Lebanese artists and galleries have been prominent at the sixth edition of ArtDubai, the emirate’s yearly art fair. No place are they more conspicuous than in “Spectral Imprints,” a five-artist exhibition unveiled Tuesday at the Madina Jumeira fair site.
The first objects you encounter upon entering “Spectral Imprints” are “China,” an array of seven blue-and-white porcelain pots of Chinese design, all of varying style and dimensions.
Aficionados of Chinese porcelain production might be surprised to find that, rather than landscapes rendered in styles characteristic of that tradition, these works depict 20th-century battles, depicting figures from late-20th-century history.
The artist responsible for this mischievous work is 33-year-old Raed Yassin. He is likely best-known as a free-improv musician – he’s one of the founding members of Beirut’s Irtijal festival. In the last few years however, Yassin’s other art has exploded onto the international scene, revealing his imagination to be too restless to be restricted to a single medium, let alone one project at a time.
Yassin says he’d been thinking about “China” for some years now, though he suspected that it would be expensive to realize.
“I decided to select key battles from the Lebanese Civil War – the Battle of the Hotels, Tel al-Zaatar, the Harb al-Mukhayyamaat, the [’82] Israeli invasion. I decided to depict seven battles; it might have made more but that’s all a matter of interpretation. These battles all made a political and demographical change on the whole face of Lebanon.
“The War of the Hotels really moved Christians from the Downtown area, for instance,” he adds. “The Israeli invasion removed the Palestinians. The Mountain War removed Christians from the Chouf.”
Yassin says that because of the paucity of historical documentation of the Civil War years, “China” began as a research project, compiling stories collected from books and some interviews with people who’d experienced the events depicted. He credits Ramzi Haidar with giving him access to his private photo collection.
“The work is mostly about myth,” Yassin says, “how do fighters who’ve been in those traumatic events talk about it. I didn’t care about if it’s all true or not.”
In line with the Yassin’s indifference to documentary accuracy, the battles are depicted using motifs that casual onlookers might recognize from Persian miniatures.
“All the drawings are inspired by Safadi Islamic miniatures because that was the most-advanced painting style in the Arab world. It was perfected in Persia, yes, but it was also found in Turkey and Afghanistan and a little bit in the Arab world.
“Fire is drawn like this,” he gestures. “Clouds like this and the sea like this. There was some interpretation necessary for buildings because they didn’t exist in the originals. There were drawings of the Kaaba, for example, and some Islamic cities, so we copied these.
“China” echoes Yassin’s sound art, inasmuch as it is intensely collaborative. After the research, he commissioned Beirut artist and cartoonist Omar Khoury to work on depicting the battle scenes.
To make the pots, Yassin traveled to Jingdezehen, a city in Jiangxi province called China’s porcelain-production capital. There he commissioned five masters of porcelain painting to realize the work. The name of each battle is written on each vase in Chinese, along the with the name of the master and his stamp.
“They’re all handmade,” Yassin says. “But in China ‘handmade’ implies mass-production in a way because there’s millions of people working at it.
“For me this is a project with many layers,” he continues. “First we decided to make the work on vases ... a purely decorative item, because I felt that somehow I wanted to take my own history -- that has been used and used and used and reused in all topics, whether it be art and whatever – and remake it as a decorative piece.
“I wanted to keep it away from me,” he puts down the whiskey glass and pushes the air before him, “to have it just as an aesthetic piece that you might find in any Lebanese house.
“It’s a Chinese vase because I wanted [to] reference a mass-produced item ... Of course ... historically the Greeks, the Persians and the Ottomans documented battles and glorious moments in pottery. But it didn’t really flourish as much as much as calligraphic and floral designs.
“What also made this process so interesting is that this medium is extremely fragile. You could make a vase, paint it, put it in the kiln and when it opens, it’s broken.
“Another layer of the project was that I didn’t want to do it myself. I wanted to commission [craftsmen] to do it, to work with masters of different cultures to see how they perceived an idea that they have nothing to do with, a war that’s not theirs, a country that they really don’t know.”
He smiles. “In China no one knows where Lebanon is. They couldn’t understand Middle East so much either but they could understand “Arabo,” the Arab peoples ... In the mentality of the Arab world, China was as far away as you could go. So the project is called ‘China.’