Jimmy Dabbagh is a journalist based in Beirut and contributes cultural articles to The Arab Weekly.

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  • Faris exhibition highlights Beirut’s past to look forward

    The photos captured the lives of artists, poets, academics, journalists and freethinkers before the war.

    Daydream. “Mona Hatoum, Artist Baalbek”, a 1973 photo displayed at “Beirut, the City of the World’s Desire” exhibition in Beirut. (Courtesy of Saleh Barkat Gallery)

    2017/08/27 Issue: 121 Page: 22

    Beirut - The statement that Beirut thrived before the civil war is familiar. Mentions of the city’s Golden Age evoke glamorous imagery of a bustling city free of bullet-rid­dled buildings and sectarian strife; a place the jet set called their play­ground.

    Aside from the usual images as­sociated with this period, little evi­dence seems to remain that high­lights the city’s advanced cultural scene. That is, until the opening of Saleh Barakat Gallery’s “Beirut, the City of the World’s Desire: The Chronicles of Waddah Faris (1960- 1975).”

    Unseen for decades and assem­bled during more than two years of sifting through thousands of nega­tives in Faris’s archive, the photos intimately capture the lives of a close-knit coterie of artists, poets, academics, journalists and free­thinkers before they became the in­fluential visionaries who paved the way for Lebanon’s creative legacy.

    It would be misguided to consid­er these photos as mere historical documents of an era gone by; rather the works can be acknowledged as a form of creative expression from a man who manoeuvred among dif­ferent artistic practices, such as graphic design, painting and pho­tography.

    “They were taken in context of photography. It was strictly for pleasure and to record things that I enjoyed in my atmosphere but when we composed the exhibition we composed it for a purpose…,” said Faris, a Syria-born Iraqi who lived in Beirut for decades.

    “There is a big boom in art throughout the Arab world now, some of it is very hectic, some of it dangerous, some of it very im­portant, but people are interested to see where this comes from,” he added.

    Reluctant to strictly refer to him­self as a photographer, Faris said: “I’m an activist and an artist.”

    Part of the appeal of the Beirut exhibit for Faris was untapped po­tential. “It was a very tempting idea to plunge for a change into my ar­chive and see what we have that can suit the idea of the exhibition and reflect on that period,” he said.

    Progressive as it may seem now, he said the city embodied a differ­ent energy then, when people who belonged to different creative prac­tices intermingled without judg­ment. “The time before the civil war was a totally different time of objectives, of methods of life… It’s much richer and more thriving now [but] it was really more civil, in the sense, I never grew to recognise in a selective manner who my friends are and I think everybody lived that way,” Faris emphatically explained.

    There’s an uninhibited quality to the people in Faris’s photographs. Caught off-guard in moments of candid release, a sense of authen­ticity and vitality shines through.

    “They are not posed, they are not intended. They accepted me as part of their circle or family,” Faris said. “It’s the moment that is not intend­ed for neither publishing nor fame. I never showed photographs. It was the impulsive need to possess something of that moment. These were my people, my friends.”

    Snapping frenetic fleeting mo­ments of everyday life, Faris’s pho­tographs reveal the inner world of the movers and shakers of the cultural sphere with some pictures showing artists earnestly at work in their studios, mingling at open­ings at Sursock Museum, dancers rehearsing for a performance at the Baalbek Festival and much more.

    One image of renowned Leba­nese-born Palestinian visual art­ist Mona Hatoum captures her as though caught in a daydream. Her eyes blissfully closed, she seems consumed in thought.

    Like a sort of retrospective that seems to honour the art of the pe­riod and the imaginative individu­als behind it, paintings, sketches, sculptures, design prints and archi­val exhibition catalogues accom­pany Faris’s photographs.

    “I’ve always associated with the idea of representing artists from the war period so when I opened this space it was part of my programme to dedicate an exhibition for Beirut before the war. I wanted to give [the younger] generation a glimpse of what they could have seen. I’m not nostalgic. I think the art scene in Beirut today is as interesting,” gal­lery owner Saleh Barakat said.

    “It’s a way to see the continua­tion of a scene that was really very active and how one can bring back this momentum that was available back then between all the different art scenes.

    “It’s really part of showing a pe­riod that was very inspiring and putting it in dialogue with what’s happening today,” Saleh added.

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