard for conversation.
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Beirut Art Center

Lamia’s Travelogue raised many urgent and unanswerable questions. Is lack of official support good for art? If art is a space for politics, is there such a thing as non-political art? Is what is sometimes called domestic art political when looked at from the right angle? Mull this as you walk through ICA’s lush, tactile exhibition Sheila Hicks: 50 Years, where you can see, I think, political passion in the warp and woof of every textile minime.
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Sheila Hicks, Fenêtre II, Photo: Bastiaan van den Berg

Certainly patronage by elites, notably the Catholic Church, has made possible some of the greatest art of all time; and yet it also true that uncertainty and chaos often kindle experimentation and edgy creativity. I’m not suggesting we abolish the NEA, let alone the government. And I worry that political art, as that term is conventionally understood, privileges ideas over formal qualities—though in Lamia’s discussion, such art seems like an outpouring of feeling and thought into the necessary form.

These are important ideas to wrestle with. At ICA, we’d love to know what you think. Please use the comments field below to respond to these questions, and help us begin a conversation in our own (virtual) art space right here in Philadelphia—or wherever in the world you are.

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