Out of History: Postwar Art in Beirut

By Rogers, Sarah | Art Journal, Summer 2007 | Go to article overview

Out of History: Postwar Art in Beirut


Rogers, Sarah, Art Journal


Beirut has a tight hold on the Western imagination: a multilingual and cross-cultural Mediterranean port, a liberal haven in the region, and a hotbed for political violence. Such popular characterizations rest on the city's reputation as a site of both cosmopolitanism and volatile instability. The end of the Lebanese civil war (1975-90) coincided with the art market's global turn, and contemporary postwar artistic production in Beirut carries a similar cachet in the international art world.' In particular, curators and critics have focused their attention on a group of friends, colleagues, and sometimes collaborators-often tagged as the postwar generation-whose mixed-media practices converge on a critical interest in the war, its histories and memories. Intimately contextual, this work also resonates on an international scale. Its archival aesthetics link the strategies of the postwar generation with global neoconceptual projects, and the works' allegorical approach to history engages with postmodernism's theoretical disillusion with grand narratives. However, for the most part, critics have securely localized this body of work, reading it as symptomatic of postwar Beirut. This essay contends that these artistic strategies both intervene in representations of the city and partake in its history of cosmopolitanism.

Beirut's international status dates to the latter half of the nineteenth century, when the port city served as a regional center for missionary, political, and cultural activities.2 During the 1950s and 1960s Lebanon's laissez-faire economy, inherited under the French Mandate (1920-43), and its substantial expatriate community marked the capital as a node in the international trafficking of goods and services-home to over seventeen official religious sects and a place where Arabic, French, and English mixed interchangeably. Beneath the surface, however, political and socioeconomic tensions fermented, exploding in 1975 with the outbreak of the Lebanese civil war. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the media declared Beirut a breeding ground for snipers, kidnappings, suicide bombers, and a general, unbridled, destructive chaos. The brutal segmenting of the city by a complicated set of conflicts fought along sectarian, political, and proxy lines was ironically simplified in the Western media around a Muslim-Christian binary (the contemporary resonances of which are all too frightening).

After nearly two decades of violent upheaval, mass population displacement and emigration, and numerous failed ceasefires, the country entered into a fragile truce in the fall of 1989, brokered with the Document of National Understanding, signed on October 22. Known more commonly as the Taif accords, the agreement endorses national reconciliation, calls for the disarmament of militias, and restructures the political system through a rebalance of the political power among the country's sects.3 However, it falls short in defining a time frame for such changes (a failure with ramifications that continue to haunt the country's stability). Official discourse, fearing that addressing responsibility for the violence would reactivate hostilities, enacted an unmistakable policy of containment. After a committee of historians repeatedly failed to produce a narrative of the war satisfactory to the country's sectarian factions, the national curriculum concluded Lebanon's history in 1946; when, in 1991 , the government passed a law granting amnesty for war crimes, ex-criminals slid seamlessly into government positions.4 And according to archaeologists and urban historians, the large-scale and extremely profitable postwar reconstruction of Beirut's city center has demolished more architectural and historical ruins than almost two decades of fighting.5 Rather than historicize thee war, official and popular discourses recall an idealized, prewar Lebanon-prompting the literary scholar Saree Mikdasi to ask if Beirut, in fact, is a city without history.

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