Retrospective 2019

Culture: The 19 hits of 2019 in Lebanon

As we wait for the stroke of midnight that will propel us into a new year, we take a look back at the 19 artistic and cultural events and personalities that left a positive impact on 2019. Don McCullin, Picasso, Mashrou’ Leila, Beirut Chants, Mimodactylus libanensis and many others are on the list.

The Punch hit

The gaze of Don McCullin

Paradoxically, the last major photo exhibition that caught our eye before the revolution and crisis currently gripping Lebanon featured the work of famous war photographer Don McCullin. The exhibition was presented by Philippe and Zaza Jabre at the now-famous bell factory in Beyt Shebab. Scenography by Jean-Louis Masinguy highlighted and emphasized McCullin’s work, including many photos taken during the great Lebanese crisis.

The images of typical cruelty seem to have haunted McCullin during the elegant garden party thrown in his honor by the Jabres in the village of Bois de Boulogne. The exceptional photographer is currently dedicating himself to landscape photography in order "to wash out his eyes".

The Glance hit

When Picasso stops by Beirut…

“At 12 years old, I used to draw like Raphaël. It took a lifetime for me to learn to draw like a child.” It is impossible not to recall the famous words of the Spanish genius while strolling through the exhibition "Picasso and the family", which is on display at the Sursock Museum until January 6 (notice to any latecomers!).

Through the exhibit, the Lebanese public has had exceptional access to 20 family-inspired paintings, drawings and sculptures on loan from the Picasso National Museum in Paris. The works offer a beautiful overview of 77 years of creation by this master of modern art, who was constantly reinventing himself. They span a period from the moving and masterful painting “The Barefoot Girl”, which Picasso made when he was 14, to the unusual “Maternity”, executed at the age of 91, only one year before his death.

The exhibition was definitely one of the major artistic events of 2019. There have been some complaints about the absence of Picasso’s most famous and important works, but we know these are not given out on loan easily, making them less accessible.

The Cymbal hit

Verdi's “Requiem” Baalbek

Last summer’s festivals offered a joyful array of experiences, with a few notable exceptions here and there brought about by bigots. Baalbek moved away from the controversy and negativity and provided a sumptuous musical moment in the form of Verdi’s “Requiem”, an essential monument of sacred music.

The extreme beauty of music fused with the remarkable setting of the Temple of Bacchus, which echoed with the crash of symbols. It’s carved stone walls glowing with light, four remarkable soloists were accompanied by more than 150 musicians from the Romanian Radio Chamber Orchestra and choir members from University Antonine conducted by Toufik Maatouk. The moment, combining an exceptionally beautiful sound system and a unique setting, is surely fixed in the audience’s memories. It was as if it were tailor-made to the measure and the countermeasure of this immortal musical work.

The Setup hit

The demonization of Mashrou ’Leila

It all started with a trivial Facebook post from 2015. Hamed Sinno, singer of the group Mashrou' Leila, well-known for his immense tolerance and respect for the beliefs of others, had shared an article on homosexual icons that was illustrated with a Byzantine icon whose face had been replaced by that of the singer Madonna.

Taken out of context, four years later, this post paved the way to a public campaign again the group orchestrated by clergy who, incidentally, saw it fit to play around with some texts from the group’s album “Ibn el-Leil” (released in 2016) and label it as unholy, and borderline satanic.

In reality, all of this was just a pretext for attacking Hamed Sinno's open homosexuality. While the members of the group were harassed, threatened, and insulted on social media, the Byblos Festival decided to cancel their concert, which was supposed to take place in Jbeil on August 9. Was this event yet another catalyst for the revolution?

The Stroke of Genius hit

Gerard Depardieu's piece of advice

While we faced this moment with a bit of dread, the mythic Gerard Depardieu received us for an exclusive interview on the terrace of his suite at the Mir-Amine hotel with generosity and gusto.

For almost an hour, the master of the seventh art delivered his vision of a radical world. He also looked back at his relationship with Barbara, spoke about his childhood, revealed his awkwardness in the matters of love and offered us upon leaving this magnificent advice: "Seize your everyday life, and eat it”.

As a timeless interlude, on the eve of his extraordinary concert, Depardieu sang Barbara, awakening the ghost of the Black Lady as part of the Beiteddine Festival.

The Barbed Wire hit

Abdul Rahman Katanani’s wave

His barbed wire wave, eight meters wide and four and a half meters deep and long, is a reflection of the wave that has swept across the country: a revolution that shakes, sweeps and cleans up the old, the dirty, the soiled and the rotten and reinvigorates, giving a major boost, at the same time.

During these troubled times, Abdul Rahman Katanani has managed to wring destiny’s fate the same way as he twists barbed wire, synonymous with incarceration and subdivision. Through his powerful and silently immersive installation, held at the Saleh Barakat’s gallery, the artist summons us to reflect on the state of the country––a country that has been crumbling under trash (in the full meaning of the word) for almost 30 years. According to the artist, the country can either survive or be swept away by this devastating wave.

