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Profile: Artist Magda Chaaban, whose work depicts history and seeks to instill hope

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Visual artist Magda Chaaban seeks to instill hope and inspire people to see Lebanon’s capital Beirut through her eyes during these trying times.

Chaaban is a Lebanese-American painter, sculptor, and author. She told Al Arabiya English in an interview that art was very important to Lebanese society. Aside from being a vessel for driving change, art depicts history in a way that history book cannot, she said.

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“In my opinion, I think art is the most important vehicle for social change. For Lebanese people, during this crisis, it is a kind of communication that helps find happiness in the little things,” she said.

Magda Chaaban at her 'Pile Ou Face' exhibition in Beirut, Lebanon. (Supplied)
Magda Chaaban at her 'Pile Ou Face' exhibition in Beirut, Lebanon. (Supplied)

“It is a communication through images and colors, which maybe brings some hope for people. It preserves what historical records cannot, like for example, a story behind a painting can describe how it felt to exist in a particular place at a particular time, it’s like writing history.”

She continued, “I see that this is much more important for generations later when they see art during this period of time, maybe they can understand much better than [if they] read a history book about what happened at that moment in time.”

‘Pile Ou Face’

Chaaban recently had her sixth solo exhibition in Beirut last month, in collaboration with The Gallerist at the Rebirth Beirut Space in Gemmayzeh. She exhibited 40 paintings, as well as wooden sculptures and some books in Arabic.

'Sur Les Trottoirs De Beyrouth II,' acrylic on canvas, 127x80cm., by Magda Chaaban (2021). (Supplied)
'Sur Les Trottoirs De Beyrouth II,' acrylic on canvas, 127x80cm., by Magda Chaaban (2021). (Supplied)

Held under the theme ‘Pile Ou Face,’ the exhibition was inspired by her most recent book ‘Wij Afa’ which when translated to English means the “the other side of the coin.”

Through paintings like ‘Pile Ou Face’ Chaaban aimed to depict “Beirut heritage, architectural chaos, and the unique beauty, with two main characters: Mr. Tarboosh and Lady Nof.”

'Havre Bleu', acrylic on canvas, 142x110cm., by Magda Chaaban (2022). (Supplied)
'Havre Bleu', acrylic on canvas, 142x110cm., by Magda Chaaban (2022). (Supplied)

“Lady Nof, who has an amusing character, [she] is treasuring the old folklore of Mr. Tarboush in the painting. You can see that she is always trying to bring the folklore to introduce it in a modernized way. It’s a clash between the old and the new,” Chaaban said.

“As for the title Wij Afa, is the way to say that I created my side of the coin to paint the beauty of Beirut in my own way.”

'Beirut Tramway', acrylic on canvas, 140x110cm., by Magda Chaaban (2022). (Supplied)
'Beirut Tramway', acrylic on canvas, 140x110cm., by Magda Chaaban (2022). (Supplied)

“There’s one [artwork] in particular that is my favorite because it depicts all of Beirut’s details. It is very much like a puzzle, I put a lot of effort into it, and it was very well received,” she said, referring to her painting ‘Some Missing Details’ when asked about the pieces she was most excited to exhibit.

'Some Missing Details', acrylic on canvas, 140x100cm. by Magda Chaaban (2021). (Supplied)
'Some Missing Details', acrylic on canvas, 140x100cm. by Magda Chaaban (2021). (Supplied)

She also said that she was very excited to unveil her new characters Mr. Taboosh and Lady Nof as part of the exhibit because they told the story of Beirut itself, adding that she was planning to build on these characters in her future paintings and sculptures.

Following the exhibition, Chaaban said that she will soon launch her book ‘Wij Afa.’

'Bosta n'5', acrylic on canvas, 142x110cm., by Magda Chaaban (2022). (Supplied)
'Bosta n'5', acrylic on canvas, 142x110cm., by Magda Chaaban (2022). (Supplied)

“I wrote this book during the thawra [Lebanese revolution in 2019] and then after that you had the COVID [crisis]. It was during this period that I was writing this book and I didn’t have the chance to publish it yet.”

She explained that the book was a short story about a girl who was also a painter, watching her city Beirut fall apart. To preserve the memory of her city and the things she loved about it, she recreates it in her own workshop and decides not to leave the house.

“She creates her own world and her own city gain, with the painting and her creativity. The title ‘Wij Afa’ means a lot to be, the character flips everything, to another side of the coin, creating her own world.”

Keeping the ‘inner child’ alive

“The thing I cherish and treasure is to keep the inner child alive,” she said.

“I feel that the child inside of me is always there… It is the passion inside of us that is keeping us going and we need to keep this passion and inner child alive.”

Chaaban’s artwork has a unique style, with line sand squares being her signature.

“When I paint, I have all these lines and squares. They go beyond the structure of my canvas, I have my way to paint the composition as if they are there to mark my signature, impose my way of imagining the world, and to express my rebellion because I am a little rebellious.”

The artist said she draws her inspiration from Beirut’s architecture.

Magda Chaaban at her 'Pile Ou Face' exhibition in Beirut, Lebanon. (Supplied)
Magda Chaaban at her 'Pile Ou Face' exhibition in Beirut, Lebanon. (Supplied)

“I draw my artistic inspiration from the architecture of Beirut, like the wooden shutters, brick roofs, paving stones, all these things… I love the architectural chaos of Beirut. I imagine them in a beautiful composition, I combine electric wires with clothing lines as well, this chaos inspired me a lot.”

Chaaban grew up in her grandmother’s house in Lebanon during the Civil War, which has been a key part of her work.

“I grew up in my grandmother’s house and garden, and she always inspired me. My childhood is very precious to me, so I am always inspired by that. And drawing, painting, handcraft… all this, was a childhood passion.”

She added that simple things in the world around her motivate her to create art.

'The Back Yard II', acrylic on canvas, 120x100cm., by Magda Chaaban (2022). (Supplied)
'The Back Yard II', acrylic on canvas, 120x100cm., by Magda Chaaban (2022). (Supplied)

“I always like to take very simple things that I can represent in my own way, the way I imagine them so they can be more appreciated because sometimes we can find happiness and joy in a few little things.

“One of my paintings in the exhibition, I called it ‘Bala Wala Shi’ [translates to ‘Without Nothing’ in English] shows that sometimes with very simple things, you can find happiness.”

Chaaban regularly exhibits her artwork at The Gallerist in Beirut’s Sodeco Square, a space owned by avid art gallery owner Alia Matar.

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