TAK­ING BACK THE STREETS

The artist ght­ing po­lit­i­cal fac­tions in Beirut with a spray can

Emirates Man - - CULTURE -

There is an al­ter­na­tive voice ris­ing,” says Yazan Hal­wani, a young Le­banese street artist. “I’m not go­ing to say that what I do is go­ing to free Le­banon or change the sec­tar­ian po­lit­i­cal sys­tem, or x any re­gional prob­lem. But it tells peo­ple that you don’t have to ac­cept what’s al­ready there.”

Hal­wani has just nished uni­ver­sity for the day when we catch up, his English car­ry­ing more than the hint of a French ac­cent. On oc­ca­sion he talks 19 to the dozen, such is his pas­sion for graf ti, cal­lig­ra­phy and the recla­ma­tion of Beirut’s streets from the clutches of the city’s myr­iad po­lit­i­cal par­ties.

Fol­low­ing a brief mis­un­der­stand­ing in Fe­bru­ary this year, the pos­si­bil­ity that much of his work – and that of other graf ti artists – would be re­moved by Beirut Mu­nic­i­pal­ity has re­ceded, leav­ing him free to plan a sum­mer of­fen­sive on the city’s bat­tered and bruised ur­ban land­scape. He’s also free to con­tinue to re­place the im­agery of po­lit­i­cal pro­pa­ganda that plagues Beirut with more in­spi­ra­tional cul­tural icons.

“My main ob­jec­tive is to try and loosen the po­lit­i­cal grip,” he says. “That is why I paint Fairuz or Mah­moud Dar­wish or Ali Ab­dul­lah, the home­less man who used to live on Bliss Street. Th­ese are the true faces of Beirut. The true gures of our so­ci­ety should not be po­lit­i­cal, but rather cul­tural or artis­tic.

“For Fairuz, I al­ways knew peo­ple living around the mu­ral identi ed with it and pro­tected it from posters or from be­ing painted over. But if you grow up in this city, as a kid you might see th­ese po­lit­i­cal par­ties and their lead­ers and think they’re he­roes. They’re ev­ery­where. The real peo­ple that con­trol the city are not – if you want – cul­tured, or the big­gest icons are not cul­tured. They’re mainly po­lit­i­cal. That’s be­cause of how well they dif­fuse their mes­sages in the street. So the idea is to – not my­self re­claim the city – but try to re­place them with more pos­i­tive gures.” Is it work­ing? “They have weapons and po­lit­i­cal par­ties are ter­ri­to­rial, so if you do some­thing they feel is loos­en­ing their con­trol they can get an­gry, and they have the up­per hand. You have to tell them what you’re do­ing is not there to re­place them, although that’s what I’m try­ing to do.

“There has been, if you like, a rise in the street artist’s opin­ion. It’s not only artis­tic, it’s about cul­ture, but the work has a po­lit­i­cal voice too with­out ac­tu­ally sup­port­ing po­lit­i­cal fac­tions.

“It’s about cul­ture, but the work has a po­lit­i­cal voice too with­out ac­tu­ally sup­port­ing po­lit­i­cal fac­tions”

“There should be an ap­pro­pri­a­tion of mu­ral paint­ing or street art as some­thing that so­lid­i­fies the link be­tween the peo­ple and their cul­ture” Hal­wani is a street artist try­ing to res­cue Beirut’s streets from the clutches of the city’s myr­iad po­lit­i­cal par­ties

Yazan

It’s about be­ing en­gaged in the com­mu­nity and not just say­ing, this is a pretty wall’ and that’s it. It’s about tak­ing con­trol.”

Orig­i­nally a tra­di­tional tag­ger, Hal­wani has em­braced cal­ligraf ti, merg­ing Ara­bic cal­lig­ra­phy with graf ti art, and has sought to cre­ate mu­rals that so­lid­ify the link be­tween the peo­ple of Beirut, their cul­ture and the Ara­bic lan­guage. His style in­cor­po­rates Ku an an­gu­lar script that is made up of short s uare and hor­i­zon­tal strokes , Di­wani a com­plex cur­sive style of Ara­bic cal­lig­ra­phy and Thu­luth a cur­sive script de­signed with curved and obli ue lines , while his process of cre­ation utilises nu­mer­ous techni ues. Th­ese in­clude sten­cilling, the use of string and chalk for cer­tain geo­met­ric pat­terns, brushes and acrylic paint for cal­lig­ra­phy, and spray paint for the por­traits them­selves. He also in­cor­po­rates cal­lig­ra­phy into faces as a means of shad­ing, with the words re­lay­ing mes­sages. The Dar­wish mu­ral in­cluded the uote “On this land, there’s what’s worth living for.”

“I’m try­ing to in­vent a style that’s cul­tur­ally ap­pro­pri­ate to the re­gion and is dif­fer­ent,” says Hal­wani, who stud­ies com­puter and com­mu­ni­ca­tion en­gi­neer­ing at the Amer­i­can Uni­ver­sity Of Beirut. “There should be, if you want, an ap­pro­pri­a­tion of mu­ral paint­ing or street art as some­thing that so­lidi es the link be­tween the peo­ple and their cul­ture, es­pe­cially that in Le­banon, and even the Ara­bic lan­guage it­self, which is cur­rently pass­ing through a cul­tural cri­sis. This is why I picked up a cal­lig­ra­phy book. This is why I’m mov­ing to­wards an Arabes ue, Ori­en­tal ap­pro­pri­a­tion of the space. It’s far from the street art feel of go­ing against the sys­tem, be­cause we don’t re­ally have a strong sys­tem. It’s more about mak­ing graf ti for the peo­ple of the city. It’s about land­marks or pieces that the peo­ple iden­tify with be­cause graf ti is not about the artist, it’s about the peo­ple that live around it.”

