‘Shifting Lights’ exhibition, a search for peace and redemption by Lebanese artists

The exhibition brought together three Lebanese artists — painter Afaf Zurayk, photographer Noel Nasr and architect Rami Saab.
January 07, 2018
Visitors attend the opening of “Shifting Lights.” (Noel Nasr)
Free to stroll. Visitors attend the opening of “Shifting Lights.” (Noel Nasr)

BEIRUT - Unlike with regular ex­hibitions, visitors to “Shifting Lights” at Beit Beirut were not mere viewers of art but had a choice to become participants in a conversation that explored the art­ist’s experiences of turbulence in Lebanon and the region.

With nuanced shifting of light and space, the exhibition of nine paintings and nine photographs dis­played in nine different installations brought together three Lebanese artists — painter Afaf Zurayk, pho­tographer Noel Nasr and architect Rami Saab.

“Noel took photographs of my paintings and enlarged tiny sections of the work and Rami designed the structure that enables the viewer to come into the enclosure slowly and confront the painting personally, alone and without interference,” Zurayk explained.

The cylindrical structures, envel­oped by a photograph on the out­side, encompass a painting each, through which Zurayk sought to express the pain she felt from the violence she witnessed in Lebanon and elsewhere.

“I started painting what you call portraits, which, for me, are pres­ences more than actual portraits because they don’t represent any particular person or any idea of particular features… They are an expression of the complexity of our humanity,” Zurayk said.

“Every single painting confronts you. Sometimes it is sad, sometimes it is complex, emotional, angry, etc… We are not the same people every day. We are not the same people all over. It is about our differences and the changes that we have to accept and understand and be expansive about rather than the similarities.”

With background music from Schubert, Schumann and Brahms, visitors moved through darkness to light and in and out of the seemingly translucent pods scattered across the exhibition space at Beit Beirut, a landmark building on the city’s former Green Line, which became a notorious sniper’s nest during the civil war.

The space was designed to give the feel of wandering through a for­est where light is elusive.

“One is free to just stroll and wan­der, walk out or in, think and dream, stand far or near, confront the paint­ing or not. It is always your choic­es. After that, it is something that you have experienced and not just something that you have watched,” Zurayk said.

Saab said the installation was inspired by strokes from Zurayk’s paintings and projected into space.

“The whole idea was to reconcile the portraits and the photographs, both of which speak together and try to make them speak with the surrounding space and somehow get the viewer to become involved, to become a participant,” Saab said.

“It is not as if you are wandering and coming across the paintings but you are taking a decision to enter each pod or not and how to move between them.”

The exhibition, which closed Jan­uary 2, was designed to reflect how the three artists viewed peace.

“It was pretty much a painful cry towards a decision for peace be­cause we view peace as a decision, not as an absence of war or prob­lems. This is sort of what we wanted to achieve with the architecture,” Saab said. “One is, in reality, moving between two types of spaces, the emotions and the actual space. The structure gives you an individual space of confrontation, reflection and introspection.”

Nasr used the lens of his camera to deconstruct the process of mark making in Zurayk’s paintings. Like a forensic scientist searching for clues, he scrutinised the paintings’ surfaces, revealing latent images immersed between paint and can­vas.

Challenging the camera to enter the depth of the painting, he de­coded Zurayk’s syntax. The negative and the positive, the recto and the verso, the light and the dark were materialised into 3D photographs that refract her haunting search.

Zurayk’s nine portraits encap­sulate a lifetime of searching for redemption from the personal and collective exposure to violence. She used chalk, graphite and charcoal in addition to oil. The mixing of colour was very agitated and, at the same time, “hopefully resolved.”

“Not one kind of expression but many different kinds of emotions are present in the same portrait. You can’t just say this is sad, or this is angrier. You just cannot describe it with one word or one idea. It can be anyone; it is just a feeling, a pres­ence,” Zurayk said.

To her, the portraits are presences that both confront and immerse the viewer in the experience of the painting as canvas and in the un­derstanding of the personal and hu­man narrative behind each painting. Through the process of their unfold­ing, an unveiling occurs. It happens slowly, painfully, image by image, layer by layer and stroke by stroke.

Born in Beirut in 1948, Zurayk graduated from the American Uni­versity of Beirut (AUB) with a de­gree in fine arts in 1970 and pursued graduate studies at Harvard Univer­sity. In addition to her many solo ex­hibitions, both in Beirut and Wash­ington, Zurayk has participated in several group shows. She teaches painting at AUB and the Lebanese American University.