DUBAI: When Sam Bardaouil and Till Fellrath began planning their curation of the Biennale de Lyon, in March 2020, the world was just beginning to wake up to the dangers of COVID-19.
Naturally, the disruption and damage of the pandemic ended up being a major influence – not just logistically (it was delayed a year), but thematically.
Bardaouil tells Arab News that the conversations he and Fellrath had with creatives all raised similar concerns. “We are all so aware of our fragility and our mortality, of the vulnerability of these structures that we have built – a virus and we are building from scratch. So there was this feeling of desperation. But, at the same time, people began to find ways to resist.
“We thought it would be important to talk about how this awareness of weakness could be the basis for a new way of thinking about forms of resistance that allow us to use this fragility as a springboard, instead of always put it aside. and always want more, stronger, better. Hence the theme of the biennale: “Manifesto of fragility”.
Bardaouil, who now lives in Berlin, is originally from Beirut, which in addition to the pandemic has also been through a financial and political meltdown and the horrific port explosion of August 2020 – which he says left residents of the city in a more difficult situation. reflux than ever before.
The curators wanted to find a way to “shed light on this decades-long antagonism (in Beirut) – between times of prosperity and well-being and a sense of self-confidence and accomplishment, and those lows where you feel you are at an impasse.
But they knew they couldn’t just get Beirut into the Biennale de Lyon. It turned out that they didn’t need it. History provided.
As the couple began to brainstorm ideas, they discovered that the two cities had been linked for hundreds of years, since Lyon was a major center of silk production and the region around Mount Lebanon became a source vital raw silk for local merchants. “In terms of size, it wasn’t the biggest,” Bardaouil explains. “But in terms of the power they had to monopolize the market, that was very significant.”
Wealthy families from Lyon began to acquire land in Lebanon, where they built factories to produce raw silk. By the 1850s it was a vital export and Lebanese farmers moved away from food crops to plant mulberry trees.
But then came the First World War. “And then, says Bardaouil, there is the famine. Because you can’t eat the leaves of the mulberry trees. So many people are forced to leave – this huge wave of emigration from Lebanon during the First World War to North America and other parts of the world, but also even earlier, because of the monopoly (from Lyon ), the farmers were still in debt to the agents who provided their money. So people started to emigrate in the 1870s and 1880s, and women started to enter the workforce. Many things we see today — the social status of Lebanese women; emigration; the rise of families that are still among the most dominant in politics and society – all traced back to silk and Lyon.
The ties deepened: Lyon silk merchants influenced the selection of the first French high commissioner in Lebanon and supported the Jesuits who established many of the country’s schools – not out of generosity, but to gain free labor. children’s work.
“It’s a very intriguing and ugly and beautiful story, all at the same time – an amalgamation of religion, politics, education and economics,” Bardaouil says.
The curators have enhanced this history with their usual flair. “We like to find entry points that bring a project into direct contact with its local context and then branch out into something more universal,” explains Bardaouil. The biennale therefore takes place in three stages. The first is centered on an individual: Louise Brunet, a Lyonnaise who took part in a revolt in 1834 against the terrible working conditions of the canuts, was sent to prison, then emigrated to work in a silk factory in Mount Lebanon, where she led a another revolt.
“For us, it has become this symbol of fragility and resistance”, explains Bardaouil. “We said to ourselves: ‘How many Louise Brunets are there in the world, throughout history?’ It could be a black woman brought from Senegal to pose as the wife of a Zulu chief during the 1894 colonial exhibition in Lyon. She could be a Japanese immigrant to America sent to a concentration camp after Pearl Harbor. It has become a metaphor, a symbol. In this section, we talk about the fragility of the race, the fragility of our bodies, our desires. All these things.”
From there, the show widens to look at an entire city as a symbol of fragility: Beirut. Specifically, its “Golden Age”, from the end of the French Mandate to the start of the Civil War, in five stages, spanning artists’ depictions of place, the body (including the women’s liberation movement), of form (the different styles that artists in Lebanon adopted), politics and war.
For the third part of the show, “A world of endless promises”, Bardaouil and Fellrath invited artists from around the world “to reflect with us on our fragility and the different forms of resistance. How to move forward using this fragility as a platform? How do we live in the world?
Through the works displayed in the middle section of the exhibition, Bardaouil says, “We wanted to celebrate these artists and tell them, ‘Look, this city has given so much. He was a major contributor to the language and practice of modernism. But at the same time, it’s a bit of a cautionary tale. Because if it was such a golden age, then how come we had a civil war a few years later, the repercussions of which are still with us today?
The nostalgia surrounding this period in Lebanon’s history is something Bardaouil has known since childhood – when clichés like “The Arab Riviera” or “The Paris of the East” were common.
“Child, of course, your eyes sparkle; it’s so exciting to hear,” he says. “I grew up in the heart of the Civil War, so it was completely foreign. But, still, you absorb it and it inspires you. And, at some point, people stop wondering if it’s Because you want to hold on to this idea that if it happened before, it could happen again – it becomes a form of potential redemption.
As Lebanon became a revered cultural mecca in the 1950s and 1960s – home to an influx of activists, artists, writers and intellectuals who had no platform in their own country – this posed its own problems, Bardaouil points out.
“It has become a flourishing place for all these ideas and projects and, sometimes, irreconcilable ideologies. And at some point, it became untenable,” he says. “There were people who benefited and others who did not. Some people felt empowered, others felt marginalized. And all of these things escalated until it came to a head in 1975.”
Bardaouil speaks of an “adoptive amnesia” that afflicted his country. “This is one of the biggest problems we face in Lebanon,” he said. “It’s almost like a national myth. But once you start looking at it, you better understand why we are here. The problems of the moment are related to what happened at the time. The topics covered in the biennale can, he hopes, lead to “moments of crystallization”.
Attempting to open up such conversations can be seen as a form of activism, he argues, “because you’re trying to challenge people on what they’ve taken for granted. And we can never find a common path if we all come from completely different ways of thinking about our past.
“That’s where this exhibit becomes more than just beautiful works of art,” he continues. “He said, ‘Wait! It’s not as simplistic or linear as one might think. It’s a lot more complicated, and we have to untangle it to find something we can all agree on.