A week before the August 4 blast at the port that ripped apart downtown Beirut, Lebanese artist Abed Al Kadiri was celebrating his latest exhibition at Galerie Tanit, only a few hundred feet from the port.
The mostly black paintings that made up “Remains of the Last Red Rose” were intended as a reflection of the despair felt by many Lebanese people, suffering under the weight of popular protests, economic collapse and the coronavirus pandemic.
Kadiri could never have imaged how much darker Beirut would get.
Now, a new project in the shape of two large murals has taken form at what remains of the gallery, titled “Today, I Would Like to be a Tree,” with the aim of countering the destruction around it and raising money for those who lost their homes in the blast.
“I was on my way to the gallery when the blast went off,” Kadiri told Al Arabiya English. “I continued on, not realizing the scale of the explosion. The gallery was destroyed – all the walls had collapsed and my paintings were under the rubble. It was a shocking experience.”
Many residents of the Mar Mikhael building housing Galerie Tanit died in the explosion, which killed 191 people, including the gallery’s architect Jean-Marc Bonfils. Kadiri’s paintings and the walls they hung on were obliterated by 2,750 metric tons of ammonium nitrate, which are believed to have caught fire after being stored under unsafe conditions for seven years.
Over the last two weeks, Kadiri has spent 12 hours a day working on the new project, seeking to pay tribute to the late architect, as well as work through some of the emotional trauma wrought by the blast.
“One week after the explosion I had this vision of the gallery full of trees and I felt I have to do it. I’ve always felt that the only place I feel at peace and full of serenity is when I’m next to trees,” Kadiri said. “It adds to the pain we all felt because it was my show at the gallery. I felt like I was responsible somehow, like it was my duty to create an alternative element to counter the destruction.”
Rendered in charcoal, the first finished mural shows a black and gray forest, with a red moon hanging ominously in the sky. Kadiri intends to finish the second forest in the next two weeks.
The murals are split into 80 cardboard panels, and each will be sold for a starting price of $500, with the goal of earning upwards of $40,000 for relief and reconstruction. All proceeds will to the non-governmental organization BASSMA, which is helping to rebuild homes of those affected by the blast.
The project has also been a healing process for Kadiri, who said he has always found solace in Lebanon’s forests-filled mountains and the ability of nature to creep back into even the most desolate places. Despite using the tree as a metaphor for endurance in the face a storm, Kadiri stressed that the project is in no way an act of hope or resilience.
“Many of us Lebanese have lost hope and can’t think about it anymore,” Kadiri said. “All I’m trying to do is, as an artist, is to create a different image and say, ‘Ok, I didn’t die.’ I don’t want to say I was lucky, but so long as I’m still able to do what I’m good at and continue, then I can help.”
Kadiri decided to divide the murals into panels not only to sell off individually, but also to replicate the imagery of entire buildings reduced to fragments and the notion of something whole now in pieces. At the same time, anyone purchasing a piece will have a piece of something that connects them to the others.
With Kadiri camped out at what remains of the once popular art venue, gallery owner Naila Kettaneh-Kunigk is using the time to take stock of the damages and consider how to rebuild Galerie Tanit in the future.
Some temporary brick walls will be put in place and windows will be repaired to seal the place in preparation for the rainy season. Many of the artworks kept in storage were destroyed and everything is being kept at a freely offered storage unit, waiting to be looked over.
With uncertainty over how much damage, if any, insurance companies will cover, the costs may be considerable, especially where artwork is concerned.
“The gallery will cost between $300,000 -$400,000 [to rebuild]…but the objects are irreplaceable,” she said.
While one painting is intact, but its frame is broken, one sculpture has been reduced to 3,000 pieces.
“I have every intention of reopening but we need to see with our program of artists how we will continue and what it will be about.”