For anyone following Ayla Hibri’s work, “A Palm Tree Bows to the Moon,” her exhibition at the Abroyan Factory in Burj Hammoud, marks a departure.
The factory walls bear witness to its previous life. Wooden floors creak as you move. Lighting has been custom-installed to illuminate over 20 large photographs, which are suspended from piping that runs around the perimeter of the room.
An accompanying sound installation created by composers Charbel Haber and Jad Atoui further adds to the atmosphere.
In her previous works, Hibri moves fluidly between black-and-white and color, always working with analogue cameras, in a street-documentary style.
She has captured people and life in countries from Turkey to Eritrea and Brazil, and her series of portraits of motorbike riders in Yemen was part of the 2015 publication “POV Female Beirut.”
“This is what my life was about movement, changing locations and stuff like that. It was all about where I am, trying to understand the place, trying to understand the city and the culture,” Hibri said. “Traveling was the way to take photographs.”
Hibri’s work for this show is, by contrast, homegrown, abstract and enigmatic. It’s all black-and-white and shot in Lebanon, not that you’d know that most of the time.
The photographer says she began the project three years ago upon returning home after a decade abroad. “I wasn’t very happy to come back so I had a bit of an aggressive attitude toward the city,” she said.
“Now I’m all about Beirut.”
A book of the same title as the exhibition was launched at the expo’s opening and Hibri describes the show as a “summary” of the book, which features around 70 images along with original texts.
Her subjects include a couple - him bare-chested with “Diana” tattooed over his heart, her clutching her phone - staring straight into the camera lens. Sometimes they’re animals: a grasshopper, a rat, a deceased cockroach.
Hibri says the work is highly symbolic, drawing on ideas she’s been exploring over recent years, having to do with psychology, archetypes and individuation.
“I believe in the idea of synchronicity as well and meaningful coincidences and the book is a lot about that,” she says. “Coincidences mean a lot to me and I read into them. I google what the rat symbol [means] in mythologies and ancient Chinese philosophies and I try to come up with my own narrative based on that and put it in my own life. Everything is a symbol, especially in art.”
“A Palm Tree” takes the viewer on a visual journey.
At times there is a sense of exploring, perhaps searching for something in a place both familiar and somehow foreign, or a sense that things are out of place a lone basketball hoop upon a mountainous background, clothes hanging among trees, laundry-like. At times, there’s a touch of voyeurism.
Hibri describes the book’s longer texts as “kind of like a map of how to navigate through the book, and it applies throughout the whole thing. I don’t even tell you what the narrative [is]. I give you an example of how to read the book. I want people to construct their own narratives.”
Similarly, she says she has avoided titling the images in the show and the book so as to not to limit the viewer’s readings of the work.
“It’s about the visible and the invisible,” Hibri adds.
These photos are at times striking, but the show seems to make leaps that leave the viewer feeling unprepared. In the book, where she has had more space to develop the visual narrative, these gaps are mostly filled in.
Several images that feel a bit on their own in the show also make more sense in the publication.
As for the texts in the book (the show has none), they are at times poetic, prophetic or proverbial, with a tone that is inconsistent and sometimes unexpected.
The visual narrative would likely have worked just as effectively without them, and might have given the viewer greater freedom of interpretation, rather than trying to make sense of Hibri’s “map.”
Hibri’s work has been widely exhibited. Her motorbike series “The Real Prince” is her first book but she says she feels “A Palm Tree” is “my first proper book and my first proper [solo] exhibition.”
Both book and exhibition feel like Hibri is stretching her legs, exploring and delving into something very different, taking the viewer on a journey that is both visual and personal.
With “A Palm Tree” behind her, it will be interesting to see where Hibri decides to push her photography next.
“A Palm Tree Bows to the Moon” is up at Abroyan Factory, Burj Hammoud, 4-8 p.m. through Feb. 1. An abridged version of the show will be up at Beirut Art Residency’s Project Space Feb. 4 to April 1. The book is published by Kaph Books.
This article has been adapted from its original source.
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