Art, Testimonial or Impulse to Looming Change?
PANEL discussion: ‘subtitled: WITH NARRATIVES FROM LEBANON’
November 3rd, 2011 – Royal College of Art – London
Monita Rajpal’s Introduction
Lord Palumbo there is not one of this country’s prestigious art institutions that Lord Palumbo not supported as a trustee or a chairman since the late seventies. (He was a trustee at the Tate Gallery from 1978-1985, and was chairman of its foundation for the following year, and has been chair of the architecture Pritzker-Prize jury since 2004 up to the present and chairman of the arts Council of Great Britain from 1988-1993. He is also chairman of the trustees of the Serpentine Gallery and a few others... There is an organic link to APEAL of course through his wife Lady Palumbo, this year’s honorary chair who is herself of Lebanese descent. Lord Palumbo has a keen interest in how public and private institutions can help nurture the art world.
Nada Sehnaoui our second panelist is a visual artist whose paintings and installations deal with war, personal memory, collective amnesia, identity and the recording of history. Her installations question the use of public spaces in relation to building democracy. She has studied Fine arts, history, film production, cinematography as well as sociology in the United States and France. Her current installation To Sweep is a whimsical yet literal reference to the metaphor of ‘spring cleaning’ going in the Arab world.
Nadim Karam has a doctorate in architecture and is the recipient of several international awards. He has produced large scale and thought provoking urban installations around the world and has taken part in major art fairs in Europe and Asia. His city installations have received wide international acclaim. The scale and the artistry as well as intricate design of Karam’s pieces are awe inspiring showstoppers wherever they are displayed and create stirring interest and conversation on topical issues related to the rapidly crowding cityscapes in the Middle East region.
Nora Boustany is an award winning former war correspondent and also a member of APEAL who has covered Lebanon and the Middle East. She has witnessed war at close hand and has written about its human and material devastation as societies and countries deconstruct and eventually try to rebuild themselves.
Zena el Khalil is a visual artist, social activist and author of the book Beirut, I love you, which chronicle the disappointments of a young woman who returned from the US to study in Lebanon but finds jarring realities. Yet she makes special bonds and makes new discoveries. El Khalil represents the refreshing face of a new generation that is not willing to settle for the status quo not through her art, or through any established social standards or gender norms.
Lord Palumbo’s Intervention
My point of departure has always been that artist is the most important member of society for the good and simple reason that at its best art is the highest achievement of which the human spirit is capable. I also take the view that the Arts are not some adjunct to the real business of living, to be clipped on and snapped off like a bow tie. They are an integral and indispensable part of it, and they represent Truth, Beauty and Hope, even in their darkest passages, as well as satisfying a yearning for spiritual values. By their very nature, they speak a universal language that transcends race, color, creed and physical borders. And finally, and most importantly, they represent a yardstick by which the civilized nature of any nation is measured and judged. I offer this short preface because where funding of the Arts is concerned, there will always be people who will say that money is better spent on health and building hospitals, or education and building schools, and on research and equipment applicable to both, or on the defence of the realm: And it is the true that all matters are of vital national interest, and it is true that the first duty of any government is to protect and safeguard its citizens from attack, whether from outside or within the country itself, in order to preserve the great freedoms that are the provocative of any democracy, freedom of religious tolerance, expression, movement, marriage, and so on. But the competing claims of the great portfolios of State should not be regarded as mutually exclusive and should not most certainly include provision for the Arts for the reasons that I have outlined above. The best definition of the artist I have ever heard came from the famous economist John Maynard Keynes, -Lord Keynes- who was also the first chairman of the Arts Council of Great Britain just after the Second World War In a famous BBC radio broadcast in 1947 he described the artist in these words: ‘The artist walks where the breath of the spirit blows him. He cannot be told his direction. He doesn’t know it himself. But he leads the rest of us into new pastures and he teaches us to love and enjoy what we often begin by rejecting, enlarging our sensibilities and purifying our instincts.’ Government funding of the Arts varies from country to country. France, USA, Germany, Italy, UK. In the UK, the government provides a subsidy to the Arts Council of some 850 million pounds a year. Of that sum almost half, that is to say 400 million pounds is allocated to capital projects through the National Lottery. Local authorities countrywide, spend between 700-800 million a year maintaining museums, theatres, libraries, etc... Within their jurisdiction. Whilst the private sector, comprised of individuals, corporations, trusts, provide 650 million pounds a year.
Nada Sehnaoui’s Intervention
In the year 1975, I lived with my family in Achrafieh, one of Beirut’s neighborhoods and went to a school located in Verdun, another neighborhood of Beirut. One morning, the driver taking us to school, abruptly stopped at the beginning of mathaf, a street that links Achrafieh to Verdun, realizing that driving through would be suicidal. Suddenly, going to school became a crossing issue, and Beirut, a fragment city. From then on, someone else would decide how we would spend our days and where we would lay at night. Hiding in shelters, queuing for water, not going to school for days, sometimes weeks; even the names given to the places we lived in, the war has changed. My home in Achrafieh became part of east Beirut, and my school in Verdun became part of west Beirut. 15 years later, soon after the Lebanese war has ended, a short text of statistics was published in the Boston Globe, the New York Times, Le Monde and other newspapers. It read: ‘150.000 dead, 200 000 wounded, 175 000 disappeared, 3641 car bombs...’ I was astounded to see that 15 tragic years of our lives, had been reduced into such a curt text. In response Lebanese War statistics was my first body of conceptual work with this small text numbers. If what we read in the press could be a reduction of our experiences, a denial of who we are, then why not to try to re-edit their work, rewrite their texts, redesign their front pages? For one full year, I painted every day the first page of L’Orient- Le Jour, the daily Lebanese francophone newspaper. The war had been over for a few years by then, and Beirut, could be ours again. But, how do you reclaim a city where the voices of its inhabitants were muted, for so many years, by bombs and bullets? Promenade in your dreams, my first large scale public installation, gave voice to the youngest of the inhabitants of the city, children and teen agers of all ages were asked to describe the school of their dreams. The collected 1740 texts and drawings created a space where school children could play,
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