Inside the context of the Arab Mediterranean region, a complex geopolitical space and one of the world’s pressure points in the last quarter of a century, is Lebanon, and more specifically its capital Beirut, an exact representation of the situation owing to the country’s sensitive position within the cartography of flare-ups in the Middle East. The work of Walid Raad and Marwan Rechmaoui, Lebanese artists who are part of the post-civil war generation, is tightly linked to their interest in archiving and interpreting the memory of conflict and the contemporary history of their nation.
In The Atlas Group archive are the two works by Raad on display in this room: photographs, drawings and notes attributed to doctor Fadl Fakhouri, a pre-eminent Lebanon historian and the custodian, at the beginning of the 1990s, of 226 notebooks, two short films and 24 black-and-white photographs which today can be visited on the free-access documentary archive https://www.theatlasgroup1989.org. As catalogued in this repository, the only available images of Dr Fakhouri are the 24 self-portraits taken on his one sole trip outside of Lebanon, to Paris and Rome in 1958 and 1959, and assembled under the title Civilizationally, We Do Not Dig Holes to Bury Ourselves (From the series Fakhouri File). In them, Fakhouri poses with his gaze averted from iconic monuments, displacing attention far from the official narratives of those who built them, looking for answers on the margins. The second piece documents the eye-catching intersection of the horse-race bets a group of civil war historians would make every weekend at the racetrack: the winner was not the focus; it was more about the exact distance between the horse and finishing line in the photo finish published in the press the following day. Fakhouri would compile, in the pages of photographic notebooks, the horses cut out from newspapers and with his own notes and those of his colleagues related to the bets. Yet neither the photographs nor the notes pinpoint the exact moment of victory: a metaphor for the limits of photographic representation that also speak of the insurmountable distance between historical facts and their exact recording.
This symbolic, and social and political, dimension of Lebanese conflicts to which Raad’s works contribute is also joined by the reflection Marwan Rechmaoui makes on the rampant urban development in Beirut, a city under permanent construction and in perpetual tension, one which guards the memory of successive earthquakes, fires and armed conflicts. Blue Building (2015) is a sculptural portrait of a residential building opposite the artist’s studio, on the other side of the river, the construction of which became a daily case study and an emblematic record of the problems and corrupt practices in the urban regeneration of Beirut after the war: its illegal positioning in a zone where construction couldn’t take place, underhand uses of cheap labour materials which ultimately caused the property to crack, the human abuse of migrant workers who had fled the war in Syria and had no choice but to work under exploitive conditions.
The piece by Gabriele Basilico that completes the selection in this room returns us to the devastated city of Beirut, back to 1991, when the photographer and architect was invited by Lebanese writer Dominique Eddé to take part in a project which recorded the trace of destruction caused by fifteen years of civil war in what had been one of the most cosmopolitan capitals in the region. Desolation that would spawn the urban expansion around which, from the present, Rechmaoui’s work operates.