Capturing Beirut

Solidere, Beirut - 1995. From Traces of War, Fouad Elkoury

Although still relatively small as a center for art, and at times quite provincial, Beirut has finally expanded to include several large exhibition spaces. The most significant additions to this scarcely funded art scene have been the non-profit venues the Beirut Art Center and the Beirut Exhibition Center, the latter of which would have benefitted from distinguishing itself from the former with a more imaginative name.

When the Beirut Art Center (BAC) opened in 2009, it was expected to fill part of the gaping hole that had plagued the nation’s visual arts for far too long, creating a multi-platform space in which contemporary art and visual culture could have a sense of permanence while continuing into the future. To date, under its co-directors and founders, Sandra Dagher (a former gallerist) and Lamia Joreige (an established artist), the BAC has produced a series of impressive exhibitions. Despite showcasing the work of such international superstars as Mona Hatoum and Kara Walker in solo and group shows since its inaguration, Be…longing, the expansive retrospective of Lebanese photographer Fouad Elkoury that is currently on view, stands out.

[inset_left]Elkoury has frequently returned to the subject of Beirut, a city whose conflict-ridden contradictions perhaps sharpened his eye[/inset_left]

Over the course of four decades, Elkoury’s artistic career has taken him to the far corners of the world, both as a member of the photo-press agencies Sygma and Rapho and as an independent photographer who has often turned his lens to the inadvertent, albeit ever present, psychological undercurrents of city centers. Although trained as an architect, the Paris-born artist took up photography long before he graduated from London’s Architectural Association in 1979. Capturing Beirut during the early part of the Lebanese Civil War he first made his mark with the publishing of Beyrouth Aller-Retour (1984), a collection of dozens of photographs that chronicle the everyday happenings of the then ravaged capital. These initial shots of the city reflect surreal moments of incongruity amidst the iconoclasm of war. Punctuated by evidence of the random destruction of Beirut’s cosmopolitan image while accentuating the shaky ground upon which such illusions were propped up, Elkoury’s photographs became renowned for their visual poetics.

Despite focusing on various socioscapes, Elkoury has frequently returned to the subject of Beirut, a city whose conflict-ridden contradictions perhaps sharpened his eye, acting as a crucial exercise in how space, as specifically delineated in urban settings, can reflect the possessed nature of societies that are caught in the crossfire of political impasse. It is this ontologically driven look at a city’s sociological core that is on display in the retrospective Be…longing.

Divided into numerous sections, each revolving around a particular series, this major exhibition features many works that are being shown to the public for the first time. Besides elaborating on the massive scope of the prolific photographer, of particular interest is the diversity of images that are on view and the extent to which Elkoury’s process and approach are revealed. At times his photographs are seemingly autobiographical, as in the 2002 assemblage Sur les Routes (On the Road), which is comprised of road-trip like scenes from Istanbul through the Turkish countryside that were taken over several years. This type of narrative, in which the viewer is placed within a visual diary of sorts, are as impacting as Elkoury’s war-torn compositions, as he elaborates on the emptiness of open roads and near-deserted streets with transient perspective.

A selection of photographs that is arranged in the form of a slide show titled Atlantis, revolves around the late Yasser Arafat as he escaped Beirut by sea during the Lebanese Civil War. Elkoury, after being invited aboard the ship of a Greek envoy by a member of the PLO’s press department, took a series of intimate portraits of the Palestinian leader as he met with dignitaries, members of his staff and confidants. Rarely without an entourage, Arafat appears relaxed on this bizarre nautical adventure as he is set against the backdrop of Elkoury’s surrounding seascapes. The blue vastness of the Mediterranean acts as a glaring reminder of the tiny country that was left behind, what became the violent playground of international powerbrokers to which Arafat clearly had little attachment. The proximity with which these images were taken are not only historically significant, they are intentionally unsettling.

Standing in contrast to Civilization, Fake = Real (2004-2006)—photographs that poignantly question the development of Dubai as a regional center at a time when it was beginning to aggressively vie for global influence—are works that show Elkoury at his best, as they tie together the many themes and places that run throughout Be..longing.

Scenes from the series Traces of War (1994-1997) and others from Beirut City Centre (1991), which were executed shortly after the end of the civil war, possess the startling bits of irony, disillusion and beauty (if even possible) for which he is celebrated. There is an element of spontaneity in his scenes, leaving the viewer to imagine the very chance moment at which Elkoury detected the potential of a powerful shot. A stray dog nearing a cement divider that has been stamped with the word Beirut passes through a wasteland of the city in the serene Solidere (1995), while in Place de l’Etoile (1991), the bullet-ridden metal gate of a shop in the center of the downtown obstructs the artist’s view of hollowed out buildings, creating a divided composition in which the night sky seems to overcome abandoned streets.

Although supposedly retiring this type of photography for a more conceptually grounded art that mixes text with recent and past examples from his portfolio, Be…longing remains timely and relevant. For years, Elkoury was known mainly through a handful of monographs and catalogs and news of solo exhibitions abroad, yet his work seemed to resonate in Lebanon and the Arab world, maintaining a tangible presence even through reproductions in postcard form. While he has recently held solo exhibitions in Beirut and Dubai and represented Lebanon at the 2007 Venice Biennale, Be…longing is the first real opportunity that Lebanese viewers have been given to encounter the magnitude of his work. Against the backdrop of a city that remains haunted by the demons of its past, Elkoury’s photographs illuminate the context of its disconnected consciousness.

Subscribe to the discussion