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INTERVIEW WITH HANIBAL SROUJI by art journalist and writer Lisa Pollman

INTERVIEW WITH HANIBAL SROUJI by art journalist and writer Lisa Pollman Hanibal Srouji, Cage XIII ,

Hanibal Srouji, Cage XIII, 2006, Acrylic and fire on canvas, 273 x 73 cm

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You were born in Beirut in 1957 and left your homeland and emigrated to Canada during the first part of Lebanese Civil War in 1976. You returned to your country many years later. Please talk a bit about the childhood memories you have of Lebanon, and how these images appear in your artwork?

It took me thirty-five years to get back. We left at the beginning of the Lebanese Civil War in 1976, on the first cargo boat to come to the port of Saida. [At that time], the city was surrounded and no boats were allowed. It was a funny feeling seeing the land disappear in the distance, engulfed under water, as we headed away from Lebanon and out to sea. This vision has accompanied me since.

When I was a child, I could look at the sea every day. It was always there, reassuring - this horizon and the world beyond it. Forced to leave, we were sad and excited, dreading the unknown. It was a long trip, although we were not going far. It was very emotional.

This image is depicted in my latest large vertical painting series entitled “Land/Sea’, which I started in 2009, a year before I finally moved back to Beirut. It was a funny conjecture, a kind of prediction

When you lived outside of Lebanon as a diasporic artist, did you feel a sense of creative freedom? Is it different now that you have returned home? How?

I had just finished high school when the family arrived in Canada. I ended up studying art at university. Initially, I was more interested in science and later on social science. I finally concentrated on art as a field of study. I found it was an open field, where all my varied interests could converge.

I

have always viewed art making as a space for research and expression.

The very act of creating art includes many discoveries. I did not know much about art, and I had to learn everything! The only advantage that I may have had was this naïve desire to say something.

Later, I started looking at art throughout history and the artists who were presenting their own interpretation of freedom.

Regarding being a diasporic artist and is it different if I am outside or inside?

  • I don’t think so. When I was abroad, I was very concerned with the situation in

the country and the region. I was more concerned because of the distance, the news that focuses on dramatic events.

Once inside, I live the events. I share the tragedies, the sorrows, as well as the joys and the happy moments. Being home allows me to be in direct contact with the present, as well as my past and permits momentary glances into what the future could be.

Finally, creative freedom is something that has to be actively created and earned. It is deeply personal and a continuous struggle. For me personally, it is synonymous with inner peace.

Is it possible to achieve liberation and a sense of freedom through the creative process? How?

When an artist has come to grips with the means of production technically and visually, when the work is highly personal and genuine, when everything in the composition of the artwork is an absolute necessity and relates to meaning and when we embark, as viewers, on a challenging journey, then I believe, yes, art is a liberating act. It opens new free visual spaces of liberty for the eye, the mind and the soul.

  • I get very excited when I see an artist showing me

“Look where I am, what I am thinking about and how I put it all together.” It may

not be a matter of complexity or high sophistication - it could be as simple as:

“Look how green is my green, open, fresh, tender and free! Enjoy!”

Despite experiencing the trauma surrounding Lebanon’s Civil War and tensions that have arisen in a post 9/11 world, do you employ an aspect of “play” in your work? How?

My work is essentially autobiographical and represents the trauma of the Lebanese Civil War, the effects relating to the 9/11 drama itself and the aftermath that concerns us all. Although the subject is serious, it does not mean that I cannot examine or tackle it with fresh eyes and have hope. My first reaction to violence was, naturally, to try to sublimate it.

Looking at the impacts of the gunshots on the buildings of Beirut, they looked amazingly similar to the ones that were in Belfast, Baghdad, or any other city in the world. These same marks became my composition “tools” in the 1990’s. Fire became an element that I play with to mark the canvas, to draw with.

Please tell us more about what fire and the burnt parts on your canvases depict. What technique/s do you use to get this particular effect?

“Playing with fire” became a sign or rather a symbol to voice. It is pure energy. Harnessing the use of fire was fundamental to the evolution of mankind. It is essential to create, build and prosper or it can be designed to devastate. When let loose, it can eat and destroy everything. It is a matter of choice.

“Play” is essential to being able to create. Passing through a dramatic [event] doesn’t abolish hope or the will to carry on. The debris of armed conflicts can be recycled, directly or symbolically, just as the empty shells of Kalashnikovs became the medium for artist Alain Vassoyan, who was a child during the Lebanese War. Vassoyan’s first artwork was a metal “Tree”, made with the brass shells of machine guns. It launched his career in sculpture and installation.

You have more recently been working with neon. How did you come to work with neon and what aspects of this medium do you enjoy working with the most? And what do you find the most challenging?

My recent works combine neon, fire and paint on canvas, referencing my childhood memories of Beirut in the 1960's and early 70's when neon signs lit the centers of the city. Beirut, for those who remember, was a major cultural and commercial center in the Middle East, before the outbreak of the Civil War put out its lights for more than twenty years.

These works are meant as signs of rebirth and light, in spite of difficult times - light and colour on burnt canvas. They hang, also, as a tribute to the hopeful movements of rebirth that are taking place in the Arab world today.

It recalls the memories of the little boy who I once was, before the war. When I was young, I visited a sign manufacturer in Beirut where my relatives worked. It was fascinating to see the artisans work. It was magic! Images and letters appeared. Glass tubes were heated and fashioned according to the drawings. Lines, colours plastic shapes, and neon lights were amassed all over the space. When I came back to Beirut, I found it was now called “Neon National”. It had moved, but was still manufacturing neon. It was with great joy that I found an old stock of old tubes under a heavy layer of dust. These glass tubes that are my age, maybe even older.

