Helen Karam, on Childhood Inspirations, Her Artistic Quest to Preserve Beirut, and Strong Will to Survive on Her Own Terms

Rebecca Joubin

Helen Karam is a prominent Lebanese artist known for her magical canvases of colors defying all categorization and for her bold human and social statements. Having become more and more prominent in the Lebanese art scene in recent years, her works have also become recognized internationally, in London, Paris, Kuwait, to and most recently Davidson College in the U.S., (February 2010), where her artwork and presence were an integral part of a festival celebrating the experience of women in the Middle East. The following is an interview with Helen Karam for Al-Jadid conducted for Al Jadid during the fall of 2009.

You currently teach Fine Arts at the American University in Beirut and through your traveling exhibitions have become a distinct presence among Lebanese artists. Please speak about your earliest inspirations.

From the moment I was born in Beirut, the eldest of five children, art was the basic fabric of my family life. My father designed women’s hats, and I grew up observing as the designs dancing in his imagination metamorphosed onto paper and then onto the mold; I watched in enchantment as the colorful fabrics took the shape of the mold. It was the process of transformation that captivated me most.

At the time, my family owned a building in Beirut, a 1950s construction on Bechara al-Khoury Street, which was later demolished when it did not fit with the new city plan. During my childhood we lived in this building, which housed a cinema, Gaumont Palace. As a child I used to devour the movies shown in Gaumont Palace, entranced by the images, colors, and music.

Even though I was still just a child when I told my father my dream to become an artist, he immediately took me to the atelier of an artist who was renting a room on the first floor of our building. The moment I entered his studio and smelled the paint, I felt I needed to touch the colors and experience the transformations they could make miraculously between my fingers.

My parents openly embraced my artistic endeavors. I married very young, though, and right away gave birth to both my sons. During those first years of married life, I turned away from my art. However, in 1985, when my children were still young, I returned to school and studied in the Beaux Arts Department at the Lebanese University in Beirut. I now realized that getting my degree and becoming an artist were essential to the very fabric of my being, without which I was virtually dead. Without any support, I studied with intensity and in 1989, graduated with my D.E.S in Fine Arts.

The majority of your paintings belong to larger series centered on varying themes, each with their own story and mise-en-scène similar to a theatrical production. Largely autobiographical, you are comfortable expressing your emotions and body in art. I am thinking in particular about your series: “Loneliness in Red” (2004) and “Vanishing” (2008). Please elaborate on these series.

I begin with a certain theme or experience and then ask questions, portraying emotions that relate to human feelings, hopes, fears, and expectations. In my “Loneliness in Red” series, loneliness is symbolized by a woman who mourns the absence of her companion. His absence is also his presence. The color red is often used to depict love, fire, and happiness, but I have chosen bright red to adorn these canvases with sorrow. Using colors in new ways is characteristic of my work, since I adhere to the notion of a color language, in other words, that colors, just like letters in an alphabet, change meanings according to where you have placed them.

In “Loneliness in Red,” as well as in all of my artwork, the woman is not posing for us, but rather we are capturing her in the intimate details and surroundings without her knowing we are there. Our view of her is not aggressive, but sensitive.

In my series “Vanishing” exhibited at the Babel Theater in Beirut, I depict the body vanishing through the slow process of sickness and death. Delving in this series was the only way I could emotionally deal with the death of my beloved younger brother. In this series, the body has distortions; it is melting, telling its own story. Inspired by Oriental and Byzantine Icons, I transposed these symbols into distorted portraits of myself and my brother, manifesting human suffering, rather than divine or superhuman power.

Your art explores the feminine condition. Do you identify yourself as a woman artist, and do you consider yourself a feminist?

I am an Arab artist, who happens to be a woman, in a society where thoughts about the female body have been stifled through the centuries. Exposure of the female body is largely taboo in our culture and in my humanistic portrayals of the body, I have sought to lighten animosity, prejudice, and oppression through dialogue.

In response to your question on whether I see myself as a woman artist, I have to say very firmly that no, I do not believe in woman’s art and man’s art. In every man there is a woman, and in every woman a man. I don’t see myself as a woman artist, since male artists can accurately depict women and women can portray men. The present inability to do this is due largely to education and upbringing, rather than to anything inherent in the female and male entity.  Indeed, sometimes you can even find a woman artist using the same voyeuristic technique on the female body as her male counterpart.

Yet, while I am against all dichotomies and separations, I have to say that as an artist living, working, and falling in love in this society, I have particular experiences, which give me a wealth of information to draw upon. This is not to say that I shy away from portrayals of men, as can be seen in my series “Vanishing” and “Majnoun Laila” (The Lovers), for example.

I am not a feminist. I am an advocate of the human being. The Arab woman is oppressed, and so is the Arab man. In our society, he is forbidden to cry and express his emotions, which is seen as weak. In my art I hope to advocate an end to human suffering whether male or female.

While your art is autobiographical, you have also been a political activist. I am thinking in particular of your series “Qana” (2000), which portrayed the war massacre at Qana in 1996.

As a Lebanese artist who has lived, loved, and worked during and between the wars in Lebanon, the political and personal are intricately related. After Qana 1996, I went into a four year incubation period, shocked by the tragedy and searching for a way to express my sorrows and my rebellion against all kinds of violence and injustice through art. In 2000, my ideas took shape and I worked with intensity on my exhibition in London, which was a statement against war and focused on the impact this bloodbath had in particular on women, the real victims of man-made war.

