For his second solo show in London, Lebanese artist Ayman Baalbaki returns to the theme of a city scarred by its experience. To Baalbaki, little has truly changed in “peacetime” Beirut – no problems have been resolved, no politicians called to account, no militias disarmed. He states his concerns once again to remind us of what we have witnessed. He appeals to our memory and reveals our sense of denial, loss and fear, but also the will to rebuild.
Baalbaki was born in Lebanon in 1975, the year the Lebanese civil war began. Since childhood he has experienced invasion, war, displacement, destruction and deception. For this reason, many of his paintings register the impact of nearly 20 years of war and the turmoil of living in Beirut.
He expresses his theme in layers of paint on canvas and colourful floral textiles that give life to his depiction of bombed buildings, bullet-ridden façades, piles of rubble, snipers’ towers, destroyed luxury hotels, and half-finished housing with skeletons of scaffolding. He reminds us of what many want to forget – a war-torn country where a number of former warlords continue to hold position of power. Baalbaki’s paintings are of buildings that witness; buildings that talk and sometimes even bleed.
For instance, Exchange refers to a street that he often visits, the once-fashionable Hamra Street, now covered with cheap advertising posters and filled with cheap everyday goods, money-changing kiosks and sandwich sellers – perfect for all those who are en route to exile.
Another work, The Embassy, refers to the destruction of the American Embassy of Beirut in April 1983 – one of the first symbols of power to be destroyed by suicide bombers. Today it has been replaced by residential apartments, as few foreign states can afford, for security reasons, to have such a vulnerable site in the middle of the city with a beachfront.
Baalbaki’s paintings are inspired by images registered in his memory, and photographs that he has taken himself or seen in the media. With thick ridges of paint in a ravishing array of colours, his unpredictable and expressive brushstrokes depict grid-like façades viewed from strange angles and cropped in an unusual way that result in a very gestural style of painting. His work emphasises the materiality of paint, and reveals how an image can capture a moment, or an emotion. The paintings are complex and experiment with scale, varying between the intimate and the monumental, where figuration meets abstraction. They are also highly charged, full of blue skies and flowers, discovering contradictions and connections, continuity and disruption, exploring ideas of amnesia and memory, despair and hope.
Baalbaki frequently returns to familiar imagery such as the young men in headscarves in the Mullatham series and the Beirut Holiday Inn – the hotel that never opened and has never been restored, a monument to destruction. The scenes he depicts are dramatic, but the floral textile backgrounds provide a deliberate softening effect, a feminine touch that recalls the dresses of women in southern Lebanon.
Brutal yet beautiful, Baalbaki’s work records the destruction that civil war and repeated Israeli invasions have inflicted on his country. They are a fitting tribute to the traumatic recent history his countrymen have experienced, and reveal stirrings of hope.
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