After 20 years of exile in Switzerland and France, Houssam Bokeili returned to his native Lebanon in 1994. In the same year, he exhibited his newest oil paintings at the French Cultural Center of Beirut. The series embodies the awe of an artist confronted by marks of violence disfiguring his country. A piercing evocation of the civil war, The Butcher shows a butcher shop in which human bodies have replaced dead meat. And in the background, boys play football on the street without noticing. During the display last May of the exhibit A bus and its replicas at Beirut’s The Hangar, Houssam Bokeili explained the genesis of this particular painting to Mashallah News.
“In 1975, I was nine years old. When I came back to my childhood neighbourhood Basta in 1994, the population had changed a lot. Before my departure, it was very mixed. Similarly to the area Dahiye, before the war, Basta used to have 70% Christians, Sunnis, Armenians, Druze and 30% Shias. It has changed now, with all the population transfers.
When you arrive after 20 years of absence, you don’t find what you’re looking for.
When you arrive after 20 years of absence, you don’t find what you’re looking for. Originally, I wanted to see a toy shop that I used to like as a kid and I was planning to paint it. I looked around in the nearby streets, but there was nothing left of this shop. Instead, I found the butcher shop which, from a distance, looked exactly the same.
When I saw his shop again, even though the butcher was clearly the same person, the place was dramatically transformed.
The butcher used to be a real craftsman, taking his work very seriously. He was cleanly dressed, and I remembered his utensils always being perfectly in order. But when I saw his shop again, even though the butcher was clearly the same person, the place was dramatically transformed. The meat was hanging out in the open air, there was blood everywhere.
How is it possible not to evolve, and how is it possible to do a lesser job after once having been a qualified craftsman?
I couldn’t understand how this man could have changed like this. I needed to express this idea. I needed to say, in one way or the other, that people had changed, and how. How is it possible not to evolve, and how is it possible to do a lesser job after once having been a qualified craftsman?”