In this series, my mixed-media narrative paintings were on recycled paper attached to raw canvas. They were hung on the walls by small safety pins with a transparent, flimsy nylon string. I purposely used the safety pin because it is a very useful item associated with hardworking woman in the agricultural community of southern Lebanon, who depend on safety pins to fasten clothes, baby diapers, face covers and veils, among other things. I chose recycled paper as a symbol of how women are expected to just get up again after the war and start over, somehow recycling their lives. It is, in fact, women who pay the highest price for the war. She loses her home – symbol of safety and family – her security. After the ravages of war made from power struggles that men have started, she is the one who rises to rebuild the home again from the rubble. The fragility of these paintings is indicative of the individual – male and female – at the time of war, in all his or her vulnerability, hung in the air, clasping for the last breath, expecting that at any moment death will arrive.

Your recent installation “Places’ Memories,” exhibited May 2009 at the Zico House in Beirut, depicted ravages on Beirut’s identity by modern construction builders. Please tell us more about your latest installation.

Everyone talks of the destruction of Beirut during the wars. But, what I see is that the real desolation came after the war, during the very rebuilding of Beirut. Indeed the ravages of war were much less than the ravages Beirut was exposed to after reconstruction when businessmen with pockets full of money came to town in search of construction sites, which entailed demolishing Beirut’s landmark historical buildings and transforming them into buildings that could be located any place in the world. In doing so, they have been destroying Beirut’s identity, which will weaken the attachment of people to the city, since it will soon resemble any other city in the world.

The subject of this installation is an Ottoman-era building on Makhoul Street in Hamra, in which I lived for 14 years before it was bought by a developer in 2002 and demolished. At the time, I was heartbroken and like a woman grieving a lost lover. I snuck to my former home every single day, taking pictures and video clips documenting its slow, tragic death.

“Places Memories” at the Zico house, presented on three floors, documented the complete destruction of my home. It comprises of a selection of 2,000 photographs I took throughout the decimation, numerous video clips I took of the site, and 41 mixed-media paintings drawn from memory. At the time, I bought as much of the structure as possible, like the blue window of my son, the door to our entrance – they are survivors testifying to the destruction. The installation was a mise-en-scène, or, mise-en-abime as it was referred to in the press. I staged it in the showcase of the Zico House in a way that the visitor of the exhibition passes through the installation to get to the showroom, as if they are witnessing first hand the destruction.

The concrete photos and video clips, bits and piece of the house, are set alongside paintings drawn by memory, which become more and more vague, illustrating the disappearance of our identity, which will live only in the memory and imagination. Subject to the ravages of time, memory fades and then nothing will be left of our beloved city.

You have been very active as an artist, exhibiting both in Lebanon and abroad. Please describe the current art scene in Beirut. How does it differ from the art scene that existed in the ‘60s? What has been the affect of the civil war?

During the ‘60s, Beirut witnessed a renaissance in the arts heralded by the opening of extraordinary galleries throughout the city center. These galleries were cultural entities, rather than commercial enterprises. There was “Platform” Gallery owned by the late artist-writer Samia Tutunji, which recruited rising artists fresh out of college. Samia Tutunji, herself an artist, could spot creativity and was willing to take risk to promote new artists. She struggled to continue working during the war, but died tragically at the end of the war in a bomb blast. “Gallery One” was another famous gallery, owned by a group of artists. It was active in recruiting new talent in the pre-war days, but was not able to survive the war. “L’Epreuve d’Artiste,” an important gallery owned by Amal Trablousy, one of the best curators in Lebanon, tried to keep going during the war despite financial problems and security issues. However, she was forced to close at the end of the war.

Unfortunately only a few of the original and authentic art galleries survived the war, and this includes Agial Gallery owned by Saleh Barakat, Alwan owned by the Lebanese artist Odile Mazloum, and the gallery of Janine Rbeiz, known as one of the best curators in Lebanon since the 1970s. About two years ago, the Beirut Art Center, The Zico House, and a few other galleries were opened and work to promote true art. This is not to mention several cultural centers of some European Embassies such as Cervantes, C.C.F., and Goethe. 

Despite the few galleries with genuine art curators that have survived, the war and its aftermath have given birth to a whole new breed of art curators, who have emerged especially since the 1990s. They do not have the genius to discover new talent, thus at the very best they merely advocate older generation artists who have already established a name, or they support those with connections just dabbling in art. These nouveau rich art curators know that money is power and thus they buy artists.

What type of support did you have during your exhibition at the Zico House last May 2009?

The director of Zico House has transformed his entire home into a cultural center to promote the arts. Open to all forms of art, the director hosts exhibitions, conferences, movies, concerts, book signings, and theater. However, he is forced to work under very difficult conditions. Thus when I exhibited my installation there last May, I found myself in a rather odd, but familiar, situation. I had a wonderful place to exhibit my work, but there was no art curator. I was not only in charge of setting up, but also responsible for printing invitations and making press contacts. This is quite a challenge for any artist.

One thing I want to make clear is that the art movement in Lebanon is very strong. It was before, during, and after the war. It is essential to the fabric of Lebanese society. But the problem is that we work with such little support.  Some artists are forced to play the game to survive and cater to the nouveau riche curators and buyers. Others go underground in order to keep their freedom.

How have you managed to survive and remain true to your art all these years?

I make no compromises at any price. I teach art at the American University in Beirut, and thus I make a good enough income to survive. This gives me freedom in my art, since I create from my heart and true belief in human rights. I refuse to be forced to think about what will sell; I will not allow anyone to own me. For true art is not about possession. The artist needs freedom to create.

This interview appears in Al Jadid, Vol. 15, no. 61 (2009)

Copyright (c) 2009 by Al Jadid

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