Art on a Green Line curator asks “How do we remember?”

By STUDY28|Violette Stepaniuk

“How we remember?” and “Why we remember?” are the guiding questions behind the Art on a Green Line exhibition, on view at the Carleton University Art Gallery until April 14. Doctoral candidate and curator Johnny Alam assembled a variety of works by artists born or raised during the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990) to explore different aspects of this conflict and the meaning associated with the Green Line that split the capital of Lebanon, Beirut.

For nearly three decades following WWII, Lebanon was considered The Switzerland of the Middle East. Driven by the flourishing banking, commerce, tourism, and agriculture sectors, the country’s economy prospered, and Beirut attracted so many tourists that it was known as The Paris of the Mediterranean. In 1975, however, the first of a series of armed conflicts broke out and things began to change.

One of those changes was separating Beirut’s mainly Muslim population in the West from the predominantly Christian East. The demarcation line became known to the foreigners as the “Green Line.”  The local term is “khtoot el tames” which means “lines of contact.”

As a child Alam witnessed the war and the changes it brought. As an adult he chose to research post-conflict art and pop culture. In an email interview Alam talks about Art on a Green Line, and how art can help us understand the Lebanese Civil War and other conflicts.

Johnny Alam Beiruts Green Line web

Johnny Alam | Beirut’s Green Line | 2015 | collage | 20 x 24 in (51 x 61 cm)

In Beirut’s Green Line Johnny Alam superimposes two historical maps of Beirut, and cuts and stitched the work along the Green Line to create a literal interpretation of professor Barbara Gabriel’s definition of national trauma as “a tear in the phantasmatic of ‘nation.’”

All images courtesy of Johnny Alam

S28: In the curatorial essay for Art on a Green Line, you write that in the presented works the lines between truth and fiction are blurred. It is interesting that when considering historical events, you don’t mind blending fact and fiction. What is the reasoning behind that?

Johnny Alam: My personal works in this exhibition are not fictional; they are a form of documentary art that highlights past events. However, all known forms of documentation fall short of capturing every aspect of a given event and, therefore, any representation of the past, including history, remains incomplete. The fact that our biological perceptions and memories are even less reliable in terms of recording day-to-day reality makes it difficult for us to claim full knowledge about what is happening now and, by proxy, what has happened in the past. Besides, fact and truth are not the same; the latter is always relative.

Historical fictions, on the other hand, are arguably more effective in delivering a message about the past especially when the author speaks from firsthand experience; which is the case of most artists in this exhibition. Accordingly, I believe that facts and fictions complement each other in this exhibition and thereby offer visitors a more interesting experience and better knowledge about the Lebanese 1975-90 wars and their aftermath.

S28: Are you not afraid that people may misunderstand what is being presented and get the wrong idea of what has happened?

JA: Unfortunately, the past is always open to interpretation. My hope is to supply the viewers with enough information and expose them to sufficient and diverse perspectives that would allow them to think critically about what happened and about what is happening now.

S28: Why did you choose works by artists who were born or grew up during the war? Why are you interested in their perspective in particular?

JA: I began researching the effects of war on art in Lebanon for my MFA thesis in 2005 by interviewing a number of artists from the older generation; however, I noticed that their reactions to the war was different from my generation’s. In my conclusion, I wrote that my next study will focus on the War Generation.

Little did I know that in the few months leading to my graduation, my Canadian immigration application – which had been lingering for five years – would finally be processed and approved and that the 2006 war in Lebanon would speed up my permanent move to Canada.

I registered for an M.A degree in art history at Carleton University upon my arrival and, quite ironically, it was in one of my classes here, thousands of miles away from Lebanon, that I was introduced to a number of transnational contemporary Lebanese artists whose works reflect the ideas and experiences of my generation. I have been researching their works ever since and I consider this exhibition an alternative form of academic publication.

I believe that facts and fictions complement each other in this exhibition and thereby offer visitors a more interesting experience and better knowledge about the Lebanese 1975-90 wars and their aftermath.

Beirut Metro Map by Hassan Choubassi web

Hassan Choubassi | Beirut Metro Map | 2005 | print | 8 x 12 in (21 x 30 cm)

Beirut Metro Map outlines an imaginary subway network with checkpoints on the Green Line that passengers must cross on foot. The artist also shares emotional wartime anecdotes associated with different crossing points.

S28: You said that you started your research by talking to older artists, but their reactions to the war did not resonate with you. What are the key generational differences in the reaction to the war that you noticed? In what way are your experiences different?

JA: I am afraid a solid answer to this question requires further research; however, what we know for sure is that the previous generation experienced the Golden Age of Lebanon (Switzerland of the East) and Beirut (Paris of the Orient and Pearl of the Mediterranean) before the warfare started. Hence, those who chose to represent the war from that generation often portrayed scenes or notions of violence. In a sense, their experience and relative productions may be compared to Francisco Goya’s black paintings, although few, as far as I know, reached that level of darkness or pursued that style for a long period of time. It was a phase in their life; just like the war.

In contrast, the 15 years of war were the standard circumstances in which the generation of children known as the War Generation or the ruined generation grew up. Accordingly, their representations of the war generally include memories of everyday life during the war and its aftermath. They often question the socio-political reasons behind the wars and the ongoing insecurity. Their artworks carry a sense of nostalgia, a bitter-sweet feeling towards their childhood or teenage years lived during the 1975-1990 wars.

