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Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Lebanese Artists on Processing Trauma Through Art

Lebanese Artists
Graffiti artists EpS, Spaz, and Exist pictured in front of the “Hope” mural that they’ve worked on for “Le Gray Hotel,” following the Beirut Blast in 2020. Photo credit: Steven Char photography.

Dana Hourany

The remnants of the grain silos – the shield that saved the western portion of the city after the Beirut Port blast on August 4, 2020 – stand testament to a catastrophic event that claimed the lives of at least 200 people and injured thousands.

Despite pleas from campaigners and families of those killed in the disaster for the silos to be spared at least until the investigations are concluded, the government has ordered their demolition on March 16 and has already begun the bidding process to locate the best company to clear the area.

Though the order has since been blocked by the Ministry of Culture with the placement of the ruined silos on the cultural heritage list, talks of demolishing the silos remains intolerable to people looking for justice, and to artists alike.

For Manar Ali Hassan, a 41-year-old Lebanese visual artist, the silos – beyond holding evidence – serve as a reminder of what happened, never to be erased. They are also a source of inspiration and reflection, and a means to process trauma.

“I titled one of my artworks, ‘We Will Rise Again,’ as a tribute to the grain silos. I find that if they’re still standing then so can we,” she said.

Since 2019, Lebanon has been hit by compounded crises. The pandemic, the economic meltdown, and the blast have left many in a state of disarray. People have limited access to their bank deposits, and inflation rates are at an all-time high due to the local currency’s depreciation, making it one of the world’s top ten most severe crisis episodes since the mid-nineteenth century. Many have lost jobs and their sources of income in addition to their savings. This in return has had detrimental repercussions on general wellbeing.

Art as an outlet

For Ali Hassan, painting has become a primary avenue to channel painful emotions and alchemize self-destructive impulses. The 41-year-old utilizes her art to communicate her outrage with the government and to document the event using a different medium.

Graffiti is another form of expression that people have turned to.

EpS, a 36-year-old Lebanese graffiti artist, is well known for his characteristic “monkey mural,” which can be found all around the city. Graffiti, according to EpS, is a method to reclaim public areas and transform them into more “homely” aspects of the city.

“What I love about this artform is its flexibility. Unlike art galleries that draw a specific type of audience to them, the streets are accessible to everyone. You can, therefore, build connections with people and give them art they can relate to,” the artist said.

Preserving the Revolution through Graffiti

For EpS, graffiti has always been a medium to process emotions but during the October 17 protests, it brought people together and relayed political messages that remain relevant to this day.

“Because of the protests, we were able to paint on walls in downtown Beirut that we would have been denied access to before,” he explained.

Other graffiti artists followed EpS in creating artworks in key areas of the city where the majority of the protests took place, most notably beneath the “Egg” building in downtown, where graffiti artists painted murals depicting the revolution.

For EpS, the significance of these pieces lies in their ability to evoke memories of the October 17 uprising and to ensure history is preserved for future generations to come.

With the help of their friend Exist, Spaz, a graffiti artist and close friend of EpS, noticed that many people were interested in participating in the graffiti painting process because they regarded it as a quick and easy way to express their indignation without being violent. Shortly after, Spaz began giving protestors mini graffiti workshops on the streets.

“Downtown Beirut is an area usually reserved for the wealthy. By reclaiming these places and personalizing them, we have made graffiti our form of resistance against the system,” Spaz told Fanack.

EpS and Spaz both draw inspiration from current events and turn it into relatable artwork. Because the situation in Lebanon does not appear to be improving, the artists feel that some of their previous works are still pertinent today.

For example, EpS painted a large power plug with “Power to the People” written on it in 2012. The revolutionary statement that demanded literal “power” to the people still reflects the reality of a government that is unable to provide its citizens with electricity.

Art from the people to the people

Following the Beirut port explosion, Le Gray Hotel management commissioned EpS to create a large mural with a positive overtone to uplift the people and divert attention away from the devastation, he said.

Thus, EpS and his graffiti artist team collaborated to create the “Hope” mural, which features two white doves. The artwork, which covers the facade of the Le Gray Hotel, is located right at the entrance to the city’s downtown region.

“Despite the explosion, we kept a positive attitude and kept hope. So we wanted to express this attitude through art,” Rita Saad, Le Gray’s director of public relations said.

EpS described the mural as bittersweet: “the message is beautiful but I feel that our situation is hopeless.”

The 36-year-old artist’s work was not always about conveying a message. It was simply a way to link individuals and impart a concept that they could customize and use to tell their own tales. EpS’ monkey, for example, has become a recognized face to Beirut inhabitants, he told Fanack.

“I met a guy in France that was once homeless in Lebanon for two weeks. He said he used to sleep next to the walls that had my monkey drawn on them because it made him feel safer. He even said that his last sunset in Lebanon was next to a mural of the monkey,” EpS said.

Likewise, Spaz sees graffiti as a means to push boundaries. Although the artist utilizes graffiti as his medium of choice, he considers artists to have an added responsibility in terms of expressing dissent.

“The political system in Lebanon tries to oppress us in all ways possible. We, as artists, produce artworks to ensure our culture keeps evolving. This way they can’t silence us,” he said.

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