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Arie Amaya-Akkermans 10 Jun 2015

Surviving Through Painting

Not particularly known for being a war painter -what is already a genre in Lebanese art, but rather the opposite, painting serene Mediterranean scenes, hopeful urbanscapes filled with traditional architectures and folklore from the region, all codified in the language of 20th century painting, mediated by her particular style, Mouna Bassili Sehnaoui has been known in her work (and outside it) for being quite the relentless optimist, and this has been demonstrated time and again in her recent exhibitions held at Aida Cherfan in Antelias. Trained in Western art in the United States and then inspired by the different pictorial traditions of the Orient, from early Byzantine icons, to Egyptian painting to Islamic art and Persian miniatures, Bassili Sehnaoui’s upcoming new exhibition and book launch is turning to the war theme, albeit in a retrospective manner.

“Survivre” (Survive) is the title of the both the exhibition and the book, a showcase of work from nearly four decades. In the words of the artist, “My first sketch which was also done as an engraving was one of a body being torn apart… It was done after the 1967 war when I left that nothing would ever be the same in the Middle East. Many years later we had the desperately long war in Lebanon, with all the little wars and moments of relative peace lasting over fifteen years, during those years I picked subjects that helped me survive”. That said, when one looks at the artists’ work, one is not confronting the realities of violence in a Goya-like manner, but in softer understated codes: The carpets rolled up, the mourning women, a gunman hiding in the bushes, or the suitcases of the migrants.

Intertwined in between many different subjects, the conflicts of Lebanon and the Levant make their appearance in the work not as a central topic, but rather as an undeniable part of a much larger reality, simultaneously historical, cultural and political. Unlike most artists of the ‘war generation’, who have been largely exiles and former exiles, Bassili Sehnaoui spent most of the war in the country, and like other painters of her generation who didn’t leave the country, they made a deliberate choice to not let the war overtake them and swallow their imagination; so that in a way painting the past – and the possible future – was a way to resist a constantly collapsing reality and a feeling of helplessness and complete uncertainty.

Chronologically speaking, these ‘war paintings’ are more than a certain period in the work of the artist, since they begin before the war and actually includes even works finished -or in process- as late as 2014. With different conflicts taking place simultaneously across the Middle East, with a profound effect on the fragile internal dynamics of Lebanon, the refection on the realities of political violence is always timely. The exhibition, by no means incidental, contains about eighty different works, many of which have never been shown before, for the artists wasn’t particularly interested in making a showcase -either negative or positive, for the war, therefore many of the works had been seen only by friends and visitors to her studio on the hills above Beirut.

‘Frustrated at not having letters I wrote to various newspapers answered, I did a series called ‘Letters to No One’, I was (and still am) frustrated at the insistence of calling what we went through a ‘civil’ war, for it was most uncivil, and I believe the war of others, through us on our territory… History repeats itself in the Middle East?’, writes Bassili Sehnaoui, espousing a position which is by no means unheard of in Lebanon, but articulated here through decades of painting and thinking, in an attempt to make sense of this shifting territory. In a certain way, it is not possible to approach this topic without major paradoxes and contradictions, or is it? The narrative works in the exhibition present an opportunity to leave one’s own stand and adopt different points of view, to judge things with the eyes of many others.

Accordingly, the foreword to the book insists on conversation rather than confrontation in order to enable a possible future, strange as it might be to conceive of it from our present standpoint. After witnessing four decades of on-going conflict (and the decades that preceded), Bassili Sehnaoui refuses to glorify the aesthetic of war, like many Lebanese artists have, but she is no stranger to the importance of the conversation: “In my painting ‘Al Saii’, which means ‘The Quest’, it is about what the whole of the Middle East and North Africa is going through, and for us, searching for a common ground, mutual understanding and sincere efforts to build a better future and a solid nation.”

The exhibition runs from June 4 to June 25. For more information, head to the #Trending