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An Exercise in Remembrance: A Conversation with Sam Bardaouil

6 June 2023

Interview by Aiman Rizvi

Sam Bardaouil, co-curator of Beirut and the Golden Sixties: A Manifesto of Fragility discusses curatorial approaches to fractured collective memories, and the value of art as an exercise in remembrance.

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Beirut and the Golden Sixties: A Manifesto of Fragility, on view at Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art until 5 August 2023, covers over a decade of rich cultural production and prosperity in Lebanon, from the period in which French-mandated colonial rule drew to a close until the outbreak of the civil war. During this time, as revolutions and wars restructured power across the region, cultural practitioners and intellectuals from the Middle East and North Africa began to congregate in Beirut, contributing to the city’s artistically and politically generative conditions. Co-curators of the exhibition Sam Bardaouil and Till Fellrath invite us to explore how, even as spaces of intellectual and cultural produce flourished, antagonisms festered under the surface, making Beirut a microcosm of the larger tensions and divides looming over the region.

In this interview, Sam Bardaouil describes the journey that brought the exhibition to life.

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Gallery view of Beirut and the Golden Sixties. Centre wall (background): Reproduction of a photograph of a Soad Hosni film poster at the Cinema Rivoli in Martyrs Square, downtown Beirut 1970-1980. Courtesy of Georges Boustany Collection, Beirut; (foreground): Rafic Charaf (1932–2003), Paysage, 1968. Oil on canvas; 46 x 62 cm. Saleh Barakat Collection, Beirut. Photo: Ammar Alqamash, courtesy of Qatar Museums ©2023

Q. How did this exhibition come about?

Sam Bardaouil: The conceptualisation for this exhibition started around 2017/2018, when we were working on a website that was part of an initiative called Perspective for the Saradar Art Foundation in Beirut. The idea was to create an interactive website about all the art spaces that were active in Beirut during the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s. This was a really rigorous project that lasted two years, and by the end of it we had accumulated information on thousands of exhibitions.

When we started working on the 16th Lyon Contemporary Art Biennale, the idea of fragility came to us. This was also during the height of COVID-19. We were realising that if there is a universal truth, it is the fact that we are all fragile. We started to think in three layers: the fragility of the individual, the fragility of a community or a city and fragility in a larger sense — of the world, of all beings. When we started thinking about communities, Beirut came to mind. This was intensified by the unfortunate explosion in August 2020. We were witnessing the fragility of the city and the deterioration of everything; we felt that while on the one hand this exhibition could be a way of bringing attention to Beirut — paying homage to the legacy of so many of its artists and people — on the other hand it could also take a critical stance through which we could debunk myths and try to understand the roots of the problems we are still carrying with us today.

Q. The period covered in this exhibition is memorialised differently by different groups. As curators, what are your approaches to memory and nostalgia?

Bardaouil: Collective memory in Lebanon is very, very contested. People remember things differently, whether it is in a nostalgic way or a heroic way or a nativist way — there is definitely not one narrative that most Lebanese people can agree on. The villains of one faction are the heroes of another; an opportunity for some was a disaster for others. And in a way this is a symptom of all these irreconcilable views, ways of life, political ideologies and cultural affinities that — instead of being a sign of richness and diversity, which they were for a while — became a symptom of an untenable situation.

We were realising that if there is a universal truth, it is the fact that we are all fragile.

Sam Bardaouil

We were very aware of all these things when thinking about the exhibition. And this is why, in a sense, the exhibition was built along two lines. On one line there is this sense of celebration and pride, bringing to the foreground a lot of those important figures — cultural practitioners, artists, writers, political minds — of the culturally rich Beirut. But there is also this other line that keeps building up through the show where you start seeing how the differences are growing. There is this adoption of certain forms and styles as a representation of political identity, whether it be with artists mining their local vernacular and heritage to find a language that was truly post colonial, or those that were connecting with styles and movements that were seen by others as imported from the so-called west.

