In March 2011, I traveled with a colleague of mine from SFMOMA to Beirut and then onto Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates. This was during what we now know as the Arab Spring and it was my first trip to the Middle East. I tried to calm my nerves as I was picked up at the airport by George Awde, a Lebanese-American photographer and friend living and teaching in Beirut. I immediately fell in love with Beirut. It reminded me of New York in its frenetic energy and I quickly found that with that came scrumptious meals and a close-knit community of artists that reminded me of my former city. It was chaotic, decrepit, and maddening at times, but I quickly found myself feeding off of that energy. Power outages 3 hours per day were common. Lebanon, I was told, was known for the slowest internet in the world, yet Beirut was teaming with coffee shops crowded with young people borrowing free Wi-Fi. With real estate spiking on the one hand (rent is not cheap), and still bombed-out shells of buildings riddled with bullet holes on the other, Beirut revealed itself as a place of contradiction.
The artists I met were well-informed, and they all seemed to be in dialogue with one another. A few had regular opportunities to exhibit their work in parts of Europe and the Middle East. I realized how little of their work I had seen in the US, however. The recent stories of war in Lebanon often creeped into conversation, and with the Arab Spring erupting in neighboring regions, there was a palatable sense of unease. Beirutis describe this as the waiting, waiting for the other shoe to fall. It’s at the foundation of a lot of work I saw. Other themes being: those who “disappeared” due to crimes of war, issues of nationhood and the rebuilding of Beirut, the war with Israel, and the Palestinian refugee situation (there are over 200,000 Palestinians living in Lebanon and most cannot become citizens). An artist described the Middle Eastern situation to me as a triangle: you push against one thing and two other things arise.
ARAB IMAGE FOUNDATION
One of my most memorable visits in Beirut was to the Arab Image Foundation, a non-profit founded in 1997 dedicated to the collection and study of photographs from the Middle East, North Africa, and the Arab diaspora. Started by a group of artists including Walid Ra’ad and Akram Zaatari, the AIF (or FAI) assembles around a group of photographic archives by mostly unknown studio photographers from Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine, Syria, Egypt, Morocco, etc. We snooped around their cold storage with a guide, and roamed their database. The collection housed vernacular photography mostly, portraiture meant as keepsakes for individuals and their families at a time when cameras were not so widespread. I ogled over the strikingly beautiful (mostly) black-and-white pictures that were like nothing I had seen before.