Art at MACAM
© Courtesy of MACAM
Art at MACAM
Last updated: November 25, 2014

Art and amnesia in Lebanon

Banner Icon Victor Argo meets with Lebanon's artsy elite and asks whether the Lebanese are in fact world champions at forgetting.

MACAM, Lebanon’s modern and contemporary art museum, is located on the hilltop of Alita, in the district of Jbeil/Byblos. It was inaugurated in June 2013, in two industrial halls with high ceilings that used to be factories for lime, paint and blackboards for schools.

When I visited MACAM last summer, I was lucky to meet the two co-founders of the museum, Cesar Nammour and Gabriela Schaub. Cesar was particularly proud of the various installations from Lebanese artists such as Mario Saba that he was able to show me. “The MACAM is a museum second and a documentation center first,” he told me.

SINCE THE 1980s there has been a lot of installation art in Lebanon. But once exhibitions ended, installations were dismantled and disappeared. Lebanese are world champions at forgetting - their past, their present, their future - and MACAM makes it a goal to document the art of Lebanon and preserve it for the generations after.

“In our first year of existence,” Gabriela said, “we received over 3,000 visitors that came especially to see the museum, although we are 37 km away from Beirut. For Lebanese standards this is quite far.” “Unfortunately,” she went on, “the museum’s non-Lebanese visitors were small in number due to the insecure situation in the country.”

"Cesar was particularly proud of the various installations from Lebanese artists"

In order to start their adventure, Cesar and Gabriela were successful in having 400 sculptures by 65 Lebanese artists to be exhibited in the museum. They have a special love and relationship with the Basbous brothers, the Lebanese master sculptors of the 20th century. In fact, a retrospective that presents wood sculptures of Youssef Basbous has just opened at MACAM; it will run until April of 2015.

When I strolled through the MACAM, hearing Cesar Nammour speak about “documenting and preserving art,” I involuntarily started to think about Lebanon, its identity as a nation and its national character. Why is it that many things in Lebanon are being destroyed – consciously or mindlessly? Why is it that only a few things in Lebanon seem to be given a lasting value? I had more questions than answers.

Public space means little in Lebanon. Its importance for the society is not recognized, its maintenance often neglected. The private space on the other hand is almost sacred. Apartments and restaurants in Lebanon are proof of the sure taste and the flair for style that many Lebanese possess.

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Is art in Lebanon seen as a public good and therefore only a second rate commodity? Does Lebanon, as a distinctive “throw away society,” also trash art easily? With Cesar, I tried to go to the root of the problem. “Is there such a thing as a national identity in Lebanon, a collective Lebanese memory,” I asked him. “Or is the immense diversity of Lebanon precisely an obstacle for this?”

Cesar Nammour’s reply was well conceived and explained the state of the Lebanese as much as it is explainable. “When Lebanon was established as greater Lebanon in 1920,” he said, “it was against the will of many factions of society who opposed its creation. When all the factions agreed in 1943 on an independent Lebanon from the French mandate, each faction imagined Lebanon in a different way, so until today there is no unity in perception of what Lebanon is.”

CESAR THEN TALKED about the war. “The civil war of 1975 to 1990 is viewed in so many ways. Lebanon does not have a national identity; the Lebanese citizen is loyal to his religion or her political leader, but not to the nation. Memory to each faction is different. We do not have one memory.”

“And that is why,” Cesar concluded his lecture, “there is always an eraser of facts rather than an accumulation of facts to create one solid memory for a national identity.”

How important is it for a nation to have a collective memory? How much of the past needs to be retained and restored? Back at my apartment, I googled for scientists like Maurice Halbwachs who argued that history is the largest element in men’s self-conception, because: “for a man to lose his memory, to lose his past, is to lose himself.”

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Yet other scientists made equally pervasive claims on behalf of collective amnesia and social forgetfulness. Must a people forget in order to make its history, and the memory of past events, bearable? Or in Lebanon’s case: what did the civil war and the horror of these 15 years do to the minds of the Lebanese?

“Injuries too well remembered cannot heal,” Benjamin Barber wrote. David Lowenthal went even further in his book The Art of Forgetting when he underscored the close etymological connection of “amnesia” with “amnesty.”

French historian Pierre Nora finally evoked the pitfalls of a collective memory when he noted that “the representations of collective memory are those that have been selected by those in power; collective memory is both a tool and an object of power.”

"What did the civil war and the horror of these 15 years do to the minds of the Lebanese?"

That made sense. Destroying all the memories thus means not giving power to anybody. It’s a somewhat childish behavior. “This is not my toy but it’s not yours either, because I broke it.” Welcome to Lebanon’s reality! Welcome to the fractured, ungovernable Lebanon. No memory, no president, no power, no tourists!

But let’s return to the MACAM, to Cesar Nammour and Gabriela Schaub. “What are your plans for 2015?” I asked them. “With MACAM,” they replied, “we will enter the age of iron in 2015. We will have a competition and an exhibition that will feature Lebanese artists who have excelled in iron artworks.” The plans don’t stop there: “beyond sculpture and installation art, another future project is to open a new hall for Lebanese paintings and photography, to reach a wider public.”

AS A RULE, the Lebanese can’t agree on anything. They can’t agree on which lane to drive, or whether to leave the country or stay. Some want to smoke a thick cigar in bars and clubs while others want smoking banned in all public places. It would only be fitting if the Lebanese couldn’t agree on the significance of art.

Cesar had the final word, and once again his idealistic side came through. “We established the museum with a deep belief in the positive role of art in a society,” he said. “MACAM aims at preserving the memory of art in Lebanon, as art is a unifying factor to its people.”

And unity is everything this country needs!

Victor  Argo
Victor Argo, which is a pseudonym, regularly writes for Your Middle East. He is personally connected to Lebanon.
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