Leonardo Da Vinci famously said that “black is not a color.” Perhaps he was right — but however we choose to define it, black is most certainly back, and reconfigured, in the exhibition Nine Shades of Black, showing in Beirut from May 13 until June 14 at Galerie Tanit.
The exhibit, which was curated by Naila Kettaneh Kunigk, featured sculptures, photographs and paintings which formed a visual conversation between the nine exhibiting artists from Syria, Lebanon, the United States and Switzerland, including Gilbert Hage, Serge Najjar and Fadi Yazigi.
At the opening, upon entering the newly renovated gallery space, visitors were confronted with the largest of all the artworks, by the renowned Lebanese artist Jean Marc Nahas: Beyrouth mon amour, which covered the whole length of the gallery wall. On closer inspection, one could see that it is made of countless squares, each singularly depicting scenes in the artist’s typical monochrome, cartoon-like style. The details and large scale kept many visitors transfixed.
Black at its darkest was evident in the works of Syrian sculptor Fadi Yazigi. Two of his pieces, Donkey from 2010, and King Quasimodo from 2008, date from before Syria’s revolution-turned-war. Both are pleasing bronzes with rounded, recognisable polished curves. In stark contrast to these are Yazigi’s more recent works: I Will Never Leave The Horse Again from 2012 and Tree from 2013. Haunted by death and reminiscent of war, the former bronze is a doll-like creature that hanged limply, body nailed to the gallery wall. The other, smaller, sculpture is sharp-edged and resembles a mound of shrapnel over a living tree.
Yazigi said, in regards to the contrasts in his pieces, “My work has not changed because of the war in Syria, the war has quite simply changed me,” and continued, “For better, for worse, I don’t know but certainly for the real.” Yazigi lives in Damascus with his wife and two children. Although he continues to see his country torn apart by the war, he is planning on staying for now. “I am Syrian and that makes it hard enough to imagine leaving my country. As an artist I feel a sense of responsibility to resist this reality in my way.”
Reflexivity and continuity were themes evident in all the showcased works. Lebanese artist Gilbert Hage’s photographs Anonymes#1-4 from 2002 showed bold and simultaneously delicate portraits of everyday people in the street. “These are people who are no longer consumers in the capitalist system that we live in. They are not interesting, non-existent almost and yet they are everywhere, we just don’t take any notice of them,” Hage said.
He never tires of this subject, he explained, and has collected countless street portraits from Damascus, Beirut and San Paolo over the years. From far away, Hage’s photos are so underexposed that they resemble black squares — but as you approach them, the highly defined faces within reveal themselves. “As soon as the viewer takes renewed interest in these people, they begin to exist again,” he said.
Similarly exploring the relationship between the viewer and the artwork was the Lebanese artist Serge Najjar. Five of his bold works had many onlookers confused by the playful manipulation of reality and imagination. While a traditional trompe l’oeil replicates and reinvents reality, Najjar’s works do the opposite: they are photographs with all the visual qualities of paintings. His works are perfectly clean cut, yet compositionally abstract, featuring images of Lebanese cityscapes. “I want my art to make the viewer see the visionary in the everyday. This country has enough to inspire any artist,” he said.
There was also a series from 2012 of twelve abstract etchings, exhibited by late American artist John Chamberlain. In another series, Lebanese artist Nadim Asfar presented eight monochrome photos called Nocturne #1-8. Finally, the late Swiss artist Michael Biberstein’s works completede the group exhibition: Bleu Lift from 1994 and Attracter from 1995, which are reminiscent of his impressive use of three-dimensional light on two-dimensional surfaces.
Gilbert Hage, Serge Najjar and Fadi Yazigi, the three artists that were present when the exhibition opened, all have an isolationist quality to their work. Exhibited together, their works stood momentarily supporting the underlying theme of black, from where everything begins and ends. They all expressed the importance of re-contextualising their works within new environments: in Yazigi’s words, “Space is everything, especially for a 3D sculpture, and it is an honour to be exhibiting among such diverse art forms.”