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Civil war plunged Lebanon into a swamp of blood and tears for sixteen years and raged with unimaginable cruelty among all strata, from the grandees to the masses. Three years after the end of the war, Christine Tohmé, a young woman from Beirut, founded Ashkal Alwan, The Lebanese Association for Plastic Arts. In the middle of a destroyed Beirut and in accordance with Joseph Beuys’ dictum, she shows her and everyone’s wounds. In 1994, she began staging interventions in public space with her nonprofit organization.
Ashkal Alwan (Of Colors and Forms) sees itself as an art association "with no permanent address" that offers a platform for artists from the region wherever it is necessary. Among the declared goals are the critical questioning of curatorial activities, the documentation of artistic actions, and the attempt to give art projects an institutional framework. Ashkal Alwan’s open structure enables Christine Tohmé and her associates to organize exhibitions, to act as the producers of videos and performances, to take responsibility for publications, and to open up temporary sites for contemporary art. The founding members were Christine Tohmé, Marwan Rechmaoui, Leila Mroueh, Rania Tabbara, and Mustapha Yamout.
Broadly conceived and including the widest possible spectrum of art forms, Ashkal Alwan has developed into an unrenouncable instrument of artistic production far beyond Beirut and Lebanon. In the Middle East – countries without an academic tradition of contemporary visual art – Ashkal Alwan has become an important mediation partner, more than ever. Where and how else can new productions be discussed across borders in an intercultural dialog within the region? Ashkal Alwan is the interface and control room of the art scene and has had a special position since its founding. Christine Tohmé has skillfully created a network that is borne by national and international supporters and funders. Perhaps one can and must criticize it for depending too much on foreign money and the moods of funders. But what else can one do when there is no state funding available or in view? This circumstance changes nothing about the necessity of the platform: the latter is given, and more urgent than ever.
Christine Tohmé, mother of a teenage daughter and not an artist herself, never says anything in the context of the productions she organizes. She retires completely behind the works and artists, acting in the background. This is why Christine Tohmé, the real initiator of the art miracle of Beirut, is so much in the shadow of Cathérine David and David’s field research in the Arab world that she has remained relatively unknown in Germany.
The first international Festival Home Works was held in Beirut in April 2002. The concept of the "home works" that Christine Tohmé developed for Ashkal Alwan is that international experts will discuss artistic production on site and from the region every 18 months. In April 2002, when the second Intifada had just erupted, questions of geographical and emotional alienation were the central theme of this first multi-national festival. Organized under difficult conditions, works by artists from Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine, and Syria were shown. Six months after the American invasion of Iraq, in October 2003, the focus of Home Works II was on Beirut, the Middle East’s cabinet of wonders and a catalyst between East and West. Issues of the perhaps already only archaeological term "homeland" suggested themselves. In November 2005 – the murder of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri had made a 6-month postponement unavoidable – the festival met again for the third time to discuss and analyze developments, progress, and setbacks in the continuing contention between global and local interests, political realities, and urban dreams. (See the article on Home Works III in this magazine .)
It all began in Sanayeh Garden, one of Beirut’s oldest gardens, when twenty artists exhibited their works in public space for a week in 1995. The formerly illustrious business street, rue Hamra, and the shore promenade Corniche became the playing fields for Beirut’s avant-garde. Ashkal Alwan co-produced Walid Raad’s performance "My neck is thinner than a hair" and presented it in Beirut, directly on site, to the critical perusal of the survivors of the civil war. Christine Tohmé said: "From the experience of organizing three editions of the Home Works Forum, it is no longer self-evident for us to assume that a platform makes true dialogue and cultural exchange possible. What the Home Works Forum allow for, rather, is a productive space in which political, social, economic and cultural realities can be explored, reflected, and made manifest as visual and verbal articulations that occur with some consistency. These articulations have become our obsessions."
Curator and cultural publicist, lives in Berlin. Communications director at Art Forum Berlin.
Chirine Abou Chakra