The Surprise hit

The Dawn of Beirut Chants

Photo Noel et Cliff

When all cultural activities were more or less suspended during the month of December, as the revolution hit its angriest peak, Beirut Chants continued its tradition of sacred and secular music. In the churches on the edge of the city center, the civilized and peaceful face of Lebanon kept on brightly shining.

We expected a small audience given the volatility of events surrounding it. But against all expectations, there was a comforting surprise: for the 22 days of Beirut Chants, the venues were full and audiences applauded music of all types, from Beethoven’s “Mass in C Major”, performed with great fanfare, ans the “Bel Canto Concert” by Jessica Pratt, to the dazzling performance by Bertrand Chamayou on the piano. The performances successfully counteracted the extraordinary social malaise that the country is going through.

The Coup de Grace hit

Farewell to Huguette Caland

The uncaring gruesome reaper that is death has regrettably taken away many well-known artists this past year, including Zaven, the sculptor who gave life and eloquence to stone, wood and bronze. Huguette Caland, the multidisciplinary artist or immense talent, also passed away. Daughter of the first Lebanese president, Bechara el-Khoury, she brought a festive and liberating aura to the art world. Throughout her life, she created everything from abayas (traditional dresses) and sculptures to boundless paintings full of unbridled imagination and imbued with audacity, sensuality and human warmth. With her passing, Caland took an image of Lebanon’s yesteryear with her. Her life was a fantastic and unique journey grafted with class, years of happiness, opulence, joie de vivre, peace, lightheartedness, cosmopolitanism and hope. As a consolation to her passing, we are left with the radiance of her supreme and multifaceted art.

The Theatrical hit

"No requests..."

If Jean Genet had spoken in “Le Balcon” (The Balcony) using modern Racinian (related to the French classical author Racine) terms about brothels, Sahar Assaf tackles the theme with astonishing simplicity and depth through a theatrical documentary at Studio Zoukak. “La talab, La Ard” (No Demand, No Supply), a play with four actresses, denounces women being taken hostage and forced to prostitute themselves. Beyond the arena of venal pleasures, there is the trial and the indictment of a society governed by a blind and brutal machismo. Notions of civility, sex trafficking, blackmail, physical abuse and barbarity against women are put to the test. It is an intense play, supported by the NGO Kafa, that speaks volumes about the state of disrepair and immorality in a country where nothing is under control.

The Pencil Stroke hit

Bernard Hage and his Art of Boo

Bernard Hage has delighted L'Orient-Le Jour’s readers with his drawings of black humor and sweet irony for the past year an a half. With small sober characters, supposed to represent the Lebanese and their (paunchy) governors, in his weekly column “The Art of Boo,” Hage chronicles their inconsistencies, their crises, their upheavals and their dead ends.

Nothing escapes the acuity and fine pen of this talented caricaturist and illustrator. Hage captures the small crimes and the petty thefts of these politicians, capturing the mismanagement, scheming and especially the outrageous insensitivity they show in his sketches. In short, Hage has the art of saying everything in only four lines and two points: the disenchantment as well as the hope of his compatriots; their revolt as well as their dreams... And first of all, the dreams of a revolution finally achieved in 2020.

The Love at First Sight hit

"Jidar al-Saout" by Ahmad Ghossein

This year, Lebanon can be proud of Ahmad Ghossein’s film “Jidar al-Saout” (All This Victory), which won three prestigious awards during the 34th International Critics Week in Venice.

Known for his work as a videographer, his artistic installations and his documentaries, the filmmaker made his first fiction film in 2019. It is a backroom work with powerful music set against the backdrop of the 2006 Israeli invasion that evokes the fears and the anxieties of a nation. Men are nothing more than loose cannons, Ghossein seems to say. They are the victims of all kinds of wars and especially of their leaders’ vanities. The film is a human perspective on conflicts all over the world. It is too bad that the film’s release has been delayed due to current circumstances.

The Kick-Off hit

Malak Herz’s kick

October 17, 2019: the streets ignited! The Lebanese people of all faiths united and resolved to use all of their strength and conviction to overthrow a political order that has long been plagued by corruption and indifference towards the misery and suffering of the people.

Malak Alaywe Herz kicked the crotch of a ministerial guard without a hint of hesitation or fear. Immortalized by designer Rami Kanso in a beautiful poster that has gone viral on social networks, this kick became the kick-off of the Thawra (revolution). A woman, a gesture, an artwork that symbolizes the courage of women whose decisive role in the protest movements will keep on increasing.

The One Shot hit

The success story of Ali Basbous (689)

Middle East Architect Magazine named him among the top 50 architects of 2019. A native of Iqlim el-Kharrub (Chouf area) and founder of the agency Build Associative Data (BAD), Ali Basbous won the international competition for the development of the Xiangmihu district in Shenzhen, China. The megalopolis, connecting Hong Kong to mainland China, is regarded as "the world's technology factory". Telecom giant Huawei is headquartered there, airbus has set up an innovation center there, and Microsoft and Apple have opened offices.