In the section of the exhibition on politics, you see how artists are becoming overtly political, using their art to propagate and put forward their opinions on certain issues, their support for certain causes. In the final section, on war, we can clearly see — through art — the destruction that ensues when people can no longer agree to disagree.

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Gallery view of Beirut and the Golden Sixties. Joana Hadjithomas (b. 1969) & Khalil Joreige (b. 1969), As Night Comes When Day is Gone, 2022. Videos captured at Sursock Museum on the day of the Beirut blast. Activation, 12 screens and 2 projections synchronised. Courtesy of Sursock Museum (Lebanon) CCTV recordings, 4 August 2020. Photo: Ammar Alqamash, courtesy of Qatar Museums ©2023.

Q. Cities from the global south are often romanticised for their resilience in ways that are reductive, harmful and informed by orientalist imaginings. As curators, how do you avoid indulging these tropes?

Bardaouil: This is a very good question. I think for us, bringing in a contemporary work that was commissioned for the show, by Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige, was about ensuring agency, and keeping the gaze framed by the eyes of someone who has witnessed these events, who comes from that place. We’re not talking for them, they’re talking for themselves. And they are artists who, in a way, are the continuation of a lineage of artists who also dealt with struggle, conflict and war back in the 1970s and the ‘60s.

The exhibition starts with a leporello by Etel Adnan, looking at the destruction of the ships in the port, the myth of the port. It also ends with the port, with new work by Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige. So in a way, we created a loop that starts back then and continues until the very unfortunate explosion of 2020 – and we ensure that the narrative is told through the works and the eyes of those who have lived through these events. This was one of the strategies we employed in order to diminish the external gaze as much as possible.

The exhibition is at once an homage, a celebration and a criticism. It is not about praising and it is not about denouncing; we have tried to put forward a balanced approach, informed by the shortcomings and the achievements, by the high points and the prolific art scene, but also by the inability of artists to detach themselves from their political context.

Of course, there are dangers when you are trying to narrate these very complex stories and realities through art. I think the only way to avoid that is by giving a disclaimer from the get go. There is not one exhibition or one artwork that can summarise the complexity and the lived reality of so many people who are in themselves very different and sometimes even conflicted or dialogical. It is very important to state clearly that this is an inquiry into something, a questioning, a proposal, a reading, an assemblage of facts that are incomplete, and that this is an invitation to open the conversation further, to include more voices. Something Till and I try to do in all of our exhibitions is to use them as open platforms that trigger questions we believe are pertinent and important, that allow for a multitude of answers to come together and play with each other so we can just find new ways of thinking about issues that have been with us for a long time.

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Gallery view of Beirut and the Golden Sixties. Etel Adnan (1925-2021), Le Port de Beyrouth, 1974. Charcoal on paper (30 pages); 20.5 x 8 cm. Courtesy of the artist. This leporello by Etel Adnan introduces the mythologization of the Beirut port, a theme that threads through the exhibition. Photo: Ammar Alqamash, courtesy of Qatar Museums ©2023.

Q. Are there any specific meanings or ideas you’d like visitors to draw from the exhibition?

Bardaouil: If there is one thing we would like to direct attention to, it is how essential it is for us, everywhere today, to understand why we are the way we are, what challenges lie ahead and how we can overcome the obstacles that hinder us from having equal visibility and developing more compassion. It is essential that we look backwards with a critical eye and move away from this kind of nostalgia or romanticism whereby we think everything in the past was great and everything now is not. It is important to be critical, it is important to be accountable and create spaces and moments through an exhibition where people can reflect on the deeds of those who came before them, and acknowledge that it is because of what has been done or not done, what has been said or not said — what has been committed — to bring us where we are now. I think this exercise in remembrance and in trying to find common ground in the past is essential for us to find a common way forward.

Aiman Rizvi is an Editorial Specialist at Qatar Museums.

Plan Your Visit

Beirut and the Golden Sixties: A Manifesto of Fragility, is on view at Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art until 5 August 2023. Admission to Mathaf is free and includes entrance to the exhibition and the permanent collection galleries. Reserve free tickets in advance to select your preferred time slot.

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