Beirut photo exhibition depicts perils to Lebanese heritage

The works revisit the architectural splendours of Beirut and Tripoli, the ecological wealth of remote Lebanese regions and the tragedy of Palestinian and Syrian refugees.
Sunday 23/02/2020
 A photo by artist Houda Kassatly. (Alice Mogabgab Gallery)
Challenging the public. A photo by artist Houda Kassatly. (Alice Mogabgab Gallery)

BEIRUT - Alice Mogabgab Gallery in Beirut will mark the centenary of the creation of Greater Lebanon through a series of exhibitions by photo artist Houda Kassatly, who documented Lebanese heritage, nature and traditions that have been damaged and abused by wars and post-war developments.

The series “From the End of Civil War till the Hirak; the Abused Heritage; Architecture, Environment, Refugees” covers 40 years of Kassatly’s work through 365 photos spread across five exhibitions.

The works revisit the architectural splendours of Beirut and Tripoli, the ecological wealth of remote Lebanese regions to the rocky beach of Dalieh in Beirut and the tragedy of Palestinian and Syrian refugees in their harrowing daily life in Lebanon camps.

“I wanted to convey a message of hope through Houda’s work,” said gallery owner Alice Mogabgab. “The photos of old houses and the nature that have been damaged from neglect and erratic development are not meant to make people sad but to show the people that we have treasures and we need to do something about preserving them.”

“It is a wake-up call, in line with the national awakening that swept Lebanon since mid-October. Houda has been conveying this message for the past decades through her photo exhibitions and the books that she has published.”

Since the start of her photography career in 1978, Kassatly has made it her mission to highlight Lebanon’s cultural and environmental heritage, both of which face constant bullying and degradation.

“The gallery has accompanied the artist in her many fights against orchestrated amnesia, overwhelming and devastating corruption, massive destruction of the heritage — all scourges that dominated the daily lives of Lebanese in (the) past three decades, against which they are revolting today,” Mogabgab said.

“It is a fact that the work of this artist constitutes an essential testimony, on both scientific and artistic levels, a work that deeply questions, challenges and disturbs a public, surrendered to the euphoria of reconstruction.”

The first exhibition, running through March 21 under the theme “Dalieh the Threatened Shore,” depicts the beautiful rocky beach, a prominent landmark on the main coastal promenade of Beirut, which was threatened by potential development plans. The plans were thwarted by strong activism on the part of civil society groups.

“The project on Dalieh is part of the work on Beirut that I started at the age of 20,” said Kassatly. “The diversity of the place was a great inspiration.

“It is about the only public coastal stretch in the city that is accessible for free. We find all kinds of people doing different activities from yoga in the morning to fishing, swimming and picnicking. All this panoply of people and the bustling life around this small piece of land was very inspiring.”

The area has a considerable natural interest because of its complex shoreline ecosystem, fossil-bearing rocks and plant life in a city with very little vegetation, Kassatly said.

In exhibitions titled “Tripoli of the Orient; Plural City” and “Beirut the Iconography of an Absence,” Kassatly focused on the waning architectural and social heritage.

“I have been documenting the old houses in Beirut right from the beginning because I could preview that they would disappear with all the developments taking place or fall into ruins from neglect,” she said. “It helped raise public awareness and encourage people to rediscover the city.

“The work on Tripoli, such a diverse and rich city, is meant to warn against harming the city in the same way Beirut’s old features were harmed. The old souks of Tripoli and the traditional artisanship are still alive. It is about the only city in Lebanon where you feel it is the Orient.”

In “Sacred Trees, Sacrificed Trees,” the artist raises the challenges made to the environment, which has been badly damaged. In addition to photos of the environment from different parts of Lebanon, Kassatly depicted street art filling protest hubs in which the cedar tree, Lebanon’s national symbol, was highlighted.

One exhibition featured the tragedy of Palestinian and Syrian refugees in their daily life in Lebanon camps.

“Each exhibition raises essential questions related to Lebanon,” Kassatly said. “All these questions are being raised now by the protest movement such as the environment, heritage, the fate of the refugees et cetera. But the main message that applies to the five exhibitions is a call to act and to change things.”

Mogabgab said the unprecedented five-part exhibition is meant to show that “the creative power of art will always triumph over the destructive forces of evil, notably politics.”

“In 2020, the country is far away from the initial vision of its founding fathers 100 years ago. This very sharp contrast, between today’s grieving reality and celebrated past, is feeding the rejection by the young generation who are in protest and cross swords with the all-powerful coalition of former militias, in power since 1990.”