When war objects become icons of identity, history and peace
BEIRUT - Turning ugliness to beauty by transforming objects of destruction into ornate pieces symbolising cultural identity that transcends times and conflicts is at the core of Lebanese artist Katya Traboulsi’s solo exhibition “Perpetual Identities” at Saleh Barakat Gallery in Beirut.
On display are 46 handcrafted replicas of Lebanese war bombshells that the multimedia artist donned with colourful patterns, beads and sculpted forms, each associated with a national identity, an exhibition synopsis stated. The interplay between the form of the bombshell and the iconographic content posits a tension between war and culture.
“We have 46 countries from all continents to represent universality. We as Arabs in a region with war and conflict cannot disassociate ourselves from the rest of the world because when one country is ill, the whole world is ill too in view of the repercussions,” Traboulsi said.
“The objects of destruction become objects of identity, history and peace. Each has an artistic and visual identity that belongs to a different country that is easily recognisable… Despite traversing time, war and occupation these countries have kept and preserved their cultural identities… This is to say that identity cannot be destroyed despite everything,” she added.
It took Traboulsi four years to prepare the exhibition. She worked closely with local artisans in the countries represented. “I tried to respect as much as possible their artisanship, heritage and identity,” she said, though some pieces carried political statements rather than cultural ones.
“Some bombshells are political like the one representing Palestine, which I covered with keys (symbolising the Palestinian right of return to their homes). There is also the one representing Germany inspired by the collapse of the Berlin Wall,” Traboulsi explained.
Executing each piece required at least one month of work. For most countries it was easy to pick the specific cultural identity that distinguishes them: The hieroglyphs and pharaonic civilisation for Egypt; Sumerian culture representing Mesopotamia or modern-day Iraq; Arabesques and floral motifs of mother-of-pearl inlaid wood for Syria; Mandoos bridal chest often found in Emirati houses for the United Arab Emirates; porcelain reflecting Berber, Arab and European influences for Tunisia; Iznik, the cobalt blue under-glazed pottery, of Turkey; Ming blue and white porcelain for China; pop art depicting Marilyn Monroe and commercial logos like Coca-Cola for the United States; Inca wooden masks for Peru; Aboriginal art for Australia; and popular music of the 1960s and 1970s including the Beatles for the United Kingdom.
Two pieces associated to Lebanon were included. One artwork in cedar was inspired by the Phoenicians, Lebanon’s ancient inhabitants. The second, more contemporary, carried emblems of political parties reflecting divisions plaguing the country.
“Representing the Lebanese national identity proved to be the most difficult and complex,” Traboulsi said. “When you ask the Lebanese about their identity, they say tabbouleh and hummus… I chose the Phoenicians because they were travellers and traders living in separate cantons and fighting each other. I reckoned that we have the same Karma.”
“In Lebanon, we did not really have a strong identity that could transcend centuries like other countries. We had the war, which erased our memory, and our identity now resembles the (divided) political parties. It is ugly and it is what we are today,” she added.
The choice of the bombshell form for the artworks was inspired by Lebanon’s recent history. “It reflects my generation, who has lived and experienced the war,” said Traboulsi, who was 15 when the civil war erupted in 1975.
Gallery owner Saleh Barakat described the exhibition as “timely.” “With the wars raging in the Middle East, the war on terrorism everywhere, (Donald) Trump becoming a president, Brexit happening and rising nationalism and populism, we thought it was high time to send a message that humanity is beautiful because of its multiplicity and diversity,” Barakat said.
“War is destroying Palmyra and Nineveh and you feel that they are lost forever but this exhibition comes to remind people that at the end of the day we die, the buildings are destroyed but the culture survives. Regardless of what happened to the Sumerians, the Pharaohs or the Greeks, their heritage remains till now.”
Barakat said he hoped the exhibition would travel to different countries “to convey a message of hope — that culture will ultimately survive in these dark times.”
By rewriting history on a bombshell, Traboulsi said she was turning an object of destruction, which would have eventually been forgotten, into one of perpetual identity.
“Conflicts end and the perception of war vanishes eventually. I don’t want wars to happen anymore, which is the wish of everybody. This is my message, but it is just a message,” Traboulsi added.
“Perpetual Identities” will be on display at the Saleh Barakat Gallery through April 28.