Multi-colored birds swoop and dive against the blue, wings glittering in the light. Behind them a rich golden mesh studded with jewels, the proverbial gilded cage made literal, stands between the birds from the open sky.
Between the flock and the mesh lies a conglomeration of black swirls and twists, looping in and out of each other like an elaborate Celtic knot – a monstrous strand of barbed wire.
This colorfully surreal scene is currently gracing the walls of Galerie Janine Rubeiz in Raouche. The painting, entitled “Heaven on Earth,” is part of “(In) Tolerance,” a solo exhibition by Lebanese artist Ghassan Ghazal .
“All my paintings are very symbolic, but they are about identity,” the artist explains. “They are related to the identity of each member of society here in Lebanon. I was trying not to make it obvious, to give it some sense of irony by creating a fantastic world, with the birds and everything – to make it very joyful even though the subject is very cruel. We are living in this kind of environment all the time.”
The new work represents a complete departure from the abstract paintings Ghazal was known for from his years in Canada, where he lived until 2006. The artist explains that since moving to Lebanon his work has undergone a radical evolution. Soon after arriving in Lebanon  he began to place recognisable objects into his paintings for the first time – over the past six years his work has moved from abstract to surrealist, making the subject of his pieces far easier to identify and interpret.
The subject of most of the 17 mixed-media works currently on show is either bullets or barbed wire, though the grim subject matter is offset by Ghazal’s cheerful colors and liberal use of glitter, diamantes, lace and glue-on flowers and butterflies. These conspire to give the pieces a rather camp aspect, the unsuspected playfulness and humor somewhat at odds with the artist’s serious demeanor.
Almost every work features an abundance of circular dots. Though bullet proliferates in Ghazal’s work, these are not simply bullet holes. “I worked on this concept for three or four years,” the artist says. “At first it was only about memory – how [the hole] consumes memory. That’s why I always put these holes in my work ... There is no identity without memory.”
The irony in Ghazal’s flippant approach to his serious subject matter is evident in the three sculptures that accompany the show’s 14 paintings.
“Dead Bullet,” for instance, is a large metal sculpture that thematically echoes Ghazal’s paintings. The piece, which stands roughly at shoulder height, is an enormous metal bullet riddled with holes.
“When I started the idea of the bullets I made ‘Dead Bullet,’” the artist explains. “It’s a bullet that killed itself.”
Human figures are the exhibition’s second theme. Four canvasses, entitled “Profane and Sacred” 1-4, employ the same vivid jewel-like colors, glittery stones and gold paint as Ghazal’s barbed wire-and-bullet works, but these paintings appear to deal with sexual politics, rather than violence.
The viewer is left with the impression that the silhouetted figures are women, though that may be largely due to the abundance of flowers, butterflies and glitter that surrounds them. The four figures each have a different object between their slightly parted legs: a keyhole, a sparkling butterfly, an elegant double-curl of barbed wire (formed from pink and silver diamantes) and a thatch of paper roses where one might expect to see pubic hair.
A second set of four paintings combine human figures with the hole motif, showing four silhouetted busts so full of circular holes that they resemble lumps of Swiss cheese, liberally seasoned with a peppering of bullets.
Ghazal says he aims to suggest political and social themes, rather than spell them out.
“The selection of the colors [is] related to religion – the black, the gold, very noble colors,” he says. “Religion is very rich in our mentality ... I just give ideas that people could see it if they want.”
The fine lace that Ghazal uses in several of his works provides an example of this subtle reference to religion in daily life. It’s the same material that Christian women often wear over their hair when they go to church.
“Arms Trafficking” is one of the show’s more overtly political pieces. The enormous painting places a faded looking U.S. flag in the foreground, the usual reds and blues of its stars and stripes replaced by a faded yellow. Circular holes pierce the flag at regular intervals, transforming it into a sort of grid.
Ghazal’s cheery bullets can be glimpsed through these holes, black silhouettes flying back and forth, each studded with their own circular, brightly colored holes. Behind this is another of the artist’s gilded sheets of mesh, which once again separates the flying bullets from the blue sky behind them.
Ghazal’s work is cheerful and often funny, but the serious subject matter restrains it from drifting to mere superficiality. Enormous and gaudy as the canvases in “(In) Tolerance)” are, they retain a refreshing element of the unexpected.
Ghassan Ghazal’s “(In) Tolérance” is up at Galerie Janine Rubeiz in Raouche until Sept. 22. For more information please call 01-868-290.