War d’Oeuvres

“A nation without arts would be a nation that had stopped talking to
itself, stopped dreaming, and had lost interest in the past and
lacked curiosity about the future.”

John Tusa, Art Matters

(My very lovely and talented sister Neda, a collage artist, wrote this article for our Maraya Galleries Newsletter at the end of last summer)

War Collage 1982 Future Gaze: one of the first collages, used Marie Claire magazine, rubber cement glue, only light source: candle

Commenting on a commemorative “Art at War “exhibition he curated in his Chicago gallery, Nicaraguan art dealer Aldo Castillo remarked that “the history of conflict, aggression, and war shows no human evolution. We have not learned the difference between right and wrong. Nor have we learned […] that violence is no solution for violence.”

War Collage Red: I did this collage in July 1983 using fragments of a medical review journal, rubber cement glue

Castillo’s plainspoken words resonated in my mind as I was reading the latest news about the war in my native country, Lebanon. Sipping my morning coffee, and furiously zapping through the latest blogs in all the languages I could read (or decipher for that matter), I was feeling myself slowly drawn into an abyss of jarred memories I had long forgotten …or conveniently suppressed.No longer was I sitting at my desk in my serene Austin home, java in hand, and thousands of kilometers away from a past I thought had properly stashed away in the confines of my own complex history. The past and the present were cruelly fusing into a nefarious surrealistic reality of death and destruction. The country where I was born and raised was yet again in the throes of war with Israel who, as it did in 1982, invaded Lebanon this summer of 2006, wreaking havoc and misery to life and property*. It was “déjà vu all over again,” and I was both a captive spectator and a reluctant victim now as I was then twenty-four years ago.

Facing this familiar yet uninvited “reel-ality” rerun, I turned back to Castillo’s commentary. The curator’s words, although well intentioned, were in fact quite banal. I had heard it all before. Cynical and blasé that I was, I could really not figure out what attracted me to remember this inane tidbit of words. And then, it hit me: it was not Castillo’s words which really mattered to me; it was what he did to transform the ugly reality of human aggression into an accessible visual display open for all to see. He, along with several international artists, participated in an extensive exhibition post 9-11 entitled “Art at War – The Artist’s Voice” which was held at the Aldo Castillo Gallery in Chicago in 2004. Having grown up in war-torn Nicaragua and having been sensitized to the current wars all over the world, Castillo set out to create a bona fide gallery with a social vision. His aim was to bring about a dialectic of sorts within the gallery walls and the outside world. The result was an impressive tour-de-force which attempted to give various artists the ability to explore the emotional dimensions of their collective harrowing experiences. More significantly, in my opinion, the exhibit helped in engaging all participants (artists and audience alike) in an ongoing public discourse of critical issues.

It was that particular exploration of the meaning of memory and war which had attracted me in Castillo’s endeavor. Art, in any aspect of our daily lives, is a vital medium which consciously or not is a repository of our inner subjective human experience. In other words, whether in war or in peacetime, art – in whatever form – is intrinsic in the way we understand and process the world.

War Collage 1983 Life in Black and White: magazines fragments, rubber cement glue

War Collage 1983 8 Minutes Today: I called it so because I did it in only 8 minutes

As for me, mixed within the somber war images flashing on my computer screen, my mind was resplendent with parallel yet pleasant, almost peaceful, memories. Through the caffeinated fog which mimicked itself as my brain, I was transposed to the summer of 1982 where I used to sit and create paper collages by candlelight (yes, by candlelight – since all electrical power stations were bombed into oblivion). Although we had no electricity nor running water, no hope for a better tomorrow, let alone surviving another day, there I sat. In my bedroom, on my bed, with the atrocious whistling of exploding bombs over my head, there I sat. I sat with my French Marie-Claire fashion magazines spread out on the floor, scissors in hand, and a half-empty jar of rubber cement next to me, cutting, tearing, and pasting images upon images. In the building stairwell –turned into an ad hoc shelter – I sat. Huddled next to my younger sister Rima, praying that the hundreds of 3,000lb-bombs hurled from the monstrous F-16 jets would somehow miss our family, there I sat, clutching my tattered magazines. I sat in the bomb shelters, next to crying babies and weeping mothers. I sat and I cut. I sat and I pasted. I sat and I dreamt. I cut images, shapes, colors of vibrant red and azure blue as if I wanted them etched in my memory for fear that I would never see them again.

Collage was my medium of choice. I had dabbled in it when I was six or seven years old, cutting though a very valuable gilded Persian manuscript in my father’s library of art books. If memory serves me right, my curiosity about collage was peeked, although my young ego was bruised because my parents were more concerned about some old book than my own artistic expression. Since that time, I have always had an affinity for paper collages. Its versatility and unrestricted nature suited my impatient temperament. Collage was fun and led me to unexpected journeys. As contemporary collagist Susan Krieg likes to describe it, collage is an organic form of art:” Every time you add something new to a collage, it reassembles itself and responds back;” collage is “a conversation between the artist and art.” Conversing with my collages, I felt empowered and alive…even if it meant surviving only for the next few minutes until the next round of bombing.

Long after the war ended, and decades after my “Persian experiment”, I am still creating collages, almost every day. I create because I am moved to do so. I was never formally trained as an artist. I do not think of myself as one. I am guided by my artwork, I do not guide it. My collages are ephemeral memories of a time and place in my life. It does not matter what I create. What matters is to simply create.

My art is not necessarily ennobled by lofty ideas nor does it pretend to be a medium of social change. My art just is. It is art (with a lowercase “a”) which guides my life vision. I do not think about my art. I just create. Just as German philosopher Martin Heidegger spoke of “dasein” as existence, or as being in the moment, I think that art – in whatever shape or form-- is very much necessary for the temporal coherence of being and doing.

To exist is to create. I create art. I consider myself to be one of the lucky ones.

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