Renowned artist Mouna Bassili Sehnaoui on painting the Lebanese civil war

September 12, 2012

Any discussion about contemporary Lebanese art is inescapably fraught with questions about the Civil War and the ongoing regional conflicts that more often than not find a buffer zone in Lebanon. All of this has led to the assumption that the prism of war – or the denial of it thereof – is the sole identity of Lebanese art; and, as is the case with the Arab ‘Spring’, collectors and buyers in the West tend to have preconceived expectations that glorify the images of war when it comes to Lebanon.In speaking about this fascination on the part of Western collectors, Lebanese artist Bernard Khoury notes that local artists are ‘prisoners of war’ – or at least, of the depictions they make of it. In his opinion, Lebanese artists are either trapped in the romantic images of Lebanon during the years between its independence in 1943 and the Civil War in 1975, or are portraying Lebanon exclusively through the prism of war. His luminous fresco, Catherine Wants to Know (2009), which mixes images from other contemporary artists depicting both views of an idyllic pre-war Lebanon and of war-torn Beirut, reflects on this practice.

There is no doubt that Khoury is reflecting on certain trends and practices, and obviously on the demands and expectations of the market for Middle Eastern art in general. However, there is more than meets the eye. At the recent edition of the Beirut Art Fair (2012), no fewer than twenty galleries represented the Lebanese art scene; and, while images of war occupy an undeniable place of their own, they by no means account for all the subjects explored in Lebanese art. In a country comprised of many different communities and influences, it can hardly be said that there are any ‘common’ themes or styles.