Moved by the Moun­tain

From the riverbeds at its foothills to the heights of its snowy sum­mit, Mount San­nine has fas­ci­nated Le­banese painter Chaouki Chamoun since child­hood

Lebanon Traveler - - REGION THROUGH AN ARTIST'S EYES - Amy E. Robert­son, chau­

Born in the vil­lage of Sari­ine, in Le­banon’s Bekaa Val­ley, fac­ing the east side of the ma­jes­tic Mount San­nine, Chaouki Chamoun is one of Le­banon’s most renowned living ar tists. Although he lef t his bir th­place decades ago, it lives on in both his heart and his work. Though no writ­ten records ex­ist, Chamoun es­ti­mates that his fam­ily’s his­tor y in the vil­lage dates back at least a few hun­dred years. A smile cr inkles the cor­ners of Chamoun’s mouth when he rem­i­nisces about his child­hood. “When I lived in Sar iine as a child I al­ways felt that it was where the world ends… That sense of as­ton­ish­ment has lef t its mark on me in many dif fer­ent ways. Be­ing the son of an army man and a peas­ant fam­ily, I felt I was al­ways par t of that hard­work­ing land­scape of the town. It was an in­cred­i­ble, lively life that I lived as a child.” When Chamoun was just 11, the owner of a board­ing school came to Sari­ine and no­ticed his ar tis­tic tal­ent. His par­ents were only able to send him to school by pay­ing the fees in crops rather than cash. Chamoun went on to study art at the Le­banese Uni­ver­sity, grad­u­at­ing in 1972 at the top of his class. He was granted a schol­ar­ship to at­tend grad­u­ate school in the U.S., where he worked and ex­hib­ited for the next six years. “[Back then] I was mov­ing back and forth be­tween Le­banon and the U.S. un­til 2004… but the schol­ar­ship was granted with the in­ten­tion that I come back and teach, and that was al­ways on my con­science,” Chamoun says, who has taught at the Le­banese Amer­i­can Uni­ver­sity since 1997. “Although I ex­celled and ex­hib­ited in the U.S., I al­ways felt a sense of be­long­ing to the cul­ture of this countr y. This is the land of my an­cestr y, and the Le­banese have a spe­cial at­tach­ment to their land, to the peo­ple. Le­banon is where I feel I’m [paint­ing] a sub­ject mat­ter that has mean­ing to me.” Chamoun’s at­tach­ment to the land shines through in his break­out Riverbed se­ries. “I spent a lot of time at Nahr el Kelb and did many land­scapes there. I climbed up the moun­tain and looked down [at the riverbed] from the top, to see it from a new an­gle. That was the time when I started to ex­pe­ri­ence ab­stract art, mod­ernism. I went to the U.S. and be­came aware of the achieve­ments of Amer­i­can ab­stract ex­pres­sion­ists such as Franken­thaler, Pol­lock, New­man. I felt ver y at­tached to their work. It was then that the Riverbed se­ries came to fruition, and I cre­ated many paint­ings be­tween 1974 and 1977. Even when I moved to other things, the Riverbed con­cept re­mained part of my paint­ing land­scape.” While Chamoun no longer vis­its Sar iine of ten, he stays con­nected to his moun­tain through his sum­mer­house in Dhour Choueir. “I see San­nine from the other side, from a dis­tance. Our house is on the top of a hill, and we have a beau­ti­ful view of the west side of San­nine. It br ings back mem­o­ries, and I still feel the con­nec­tion with my child­hood. When I look at and draw San­nine, it’s still the moun­tain from my child­hood.” Mount San­nine fea­tured in Chamoun’s 2014 ex­hi­bi­tion, Peace in Wait­ing, at the Mark Hachem Galler y in Beirut; the moun­tain’s im­pos­ing size is ac­cen­tu­ated by a line of small fig­ures at its base, a de­tail re­peated in his paint­ings of the Ara­bian Deser t. “Up to this mo­ment I feel that I haven’t even scratched the sur­face of Le­banon’s land­scape. It has touched my hear t in so many ways,” he says, adding, “When the snow cov­ers San­nine it makes me for­get sad­ness in the eyes of ear th.”

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