Nadim Karam, unfazed by Lebanon’s crises, returns home to shout
Beirut - Hapsitus, the art-cum-architecture atelier of Nadim Karam, has projects in China, Japan, Singapore, Kuwait, Doha, Dubai and one brewing in London. Apart from the exhibition Stretching Thoughts, Karam has no commissions in Beirut.
Yet, despite Lebanon’s problems, Karam is not heading to Paris or New York. “True, everything here is uncertain,” he said. “Look at the presidency [vacant since May 2014]. Daesh [an Arabic term for the Islamic State] have started entering Lebanon. If you take the data, you’ll go crazy.”
Lebanon’s crisis over uncollected rubbish has eased since the summer of 2015, when garbage enveloped the small street near the National Museum where Atelier Hapsitus has been based since 1997. It was piled so high, “it buried cars”, Karam said.
But the stench couldn’t drive him away from Beirut. “Everything’s boiling here; everything is spreading from here,” he says. He says his staying in the country encourages the 12 people in Atelier Hapsitus and other young artists and architects not to leave. “They can create from here, grow from here,” Karam said. “If there’s destruction, hey, we’re here to build it back.”
It is tempting to see a statement about Beirut in Neglected Thoughts, a tangle of metal rods and concrete dominating the entrance to Karam’s exhibition Stretching Thoughts, in Beirut’s Ayyam Gallery.
But Karam is no literal or figurative artist. “All of this steel, you can straighten it and use it. We can build great things in this region,” he said. “But I didn’t mean specifically rubbish, I’m concerned more with thoughts and how we can stretch them.”
Karam is best known in Beirut for the Archaic Procession — huge primeval, universal figures, including a wild cat, elephant and angel — that appeared in 1994 and were moved around the city.
This eclectic procession reflected Karam’s sense of movement. Born in Senegal in 1957, he studied in Japan, where he met his wife, Kaya, a Zimbabwean of Scottish origin. It also shows a fascination with storytelling that began with his father’s recollections of the hakawati, the donkey-riding salesman who collected stories on his wanderings.
Karam’s exploration of thoughts continues with the March unveiling in Dubai of Shout and Silence, curved stainless steel figures. “It’s a progression from Stretching Thoughts,” Karam explains. “There’s abstraction but the themes are more regional, local if you want. I can’t see myself still working on the Procession, with giraffes. Now the story’s in the thoughts.”
Specifically in shouting and silence?
“The region needs to speak about this,” he said. “Sometimes people shout so much from so many sides, it doesn’t make any sense. And you have the silence part, because of the dictatorial state and because of what’s happening around. Aren’t refugees [fleeing Syria] part of the silence?”
How can this be seen in stainless-steel figures? “You try to resolve complexities into a few simple ideas. If you see the shape of Shout, I’m talking about the whole world, but at the end it’s a simple gesture,” Karam said.
With so much public art — current work includes highways in Doha and atriums in Susu, near Shanghai, for the world’s largest shopping mall — is Karam still an architect?
“I’m at the stage of the ugly duckling,” he confides. “Architects refuse you because you’re an artist, while artists refuse you because you’re an architect. You stand in between until everything blossoms into the white swan.”
Karam would love to do “iconic” architecture in Lebanon. Some of his designs were intended to stretch imaginations rather than be built: Hilarious Beirut in 1993 envisaged pyramids, zoos and a neighbourhood shaped like a barcode.
But Karam has an eye on the cemetery at Baskinta, the mountain village where his late father was born and where the wider family meets in the summer.
“I go with my [14-year-old son]. We visit my father. I tell my son, this is one day where I’m going to be and you, too. But it’s hard to get him to go because it’s not a [pleasant] place to visit. You enter a corridor [into the mausoleum], it’s dark and wet,” Karam said.
Redesign would improve the experience. So what is Karam thinking of? Overhead walkways?
He laughs. “The concept could be sculptural in the sense that it’s there and stays, it doesn’t move,” Karam said. “It’s mainly Italians who have designed cemeteries — Aldo Rossi and Massimiliano Fuksas.” And the Japanese, Karam notes, take picnics in cemeteries when the cherry trees blossom.
A design for Baskinta could be “nostalgic”, with greenery and an enticing entrance, he said. It would allow spaces for meditation.
“Some cosmic elements have landed, too,” Karam said. “The mysticism and paradox of death always haunt us. We don’t know what can fall on us, at any time. We’re like little stars in a dark sky and we have to make it through and look at the other stars.”
Stretching Thoughts is at the Ayyam Gallery until April 2nd.