Similarly, the city of Xingyi (southwest of Guizhu) entrusted him with the master plan of 4,000 square kilometers, almost one third the size of Lebanon!

The Case of the Blues hit

Helen Khal, the tribute

"At the Still Point of the Turning World, There Is the Dance”. The Sursock museum has invited those nostalgic for the ‘60s and ‘70s to a magnificent tribute to Helen Khal and the artists who occupied her life, including Shafik Abboud, Yvette Ashkar, Etel Adnan, Huguette Caland, Simone Fattal, Farid Haddad, Salwa Rawda Shoucair, Aref Rayess and Dorothy Salhab-Kazemi. The exhibition is a silent dance through the life of this literary woman and artist that describes her journey, punctuated by encounters, breakups, exiles and returns.

The exhibition, which was inaugurated on the eve of October 17, is an immersion into the intimate life of the discreet Helen Khal, into her color compositions and into her words, which she perfectly mastered. Without any doubts, this was one of the most beautiful exhibitions of the year.

Ongoing until March 1, 2020.

The Wing Stroke hit

A flying monster at the mim museum

International scientific recognition was bestowed on a new specimen of Pterosaur, which has been named: Mimodactylus libanensis, in reference to the country where this species was discovered and to the Mim Museum, which managed to acquire it despite it being it was coveted by the Museum of Houston in the United States. Ninety-five million years old, its fossilized skeleton is the most complete ever discovered in the Middle East and Africa. A contemporary of the dinosaurs, the Pterosaurs are the first flying creatures. They do not have feathers; they had a split head with a huge toothed jaw, and they used to move on all fours, thanks to their vertically folded wings. This family of Pterosaurs has never had an equivalent among winged beings.

The Love Crush hit

Frida waltzes with kisses

How odd that there is a before and an after revolution... And all that precedes October 17, 2019 seems so distant in our memories, as if that evening, we reset our watches and decided to start again from the beginning.

And yet it was not that long ago, on a September 21, precisely, in the gardens of the L’Appartement restaurant, that L’OLJ made a great discovery: Frida Shehlawi, alias Frida, presented her first album consisting of seven tracks (in colloquial Arabic) and one in French: “La Valse des Bisous” (the waltz of kisses). For Frida, meeting with Ghazi Abdel Baki gave rise to the album. That evening, overwhelmed by emotions, the audience took the most beautiful nocturnal journey––under the sign of love––with Frida’s voice, suave at times and deep at others.

The Burst of Laughter hit

Farix, the smile maker

For Stephen King, "humor is almost always masked anger." A humorist surfing on social networks with an imperturbable, but yet unifying, friendliness, Farid Hobeiche, better known under the pseudonym Farixtube or Farix, puts forward the raging politico-social topics with a destabilizing casualness.

Loudly claiming not to be part of the flock of influencers, Hobeiche has decided not to use calculated staging. Anti-elitist to a fault, and yet far from falling into populist humor, Farix has succeeded––especially since the beginning of the October 17 revolution––in snatching smiles where the shoe pinches in a climate of ultimate decline and decay.

The Bull’s Eye hit

Hady Sy, the wall breaker

He seems almost like a fortune teller, erecting a wall of hope few months ago in Martyrs Square, which has––more than ever––become a space for claiming all the rights and duties of all citizens.

It was during the annual Beirut Art Fair that Hady Sy unveiled "his wall", more than four meters high with shattered bars. "I want people to get through”, he said in an interview with L’OLJ a few weeks before the start of the revolution. Now it’s done. The imposing installation is not only part of all the shots and footage of the demonstrations, but most especially, a part of the collective memories of those who, like him, believe that change will inevitably happen through the fall of fear in the face of the Other––through the breaking down of community, racists, religious and identity-based walls.

The Stroke of Glamor hit

Salim touched Queen B

A sweet giant who once had blue hair, as if he had scraped the sky, Salim Sherfan came into fashion through graphics. For the color obsessed, clothing is a way to fight gloom by recreating an iridescent cocoon conducive to creative energy. The youngest talent of the Starch incubator, the one who said in his early days: "I wanted to create comfortable pieces that enhance our inner child. I wanted to make people smile,” managed to reach Beyonce in November. Queen B, the undisputed star of pop, found in Sherfan and his label “Jeux de mains”, an aesthetic close to her own positive philosophy. Her picture in a pantsuit with geometrical patches of pink, purple, white and blue has toured the Web.

(This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour on the 28th of December)

The Punch hitThe gaze of Don McCullinParadoxically, the last major photo exhibition that caught our eye before the revolution and crisis currently gripping Lebanon featured the work of famous war photographer Don McCullin. The exhibition was presented by Philippe and Zaza Jabre at the now-famous bell factory in Beyt Shebab. Scenography by Jean-Louis Masinguy highlighted and emphasized...