“When they came back and told me we will exhibit in the hammam [“Turkish bath”], I was not sure,” Joana Hadjithomas said by phone in the minutes before her flight left a Paris airport. “It’s All Real,” a video installation Hadjithomas devised with Khalil Joreige, assembles videos of people living in Beirut - refugees, domestic workers, children of foreign workers - talking about their lives.
When she saw the hammam space, located inside Paris’ Institut des Cultures d’Islam, she realized the venue was a good fit. “It’s a very intimate place,” she said from the French capital. “Those people [in the videos] are telling their intimate stories, and they’re not used to talking about themselves, very obviously. It gives you a very close relation to them, and you can really see them, listen to them, in a place that is like a cocoon.”
“It’s All Real” is showing as part of “C’est Beyrouth,” on at the ICI until the end of July.
The exhibition features 16 photographers and videographers, most Lebanese, curated by French-Lebanese writer, photographer and videographer Sabyl Ghoussoub.
“I couldn’t have dreamed of [a] better [location] than this basement, the hammam, to display these videos of people who we never hear, or we hear too little,” he said via email.
“C’est Beyrouth” begins with Fouad Elkoury’s video “On War and Love,” which according to ICI press material shows the 2006 War between Israel and Hezbollah “through the prism of intimacy.”
It’s the only piece in the expo that deals directly with Lebanon’s history of conflict. The rest of the show explores four major themes that at times overlap: the body as a marker of identity, the city’s multiconfessional character, communities at the margins, and migration and exile.
The works on show range from Vianney Le Caer’s images of muscular men sunning themselves along Beirut’s corniche, to the LGBTQ-themed series “Doris and Andrea” by Mohamad Abdouni; from Patrick Baz’s “Christians of Lebanon” to Dalia Khamissy’s work with refugees. A triptych by Randa Mirza from her series “Beirutopia” adorns a Paris street corner.
Hadjithomas and Joreige came to make “It’s All Real” while filming in Beirut as part of a project on email scams - people “pretending to be the daughter of an African dictator or the son of [Moammar] Ghadhafi” in order to get money - Hadjithomas said.
She and Joreige soon realized that some of the real-life stories of the nonprofessional actors they’d cast were more incredible than the fake ones in the con emails.
“The installation is called ‘It’s All Real’ because, in opposition to the virtuality of those scam [stories] that we were filming with those same people, now they are saying their own story,” Hadjithomas said.
Associated cultural events alongside “C’est Beyrouth” have included talks and film screenings. Lebanese photographer, filmmaker and artist Jocelyn Saab, who passed away in January, was among those whose work has been featured.
ICI Director Stephanie Chazalon said the institute’s first exhibition dedicated specifically to Lebanon had been a great success.
“The idea was to exceed expectations, to go beyond the images that the city evokes, in order to propose seeing Beirut differently,” Chazalon told The Daily Star by email.
“The exhibition is like a stroll through its streets, meeting the locals. We catch a glimpse of a society that is unique in its diversity, weakened by wars and a confessional system at the end of its tether, but also resilient and effervescent. That’s the elusive character that we wanted to show.”
Ghoussoub has called Beirut a personal obsession. “The exhibition plays with stereotypes. It is even full of these stereotypes. It takes them on in order to better break them down,” he said.
“Each photographer/videographer has managed to show a truth of Beirut, and all these truths form a bigger lie, which is Beirut represented in this exhibition. We should ask Beirut if she recognizes herself in this portrait. I think she would say, ‘No, but still, a little.’”
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