“OH MY GOD! I ... I am a Fkin’ ARAB!!” a bearded man proclaims in Mazen Kerbaj’s “The Revelation,” as five large drops of sweat fly from his stylized face. The page before, a figure made of corrugated steel, barbed wire at his feet, protrudes from the canvas in Lebanese-born Palestinian artist Abdul Rahman Katanani’s “Untitled.”
The page after, in Christine Kettaneh’s white-framed photograph “Semi colon 1,” black ants feed around white sugar-coated jellies, one round and one apostrophe-shaped.
While entirely different in style, media and message, these three works have a formal element in common. All have been created for a 10-by-12 centimeter canvas (slightly larger than an old Polaroid photo).
Kerbaj, Katanani and Kettaneh are among over 100 artists in “It’s Always Been: Contemporary Artists from Lebanon.”
Part of the Imago Mundi (image of the world) project, this private collection was commissioned by Italian billionaire businessman and art patron Luciano Benetton.
As its name suggests, Imago Mundi is an international project.
According to Martina Fornasaro, who’s knowledgeable of the Imago Mundi Luciano Benetton Collection, the project’s still in production and currently comprises works (all in a 10-by-12 format) by some 25,000 artists from over 150 countries and native populations. (Indigenous Australian artwork, for instance, has a separate collection.)
The idea for the project came from Benetton’s frequent travels and encounters with artists and art dealers. “I realized I did not have enough time to get to know all of them,” he recalls in a video on the Imago Mundi website. “Therefore I thought I might ask them to give me their special ‘business cards.’ Also because I might have later bought one of their [bigger] artworks ... I liked this idea, and was not aware of what might come out of it.”
What came out of it is an enormous collection that has doubtless relieved Benetton of any worry about buying bigger works from the vast majority of artists who have contributed to Imago Mundi.
He has instead created a sprawling project of global dimensions with artwork provided for free.
It’s a great idea, taking a snapshot of art scenes from around the world creating a kind of nonexhaustive catalogue of artists, as Benetton puts it. With collections from so many parts of the world at your fingertips and a unifying format that gives a visual consistency to all that variety, the project provides endless possibilities for exhibitions.
The Lebanon collection debuted as part of “Mediterranean Routes,” a 2017 exhibition in Palermo, Sicily, comprising collections from countries on the littoral.
It was also one of 40 collections on show last year in an exhibition in Trieste, northern Italy.
Beirut Art Residency co-directors Amar Zahr and Nathalie Ackawi curated “It’s Always Been” from the Lebanese side.
The book accompanying the collection was launched last year at a quiet, contributors-only event at the BAR Project Space.
The title, Zahr and Ackawi write in the book’s introduction, “is a response to an ongoing rhetoric prevalent in international art news stating ‘Lebanon’s art scene is happening.’ The truth of the matter is that it is not happening, but it has always been ‘happening.’”
Participating artists, a mix of emerging, midcareer and established artists from Lebanon (including Lebanese artists abroad), or who have been based here for a long time, were asked to produce single pieces, diptychs or triptychs.
The 10-by-12 canvases were sent from Italy, and Zahr said she and Ackawi challenged Imago Mundi on the strict adherence to this size and medium, arguing the canvas was “too literal, it’s too limiting.”
Instead, they proposed that the artists be allowed to just stick to the 10-by-12 format.
In the end, the Lebanon collection is particularly striking because of the original way so many artists have responded to the challenge.
The book cover reproduces Marwan Rechmaoui’s “Untitled” the artist having produced a miniature version of his 2017 piece for Imago Mundi. It seeks to suggest some of the texture of the work, which captures, Zahr and Ackawi write, “a segment of the Lebanese coastline in lyrical form.”
In his “Croquez Monsieur, Cheres Mesdames,” Ziad Abillama takes a playful, performative approach, which literally sandwiches the canvas between two pieces of white bread, bringing up its own set of logistical issues.
Zahr said the Luciano Benetton Collection agreed to replace the bread every week when it’s exhibited, and the piece is now encased in a transparent box.
There are works from sculptors, painters, photographers, illustrators.
“We even have product designers who have a conceptual art practice,” Zahr remarked, referring to contributors like Carlo Massoud, whose “Everyday” is a brass sheet that snakes around at angles, free of the canvas.
There are no exhibitions of the Lebanon collection scheduled but Zahr was optimistic, saying an in-country show was in the pipeline and “will definitely happen” eventually.
For now, the only way to view “It’s Always Been” is in the book or on the Imago Mundi website, where collections are grouped by continent.
Online browsers should go to “collections.” If you search for “Lebanon” under “artworks,” the only contribution it brings up is Dalia Khamissy’s “The Missing of Lebanon,” a striking diptych with photos and details of people who disappeared during the Civil War.
It’s interesting to browse other collections from the region and further afield. The point of the project, after all, is its global nature.
“Syria off frame” assembles artworks created in 2015, a large number of which have a cellphone encased within the canvas.
That’s not by chance. Zaher Omareen’s “Syria Pixels” is an installation of one-minute-long films produced by 35 Syrian directors using mobile telephone cameras. (The films can’t be viewed via the website).
Also present is Omar Imam’s “Live, love, refugee,” a photo of a Syrian woman and two children standing next to a scarecrow in a field in Lebanon, and a painting by Houmam al-Sayed, who also has a piece in the Lebanon collection.
For those familiar with the art scene here, “It’s Always Been” will be a fun, at times surprising, at times familiar collection of work.
For those who aren’t, Lebanon’s “business cards” will make for an engaging and thought-provoking introduction. But the accompanying publication falls flat.
It feels too much like a catalogue, in part because it reflects the underlying nature of the Imago Mundi project itself.
The book may makes a great accompaniment to the show, but for a collection that includes so much experimentation with the format, it leaves the viewer wanting to see the real thing.
It’s true, Benetton was late to the Lebanon party. All the more reason to hope the Luciano Benetton Collection brings “It’s Always Been” to Beirut, and soon, for Imago Mundi’s first Middle East exhibition.
“It’s Always Been: Contemporary Artists from Lebanon” can be viewed in print at the Beirut Art Residency Project Space in Gemmayzeh and online at www.imagomundiart.com.
This article has been adapted from its original source.
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