Keepers of the word
Sursock exhibition raises funds for the rehabilitation of Lebanon's National Library

Friday, March 03, 2006

By Kaelen Wilson-Goldie 
Daily Star staff

BEIRUT: "When it was proclaimed that the library contained all books, the first impression was one of extravagant happiness. All men felt themselves to be the masters of an intact and secret treasure. There was no personal or world problem whose eloquent solution did not exist," writes Argentinean author Jorge Louis Borges in his short story, "The Library of Babel." "The universe was justified, the universe suddenly usurped the unlimited dimensions of hope." 
Bits and pieces of that sentiment are explored at length in an exhibition on view at the Sursock Museum in Beirut through March 31. The show - entitled "Works for Words" and curated by Nadine Begdache of Galerie Janine Rubeiz - marks the latest in a series of fundraisers for the Fondation Libanaise de la Bibliotheque Nationale (FLBN), the organization fighting alongside the Ministry of Culture to revive Lebanon's National Library. 
Founded in 1921, when Viscount Philippe de Tarrazi donated 20,000 printed documents and 2,000 manuscripts and other writings to the Lebanese state, the National Library moved into the old parliament building in Beirut's Place de l'Etoile in 1937. 
Its collection grew to include some 200,000 works, but a nice chunk of those were damaged and destroyed in 1975, when the National Library was pillaged and vandalized in the early days of the Civil War. 
In 1979, the state froze all the library's activities and put the National Archives in charge of its holdings. In the mid-1990s, people began rallying to bring the library back to life. 
First the French supported a rescue mission to save the surviving documents (about 115,000) from ruin. The FLBN was established in 2000, with a mission to collect funds and mobilize support for the library project. In 2003, the European Commission gave a grant to set up a full-scale rehabilitation effort within the Ministry of Culture to create an autonomous public institution called the National Library of Lebanon. Two months ago, Qatar pledged another two years of financial support for the initiative. (According to a Cabinet Decree, the National Library has been promised an eventual home on the premises of the old Lebanese University law faculty in Sanayeh.) 
Today, the National Library is a top priority of the current Minister of Culture, Tarek Mitri, as it was for one of his more illustrious predecessors, Ghassan Salame. Events such as the exhibition at the Sursock Museum are easily folded into the broader desire to repair historical continuity and preserve memories of the past for future generations. 
"Works for Words" features 42 artists, all of whom have delved into books, words and signs in their art. To her credit, Begdache has selected works from artists young and old, conventional and experimental. Most of the pieces on view in the upper gallery at Sursock are paintings, although there are a few sculptures, installations and mixed-media works as well. 
From Lebanon's cultural establishment are a few works by painter Hussein Madi (fitting, considering his longtime fascination with alternative alphabets), the venerable Chafic Abboud, Etel Adnan, Nada Sehnaoui, Anita Toutikian, Charles Khoury, Raouf Rifai and Mohamad Rawas, whose mixed-media assemblage entitled "Reading Beirut" is one of the show's standouts. 
From the next generation are pieces by Rafik Majzoub, Mazen Kerbaj, Lina Hakim, Shawki Youssef and Joe Kesrouani, whose diptych "L'instruction, c'est la liberte" commands notable attention in an already strong playing field.
Proceeds from the sale of artworks - as well as from the sale of the show's accompanying catalogues and explanatory DVDs - go directly to the FLBN. (The arrangement is 65 percent to the FLBN, 35 percent to the participating artists whose works are sold, and nothing to any middle man, be it Sursock or Galerie Janine Rubeiz.) 
As such, the exhibition elicits acts of generosity on the part of Lebanon's artists - the donation of their work - in hopes that those acts will be matched in kind by collectors, philanthropists, people with the cash to support a cause. 
"'Works for Words,'" suggests painter and installation artist Nada Sehnaoui, "not only raises awareness that the Bibliotheque Nationale needs funding, it also calls attention to the importance of having a public library. It raises a general awareness of the issue and this can only be positive," she adds. 
While Sehnaoui was only a teenager when the first National Library was damaged and closed, she says that as a student, she couldn't have completed her master's thesis without access to the National Library in Paris. As a mother, she remembers that the public library in the town where she was living in the U.S. became a destination, both educational and recreational, for her and her young son. In Lebanon, she often visits the library at the American University of Beirut. 
For Sehnaoui, the national library project in Lebanon is crucial, and must remain a civic, public entity, not a charity case or a vanity cause. "We urgently need to build a national identity," she says. 
Begdache says she was impressed by the enthusiasm of the artists she approached, stressing that she didn't commission works, but rather sought out artists already tackling the word in their work. 
"They are enthusiastic to do this and when it is a group show, they are very happy, and they are very happy to do it for the Bibliotheque Nationale," she says. As someone who grew up in the cultural milieu of Beirut in the 1960s, when her mother pioneered Dar al-Fan, Begdache is well-suited to straddle the old world and the new, which is evident in her choice of works. 
By all accounts the show has been successful. According to Begdache, between 60 and 70 percent of the works have already sold. There have been a few glitches, of course. Some artists grumbled about poor placement or having diptychs hung incorrectly. Others complained that they were never informed that the show would be dedicated to the memory of Rafik Hariri. These are details, important ones, but details nonetheless. 
As to how much such a show will do in terms of getting the library off the ground, so to speak, Sehnaoui says, "You always hope it will happen." 
Joe Kesrouani, younger and more cynical, says, "Sure, if they do it, although I'm not sure the money is really going to go to this. We're never sure in this country."
"Works for Words" is on view at the Sursock Museum in Beirut through March 31. For more information, please call +961 1 201 892 or check out Proceeds from the sale of paintings, along with catalogues and DVDs, go to the library restoration project.

Copyright (c) 2006 The Daily Star