There is also a common sense of nostalgia for the pre-war Golden Age that is inherited from their parents; a prosperous era they never experienced. Of course, nostalgia is multiplied in the case of transnational artists from the War Generation because nostalgia, in its original sense, refers to homesickness.

Finally, we should not underestimate the effect of literary criticism, cultural theory, and postmodern discourse on the art and aesthetics of the War Generation artists or contemporary artists in today’s world at large. The difference in art education between the Lebanese generations of artists yields different aesthetics; each generation speaks of its age.

Their artworks carry a sense of nostalgia, a bitter-sweet feeling towards their childhood or teenage years lived during the 1975-1990 wars.

Johnny Alam On Humanitarian Aid web

Johnny Alam | On Humanitarian Aid | 2015 | installation | dimensions variable

On Humanitarian Aid is an installation consisting of a blanket hanging in the doorway to the exhibition. The artist’s family received this blanket during the war as part of a humanitarian aid package.

S28: On Humanitarian Aid, one of your works in the exhibition, is an installation consisting of a blanket hanging in the doorway to the exhibition area. What is the importance of the blanket, and where you placed it?

JA: The importance of the blanket lies in the fact that it is the only physical relic from the wars in this exhibition. Of course, including it in the show endows it with an additional layer of signification because it now functions as a material object carrying my ambivalent feelings towards the war. It triggers nostalgic feelings about my childhood on one hand, and reminds me of the controversial nature of humanitarian aid on the other.

The (aid) package (containing the blanket) was sent by the late king of Saudi Arabia in collaboration with the Lebanese-Saudi business tycoon Rafic Hariri whose philanthropic efforts and connections played a role in his appointment as the Lebanese Prime Minister in the post-warfare period. His financial humanitarian interventions, therefore, served political purposes and bought him allegiances in the Christian areas. This is why I placed the blanket near the artwork Origins of the Green Line which represents the French military humanitarian intervention in Mount Lebanon in the 19th century; another form of securing influence.

Finally, I chose to hang the blanket as I did to separate the space like we used to do in the war shelters and to acknowledge that talking about the Lebanese wars in Canada is, in a sense, a form of airing dirty laundry.

S28: Who or what did you have in mind when designing this exhibition? Is this exhibition a teaching tool?

JA: I wouldn’t use the term “teaching” because it sounds authoritative and uninviting. I do believe this exhibition provides a mind-opening opportunity for learning and for enhancing one’s knowledge about politics, media, and human life during wartime and beyond. The exhibition provided me with an opportunity to share my research findings beyond the academic community and to introduce my colleagues and the general public to intriguing artworks that capture diverse experiences, memories, and interpretations of war in Lebanon that differ from mainstream-media depictions of distant atrocities.

The exhibition provided me with an opportunity to share my research findings beyond the academic community and to introduce my colleagues and the general public to intriguing artworks that capture diverse experiences, memories, and interpretations of war in Lebanon that differ from mainstream-media depictions of distant atrocities.

S28: What do you hope visitors to your exhibition will take away from it?

JA: First, I hope they enjoy the creativity of the artworks and the rich diversity of media presented in the show. Second, I hope they realize that this exhibition is not only about a distant war which ended twenty-five years ago, but also about human phenomena and events that are happening in Canada, Lebanon and on the international level today; after all, five of the twelve artists included in this exhibition are Canadians.

Third, I would like visitors to take the free imaginary metro-map and the postcards to use them as catalysts for contemplating about the exhibition beyond the gallery space; perhaps even send few of the postcards around. Finally, I hope visitors give back to this exhibition and other exhibitions by voicing their opinions and providing feedback because, akin to the democratic process, you cannot just ask for change, you need to take action and vote.

S28: The topic of memory is part of your research. Did the question “How do we remember?” guide you in the creation of this exhibition? If yes, then how.

JA: “How do we remember?” is indeed one of the two guiding questions that drive my research. The second is “Why do we remember?” And I believe the works in this exhibition, as I explained in the above questions, are charged with memories of everyday life during wartime and with attempts to understand and explain the nature and reasons behind the war.

S28: What would you tell novice art enthusiasts about learning from/through art?

JA: To enjoy learning from/through art, individuals need to realize that an artwork is a means and not an end in itself; it is typically meant to convey certain ideas or feelings. The role of art has changed over the ages and should individuals invest a little bit of time investigating the context and circumstances surrounding a work of art, they would likely be rewarded with fascinating knowledge and with a sense of pleasure derived from the physical act of thinking, or what I call: the brain workout.

We are living an increasingly fast-paced life under political circumstances which often deprives us from an opportunity to enjoy who we essentially are: Homo sapiens, creatures that think. Art can be one mode of getting back in touch with our natural self.

To enjoy learning from/through art, individuals need to realize that an artwork is a means and not an end in itself; it is typically meant to convey certain ideas or feelings.

Carleton Curatorial Laboratory (CCL): Art on a Green Line
Until April 14
Carleton University Art Gallery
St. Patrick’s Building, Carleton University
1125 Colonel By Drive
Ottawa, Ontario
Google Map

Tuesday to Friday: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Saturday to Sunday: 12 p.m. to 5 p.m.
Mondays: Closed

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