Art breeds hope, resilience in blast-stricken Beirut

“The explosion has left us broken and mourning our losses, said Lebanese artist Abed El Kadiri.
Friday 11/09/2020
Hope Graffiti – Le Gray Facade (Courtesy of Le Gray Hotel)
Hope Graffiti – Le Gray Facade (Courtesy of Le Gray Hotel)

BEIRUT - Within seconds, Lebanese artist Abed El Kadiri’s paintings were buried under the rubble of Tanit Art Gallery in Mar Mikhail, one of the neighbourhoods hardest hit by the massive Beirut port explosion on August 4.

His latest exhibition of mostly dark paintings –“Remains of the Last Red Rose” — had opened a week before the explosion to depict the desolation felt by the Lebanese people reeling under the burden of economic collapse, the COVID-19 pandemic and popular protests. More than a month later, Kadri’s large murals titled “Today I would like to be a tree” covered two of the remaining standing walls in the devastated gallery.

“I conceived this project as a constructive reaction against the feeling of suffocation. Be it suffocation from the recent pandemic, Lebanon’s economic and political situation, or the world’s biggest non-nuclear explosion,” Kadri said.

“The minute I saw the gallery after the explosion I imagined these two walls covered with trees because trees have beautiful energy that can heal the human being and I wanted to create a counter image of the destruction. Observing the pain surrounding me, I had a recurring thought: I wanted to be a tree,” he said.

Rendered in charcoal, the murals depicting black and gray forests are divided into 80 cardboard panels, and each will be sold at a starting price of $500, with the goal of raising funds for relief and reconstruction.

All proceeds will go to BASSMA, an NGO that is helping rebuild the homes of those who cannot afford restoration.

Mural titled, “Today I would like to be a tree”, by artist Abed Al Kadri at Tanit Gallery Beirut (Courtesy of Tanit Gallery)
Mural titled, “Today I would like to be a tree”, by artist Abed Al Kadri at Tanit Gallery Beirut (Courtesy of Tanit Gallery)

The project, which was born right after the explosion that killed more than 200 people and left some 300,000 homeless, is also meant to pay tribute to the victims, including Jean-Marc Bonfils, the architect of the gallery who was killed in the blast.

Mural titled, “Today I would like to be a tree”, by artist Abed Al Kadri at Tanit Gallery Beirut (Courtesy of Tanit Gallery).

“The explosion has left us broken and mourning our losses. Jean-Marc played a major role in reviving Lebanon’s heritage, and built landmarks in our beloved Beirut. It is also a tribute to all the people and friends who fell victim to this massacre,” Kadri said.

For the artist, the project is first and foremost a healing process.

“Despite my sadness and shock, trees make me feel peaceful,” he said, adding, “I can’t feel hope at this moment. I am just working to liberate myself from all the bad images. I think we need more than hope in order to make our dreams come true… Of course arts helps heal, at least it helps me.”

In other parts of Beirut, art is being used to convey a message of hope and express resilience.

A large mural depicting the city with the word “HOPE” and two white doves hanging over it covered Le Gray’s hotel on Martyrs Square a few hundred meters away from blast caused by 2,700 metric tons of ammonium nitrate.

“Hope Takes Shape with Art” is an initiative born after the Beirut port explosion, when Le Gray had all its facade windows and doors broken and has since had to cover it with a metallic fence.

“The fence came out very black and sad giving the impression that the hotel has closed for good and this is something that we did not want,” said Rita Saad, Le Gray’s director of public relations. “Despite the explosion we kept a positive attitude and kept hope. So we wanted to express this attitude through art.”

With 550 art pieces displayed in its rooms and public areas, and being a partner of Beirut Art week, Le Gray is known as a cultural hub. The hotel management commissioned graffiti artist Alfred Badr to illustrate its message of hope.

“I think that every single person in the city needs hope. We wanted to send the message from Martyrs’ Square the capital’s beating heart that witnessed the shout of a nation seeking a better tomorrow,” Saad said.

For Badr, the artist, using bright colours to cover the ditch black fence is at the core of conveying a positive note to the disaster-stricken residents of the city.

Abed al Kadri working on his mural “Today I would like to be a tree,” at Tanit Gallery Beirut (Courtesy of Tanit Gallery)
Abed al Kadri working on his mural “Today I would like to be a tree,” at Tanit Gallery Beirut (Courtesy of Tanit Gallery)

“It gives people some hope seeing colours on a black wall in this specific area that has been in the past months more known for violence than anything peaceful,” says Badr.

“We are looking forward to (doing) more murals and (trying) to add more colors to the destructed areas, in a way to immortalise what happened with another perspective and less gloomy way or with a message like after destruction there will be rebirth or a new start,” Badr added.

According to Le Gray’s General Manager Georges Ojeil, “Hope Takes Shape with Art” is an initiative that pays tribute to art, artists, culture and Beirut, its heritage, its soul and its people. “It is a shout out to say we are here to stay!”