These works [and series] remain, for me, a direct homage to all the anonymous artists, designer, workers and artisans who were part of the cultural and social

rise in the past. My last exhibition was a tribute to, namely my uncles, the artist and designer Victor Essayan, equally and dearly to Eduard Akel, a glass Maestro, and all the anonymous creative people of the past and the present.

rise in the past. My last exhibition was a tribute to, namely my uncles, the artist

Hanibal Srouji, Marks, 2004, Fire and Acrylic on canvas, 220 x 150 cm

Please tell us more about your work during your “healing period”.

The “Healing Bands” series developed naturally. In the beginning, I thought of them as open, foldable “books” of writings, marks and colours of personal history.

My first exhibition in Beirut in 1997, where I exhibited process-based works relating to the memory of the war - perforated canvas, burnt and marked with soot, resulted in a noticeable guttural reaction. Some asked “Why do you want to bring back the war?”

It was maybe too early, at the time, to even speak of what had happened. Today, it has become a must to address such subjects especially in art. Actually, it is what is almost expected of any Arab artist. The war had ended, many artists had addressed this sensitive subject in their art, but it was not socially correct to put it out in public. For me it was necessary to make the move and the statement.

My main concern was not merely to denounce the past, but rather to acknowledge it, accept it and eventually pass on to better times. The “Healing Bands” is an ongoing series of work. They are thought of as individuals standing in groups, painted and marked usually with positive energy. They continue to represent for me this long and hard path of accepting, forgiving and always remembering the past for a better future. May hope prevail!

Is your work constantly evolving, busy and “on the move” just like the Lebanese people? How?

Lebanon is in the middle of the changes and events that are taking place in the whole Middle East region. My work has evolved through different forms and venues of expression. I feel I am always discovering and learning. My production is related directly to what we are all living. There are certain works that were born after traumatic events. I have a series called “Fire Works” that have marked certain dates as a direct answer to the violence that hits us.

Yet, I am the first to always be surprised that [my finished works] are not violent at all, but rather poetic in their final expression. There is enough ugliness in reality. Art may be the answer in creating alternative visual spaces that are just as real, opening creative possibilities.

How do you see Lebanese contemporary art in a regional and global context? What are the factors you believe make it important?

Lebanon is a small country and enjoys a multi-cultural and religious diversity. In the past, it played an important cultural role in the region for writers, poets, theater and the arts. Specifically, it was the hub of fine art exhibitions in the 1960’s and 70’s. It was the active center of the Middle-East, where, really, the West and East met. It was a unique centre for creative possibilities. Even during the Civil War cultural activities did not stop completely. Maybe that is why it paid the price.

Today, with our recent history, the country remains an important incubator of art, design and culture. Lebanese artists find interest in a many diverse local and global issues. With the forced emigration, many of the my and the younger generations had a chance to frequent different art schools in Europe, the United States and throughout the five continents. While abroad, they have enjoyed varied and enriching influences and inspirations that advanced the quality of Lebanese fine art production and professionalism.

In the actual state of the globalised world, these international connections also play an important role today. Universities, public and private, have always played an important role in the country. I was surprised, when I was teaching at the Sorbonne in Paris, to see two Lebanese bursary students come to my class every year.

I’ve read that Beirut is one of the “leading art destinations in the Middle East”. What are your favourite places to see art in your hometown?

In the recent years, the art scene in Beirut has evolved fast. From three galleries in the beginning of the 1990’s, it has blossomed to four art centers and over twenty private galleries. The local art scene has also reached out to other parts of the country.

I really enjoy visiting the Archeological museum. It is a small jewel, and has been very well restored. Also, nearby is the newly inaugurated Museum of Minerals, which houses a significant collection. The Beirut Art Center has been offering the Lebanese public international and quality shows of local contemporary art since it opened. Another great place to see contemporary art is the Beirut Exhibition Center, where Modern and great retrospective shows have taken place. I also like to visit some of the galleries with varied exhibitions of international artists. It is a small scene, but a very active one where each cultural and artistic effort completes a part of the bigger image.

As an Assistant Professor at the Lebanese American University Beirut, what courses do you teach? What local or global themes do you see manifesting through your students?

At LAU, I have been teaching first year students coming from high school. These courses are introductory, fundamental courses that find their roots in the teachings of the Bauhaus. They are part of the foundation year for students coming to the School of Architecture and Design. The program includes drawing, photography, art history, design culture and an introduction to graphic media. It is essential for students in any creative field to have a solid basis and advanced visual thinking. These courses provide technical and visual understanding of color and the elements of composition in two and three dimensions. This allows the students to be able to move on to higher and more specialized learning.

At the same time, I have been teaching the Senior Study course in Fine Arts. It allows students to conceive and work on their own projects, where students are encouraged to pursue and develop their interests and find their personal forms of expression. As a teacher, I play the role of the guide helping students in their personal research and the choice of readings, conception, materials and techniques to finalise their projects. It is a challenging, yet fun course that prepares Fine Art’s students for higher education.

As much as it is possible, I encourage students to look deep into themselves for inspiration, to be as true as possible to their nature. Each person is unique, with a particular history, background, dreams and visions. In the visual fields, and especially in the fine arts, these are key elements to build upon, expand and develop.

Where can we see your work in coming month? What are you currently working on?

Most recently, I have been concentrating on a series of Tondos to be exhibited with Galerie Claude Lemand, in Paris. I hope to be part of the exhibition of Galerie Janine at the Abu Dhabi Art fair in November. I have a two-person exhibition together with Irish artist Helen O’Leary at Galerie Eulenspiegel in Basel in July 2016.