Part Two of Mixed Feelings Project Examines Identity, Race and Family in Lebanon
“I’m a human being, so why do you walk past me?” reads one of the white cardboards against the light blue tinge of the walls. It continues, “really, I’m invisible? I’m here! First and foremost, I’m a human being.”
This sentiment, expressed by one of the Mixed Feelings participants in an interview conducted by researcher Nisreen Kaj and photographer Marta Bogdanska, is one widely shared in Lebanon by mixed-race individuals who are the target of unwavering discrimination in Lebanon. The project’s name is inspired by the book, “Mixed Feelings: The Complex Lives of Mixed Race Britons” by Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, and it touches upon a similar topic: reaching out to individuals who, in this case, are of mixed Lebanese and Asian/African descent in order to gain insight into the challenges they may face in a country that is infamous for its racism.
Kaj, who is of mixed Lebanese and Nigerian descent, wanted to pursue a project that looked at racism from a Lebanese perspective by showcasing photos of mixed-heritage individuals who are often mistaken as non-Lebanese. She first approached her friend, photojournalist Simba Russeau, to supply the photographs for the project and then enlisted the help of Bogdanska after Russeau had to leave the country.
In cooperation with the Heinrich Böll Foundation, the Mixed Feelings initiative promulgated its first exhibit in late 2014, which featured portraits of mixed-race Lebanese individuals. Their place of origin in Lebanon was featured underneath their portraits, prompting an initial bout of confusion among attendees which perfectly captured the notion of “othering” which the project aimed to eradicate. “The attendees were confronted with the portraits paired with various areas in Lebanon where the participants were from and it forced them to think about who the people in the pictures were, and why they weren’t thinking of them as Lebanese,” says Bogdanska. The portraits traveled to five locations in Lebanon, including Notre-Dame University in Zouk Mosbeh, the American University of Beirut, AltCity Media in Hamra, Beit Al Mamlouk (a cultural space for the municipality) in Tyre, and Al Manar University (MUT) in Tripoli.
The second half of the project just finished off its run at Artscape in Hamra on February 14. The opening night drew a crowd of nearly 200 attendees, among them representatives of some of the participating families.
While the first event in the Mixed Feelings series focused on individuals, this second portion of the project focused on the family unit. “In a region where various institutions are organized around ‘the family,’ such as economic, political and religious institutions, it’s interesting to look at identity, othering, modes of exclusion, belonging, and the ‘us versus them’ dichotomy through this core unit,” says Kaj. Photographs were collected from 16 mixed-race Lebanese families who provided Bogdanska and Kaj with snapshots of their weddings, pictures of family vacations and holidays, and portraits of their children. Notably, the families in question are made up of Lebanese fathers and mothers of different ethnicities in order to work within the Lebanese legal framework’s notion that only those with Lebanese fathers are considered Lebanese.
In a unique twist, the exhibit also offers viewers the chance to listen to audio recordings of interviews undertaken by 14 of the families, in order to hear them directly touch upon identity, coping with racism, racialization, family and public reaction to their mixed marriages and, for the children interviewed, mixed heritage.
“The reason we have talks and a research-based project that has a visual aspect is to allow space for people to discuss racism if they wish to,” says Kaj. “The talks are structured to allow people to freely say what they want to say with no judgment, as the project is trying to enrich the dialogue on racism in Lebanon by providing a space to say what you really feel without being attacked and to include new voices into the discourse that is largely structured along binary lines of opposition- us versus them – mostly due to the demographic makeup of migrant domestic workers in Lebanon.”
Furthermore, the project aims to portray the idea that the ethnic composition of Lebanon is changing, and it wants to be one of the first to discuss this issue with the public. “We believe talking is the key,” says Bogdanska, “even the discussion of racist ideas, because through discussion they can change their ideas.”