British artist Tom Young’s work has captured Lebanon on the cusp of globalization and change throughout the past decade. His contributions in safeguarding Beirut’s traditional architecture breathe life into the personal histories of the city’s residents. Young has lived in Beirut for the past 15 years in the neighborhood of Gemmayzeh, known for its hundreds of years old beautiful historic buildings. Gemmayzeh was among the hardest hit by the devastating explosion of Beirut’s port on August 4 last year, a tragedy that killed hundreds, injured thousands and left ruin in its wake. One may recall Young’s painting, “Toxic Beirut” (2020), featured on the cover of Al Jadid Vol. 24, No. 79, which was painted on September 11 when a fire broke out at the site of the port explosion. “All of us in Beirut were (and still are) scared that another disaster could happen. Painting it is a way of harnessing that fear, transforming it into something meaningful and perhaps, beautiful,” he told Al Jadid.
"We Want the Truth" (2021) appears on this issue's cover. Depicting a crowd of people waving Lebanese flags, Young illustrates the gathering on the explosion's first anniversary. The people still have no answers, and those responsible are yet to be held accountable. In the words of Young: "People were demoralized and broken, helpless in the face of such injustice, corruption, and brutality...as the country descended further into a state of collapse...no one knew what to do or how to change anything."
“As ever, Lebanon is caught in the crossfire of much bigger geopolitical conflicts. It is so much harder to heal when the truth is unknown. It is very difficult to accept such a massive crime and move on. The country is in a state of disarray. Yet the feeling of human kindness and solidarity amongst the ordinary people that day gives me faith in humanity, faith in Lebanon.”
Young believes in the transformative power of painting, particularly its ability to process loss and tragedy. He was in a meeting in Saida when the explosion tore through his neighborhood, leaving his home and studio in ruins. “I began painting immediately as a coping mechanism, harnessing the paradoxically creative force of trauma and destruction to make thickly textured paintings of what I saw around me. I painted the tragedy, and also acts of heroism... the youth on the streets clearing up after the blast was so inspiring, and give us true hope in humanity,” he said. Collector Riad Obeiji and art dealer Gabriel Rizkallah contacted him and proposed the “Wounded Art” exhibition at Villa Audi in Achrafieh, which featured the artworks the explosion damaged. Young exhibited two pieces, paints of the train lines in Rayak in the Bekaa Valley and the war-damaged Holiday Inn in Beirut.
Through paintings, photographic prints, or historical buildings as venues for his exhibitions, Young’s efforts to revitalize derelict architecture have led him on several journeys. His work “restores a lingering sense of home,” in the words of Ziad Suidan. In 2013, Young hosted his Carousel exhibition in the Villa Paradiso mansion, which formerly belonged to the Baloumian family, a wealthy Armenian family whose patriarch — Mardiros — had escaped from the Armenian Genocide in 1915. He became a successful road construction contractor and employed many minorities throughout Syria and Lebanon, including Palestinians. The family owned the house until the onset of the Lebanese Civil War and fled the country over the next few years. Its last resident, Mardiros Baloumian, remained in the house until he died in 1983, after which it fell into disrepair. Young’s exhibited works highlighted the family’s story, which had been buried during the war. “Carousel is an exploration of loss, and of the transformative power of painting in confronting that loss.” All the same, it also touched on renewal and rebirth, according to Young.
In 2014, he transformed the Rose House into an exhibition venue, exploring themes of memory and heritage and capturing the house's last days as a living home before its previous resident, Fayza El Khazen, moved out. Much of Young's work allows a glimpse into the 'living' memory of the buildings and those who called them home.
His Full Circle exhibition in 2017 culminated a four-year journey since his Carousel exhibit. Young met with the Baloumian family in 2016 during his New York presentation, “Beirut: Architecture, Art, Memory, and Transformation,” which called for the restoration of heritage buildings in Beirut. Here, he reunited belongings and exhibited portraits of the family he had painted from the photographs left behind in Villa Paradiso. He returned to Beirut in 2017 to organize Full Circle. In the words of Suidan, “In the case of Villa Paradiso, restoration is moved to return a sense of home at a time of threatened physical destruction, to a family ripped asunder by the tremors of Civil War, where their memories are publicly unacknowledged and muted, and the threat of demolition to public landmarks, up until now, included their own.”
Young’s recent works — especially during the ongoing pandemic — paint a subtler image of Beirut. “I’m painting the disquiet and fear that is present among people; that they are all being watched — on the phone, online, in the street, the fear of the virus we can’t see...This is the age of surveillance, as we all know. You don’t have to believe in conspiracy theories to see this.”
To Young, Lebanon offers a wealth of inspiration. “It triggers a deep emotional charge,” he said. “The extremes of human emotion from joy and pain are played out here like no other place I have experienced. Here, I can process my own pain and transform it into something creative.”
Copyright © 2022 by Al Jadid