The urgent abstract

Lebanese artists react to the current Israel-Lebanon conflict and are joined by a perfomance in Newfoundland. Ben Jackson helps us catch a glimpse.

The Western view of the Middle East is often strikingly two-dimensional – an ongoing drama narrated to us by anchors, pundits, and government officials, where those involved are reduced to interchangeable set pieces: the enraged crowd, the masked guerilla, the wailing mother in black.

But unlike Iraq, Afghanistan, or Palestine, Lebanon was on the rebound when its war came. The country had patiently rebuilt itself after the civil war ended in 1990, creating an economic recovery and a thriving cultural and artistic scene in the capital Beirut.

A number of Lebanese with Internet connections have been describing their experiences online – in forms as diverse and articulate as they are anguished at the destruction of a country that was just beginning to reestablish itself.

Lebanese poet and visual artist Laure Ghorayeb wrote and drew throughout and in reaction to the Civil War and published a book of drawings, Témoignage (Testimony), in 1985.  Today she is depicting the war again, this time through a blog called Witnessing (again) where she posts abstract drawings along with commentary several times a day.

She is joined by her 30-year-old son, Mazen Kerbaj, a cartoonist and trumpet player who posts visual art and music to his own site, “Kerblog”.  His most linked post is “Starry Night” – an experimental trumpet improvisation recorded on the balcony of his Beirut apartment – accompanied by the sound of nearby bomb blasts, ambulances and fighter jets screeching overhead.

That Kerbaj’s site has been visited by thousands shows that there are many outside the region eager to connect in a more immediate way with those affected by the conflict.

One such person is Meg Walker, a Vancouver-based artist who recently did a performance piece called After the Rockets: Phone Calls for Lebanon and Israel  at the Eastern Edge Gallery in St. John’s.  On July 28th – 29th, Walker spent 16 hours making phone calls across North America, asking each of the 137 voluntary participants to each take a moment to reflect on a person who had been killed.

"People who volunteer may be interrupted during a meal, or awakened in the middle of the night, and asked to mourn.” Through this act Meg aims to find a common ground between the safety here in Canada and the chaos in the Middle East.

“That common ground is the dread that must accompany waiting to hear whether friends and loved ones are alive and well or dead."

Confronted with the rising death toll in both countries – now roughly a thousand – Walker describes her performance as an attempt to connect in a personal way to those most closely affected by the war.

"How do we move from that abstract number to an individual? How do we mourn for someone we don’t know?"

– Ben Jackson

An excerpt of "Starry Night":

Mazen Kerbaj’s "Kerblog":

Laure Ghorayeb’s "Witnessing (again)":

Meg Walker’s "After the Rockets":


  1. rachel · November 3, 2010

    Interesting piece.

    Thanks Ben!

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