It is easy to de­tect a sense of re­spon­si­bil­ity to­wards public spa­ces when talk­ing to Hal­wani. No doubt other Beirut street artists feel the same way, in­clud­ing Ali Rafei and twins Mo­hamed and Omar Kab­bani, who go un­der the name Ashek­man. He of­ten re­moves posters be­fore do­ing his work, and one of the suc­cesses of the Fairuz mu­ral was its in­te­gra­tion into the build­ings around it. It sits well not only with the colours of the streets, but with the ar­chi­tec­ture of the build­ing it­self. In­ter­est­ingly, Hal­wani some­times views him­self as po­lit­i­cally in­cor­rect, inas­much that he at­tempts to beau­tify the city with­out tak­ing per­mis­sion, whereas every­body else de­stroys the city with­out per­mis­sion.

“There is this kind of men­tal­ity some­times in Beirut where you feel that public spa­ces are there for cit­i­zens to abuse. The streets are not yours so you can abuse them. This is some­thing I’ve felt when some­one sees me paint­ing and they ask me, ‘Why are you wast­ing your money on a wall that is not yours?’”

In a sense, those who be­lieve he is wast­ing his money have a point. raf ti is not cheap for an artist to pro­duce. As such, Hal­wani has delved into the com­mer­cial world, cre­at­ing work for gal­leries and art fairs, as well as in­di­vid­ual com­mis­sioned pieces for pri­vate col­lec­tors. His mixed me­dia work on can­vas of the iconic Syr­ian singer As­ma­han, pro­duced for the 2013 Beirut Art Fair, is an ex­am­ple of the kind of sought-af­ter work he pro­duces, although it is pos­si­ble to level crit­i­cism at a street artist who has moved to gal­leries.

“Work­ing on can­vas is not like work­ing on a wall,” he says. “It’s a dif­fer­ent me­dia, but it’s also a chal­lenge. The type of graf ti that I do, in Le­banon es­pe­cially, and in the cul­tural con­text, is no longer a kind of anti-sys­tem thing, it’s more about graf ti for the peo­ple. Street art has an ephemeral na­ture, so I see can­vases as sev­eral things. The rst one is the con­cept of cre­at­ing work that is not go­ing to dis­ap­pear. It’s like tak­ing a pic­ture to save my work, be­cause in the street it might get de­stroyed, it might get painted over, it might fade away. Can­vases are snapshots of the graf ti I do.

“The sec­ond – to be very prag­matic about things – is that the can­vases are also a source of nanc­ing for the mu­rals in the ab­sence of cul­tural in­fra­struc­ture in the re­gion. In Le­banon es­pe­cially, you can­not nance your work in the street un­less you do work for ad­ver­tis­ing com­pa­nies and brands. I do not like to as­so­ciate my style with a cer­tain brand. I won’t pro­mote some­thing I do not be­lieve in. It’s not about mak­ing a prod­uct and sell­ing it. It’s about a con­cept, a mes­sage and a strong be­lief. This is why the only way to con­tinue cre­at­ing artis­tic mu­rals in the street in the ab­sence of cul­tural in­fra­struc­ture is to ac­tu­ally do some gallery work.”

The third rea­son cited by Hal­wani is the chal­lenge of cre­at­ing work that will be cri­tiqued. “If you want to de­velop and make sure what you’re giv­ing to the streets is the best you can do, you have to go to a gallery and be crit­i­cised,” he says.

Ei­ther way, his work has moved far be­yond the early days of tag­ging. He sketches, reads Ara­bic po­etry, lis­tens to the news, uses public trans­port wher­ever pos­si­ble, and walks. Walks a lot. Mainly to iden­tify po­ten­tial walls for fu­ture work.

“I have a col­lec­tion of lo­ca­tions, cal­lig­ra­phy, pat­terns, quotes, po­etry, and of por­traits most of all, and I col­lect them with­out any­thing in mind. Then, when­ever I nd a lo­ca­tion, I group them on a sketch, but the most im­por­tant thing is to be con­tex­tu­ally rel­e­vant.”

And there’s no trou­ble with the lo­cal law? “No.” So what hap­pened with Beirut Mu­nic­i­pal­ity back in Fe­bru­ary?

“There was a bit of dis­tor­tion of the ac­tual story,” he replies. “They were re­mov­ing po­lit­i­cal em­blems and signs and ags be­cause po­lit­i­cal par­ties in Beirut have a some­what ag­gres­sive pres­ence on the street. By ac­ci­dent the mu­nic­i­pal­ity re­moved some graf ti and ru­mours spread that the mu­nic­i­pal­ity was go­ing to re­move my work speci cally, or the works of a few other peo­ple. But the gover­nor of Beirut said there was no de­ci­sion to ac­tu­ally re­move the graf ti. He then in­vited artists to ap­ply for per­mis­sion to get their graf ti done and said he would re-is­sue the per­mits for the graf ti that was erased.” So Beirut tol­er­ates graf ti? “We have al­ways been lucky in that sense,” he says. “It’s eas­ier to do than in other coun­tries and there is no for­mal penalty even if you do it il­le­gally. I guess we are kind of a graf ti heaven.”

“I’m not try­ing to repli­cate, I’m try­ing to in­vent a style that’s cul­tur­ally ap­pro­pri­ate to the re­gion and is dif­fer­ent”

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