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French Version

Portraits offer close look at Lebanon here and now

Gilbert Hage's exhibit dares viewers to seek out markers of identity - and then to ask: And? So what?

Eight faces, eight photographs, eight names. The latest exhibition by Lebanese photographer Gilbert Hage, on view at the Dagher building in Gemmayzeh, may seem a bit slight. It's certainly not a retrospective or a mid-career survey for an artist who's been working long enough to deserve one. This show, rather, is a teaser.

"Ici et Maintenant (Here and Now)" marks the slim start to a robust project that could take years to complete. And if Hage pulls it off - capturing Lebanon's post-war generation through 1,000 searing large-scale color portraits of young faces locking eyes with the camera - he could end up creating a landmark body of work.

Hage has been teaching photography for 10 years, during which he's no doubt encouraged and challenged scores of young students. He can tick off the statistics of graduating classes like someone comfortably committed to his work. In addition to handling multiple studio courses at the Academie Libanaise des Beaux Arts (ALBA) and the Universite de Saint Esprit de Kaslik (USEK), Hage has been exhibiting his own photographs throughout Lebanon and in Syria, France, Germany and Brazil for 15 years. He is adept in a number of genres, from landscapes to moody abstractions. But his work in portraiture is his best by far.

Hage shoots with a six-by-seven medium-format camera using slide film. The images are scanned and then printed on high-quality ink-jet paper. Because medium-format cameras are about five or six times larger than more common 35 millimeter cameras, they allow for much bigger prints, which retain both true color and acute detail. Generally speaking, photographs made with medium-format cameras tend to be both lush and still. Years ago, they required subjects to sit for long stretches of time. But with technologically advanced cameras and fast lenses, there's now little difference in sitting for a medium-format portrait versus anything else. Only the set-up takes longer. But Hage keeps his props relatively spare (in the eyes of his subjects, for example, one can faintly detect the reflection of just one or two light sources).

The eight images in "Ici et Maintenant" are all 175-by-150 centimeters. The only real glitch in the show is that the prints are barely mounted - double adhesive tape binds them to four small squares of cardboard in each corner, and one can't help but think that such treatment will ultimately damage the works. Otherwise, the pictures carry a commanding presence.

Anyone grumbling about this show being nothing more than a few passport pictures blown up big has yet to look hard enough or grasp the full scope of Hage's project. On aesthetic grounds, his images are flawless. Each subject sits in the same position, shot from the chest up. All stare deep into the camera's lens, thus deep into the viewer who regards the shot. None smile.

Seeing these pictures - their subjects all caught in the same framework yet none looking remotely the same - you want to find markers of identity. You want to assess class, nationality or ethnicity by the details of dress, age by condition of skin, emotion by facial expression. Knowing that these are all pictures of Lebanese citizens aged 18 to 30, you may want to detect religion or political orientation. Hage gives you the names of each subject - Halim Sabbagh, Rasha Kahil, Jad Eid, Karen Safi, Yves Atallah, Hala Dabaji, Sara Saliba, and Charbel al-Fakhry - so you may find your answers there. But where Hage's show succeeds is in the sense that it says, "And? So what. You can peg religion to name. What does that mean? What do you think you know now?"

Hage has a notable sensitivity for young faces, probably evolved through years of teaching. This series presents eight images that confront viewers and challenge the very notion of representation. Does a photograph reveal the soul of its subject? Does a portrait expose an individual's identity? Hage's answers are unequivocally no.

"As a teacher," he writes in the notes accompanying the show, "I daily face a youth seeking motivations. ... My objective is not based on taste [or] aesthetic, but on the whole [of] representational tactics. I am thoroughly convinced that [the] human face or the portrait is neither determined nor real; however, it is receptive, flexible, and subjected to changes. It oscillates between realities and illusions."

Hage thought of documenting Lebanon's postwar period through portraits of the country's young people in 1996. He wants to amass 1,000 pictures, all young Lebanese people, framed in the same manner. Eventually, he'd like to exhibit the entire collection at once, maybe publish it in book form.

Of course, Hage isn't just grabbing people off the street and dragging them into his studio. The nuance of his project is that he's after something unstated - call it intelligence, ambition, or potential, though none of these words are quite right. He's not after the postwar generation defined solely by circumstance, but rather the postwar generation that will act, move, change things around.

As Layla al-Zubaidi of the Heinrich Boell Foundation suggests, "This show is at the interface of culture and politics. It's an innovative way of getting people engaged in political and social issues. ... It deconstructs stereotypes about what Arabs look like, both men and women. ... It's not about Bedouin. It's a new picture, updated. It shows that people are reflecting on the contemporary state of the Arab world, not heritage, not nostalgia, but contemporary."

Heinrich Boell, a political foundation, is the show's sponsor and will bring Hage's portraits to Berlin's House of World Cultures in January, part of a conference on identity and globalization. This in itself is intriguing, not only for the fact that the show pulls together some of Beirut's more progressive art world personalities - among them curator Christine Tohme, who helped guide the selection and gallerist Sandra Dagher, who helped facilitate the exhibition - but also for the fact that the show breaks out of the cocoon that cultural initiatives sometimes create.

In terms of scope, Hage's project does have precedents, the most famous being August Sander's attempt to create a photographic index of the German population. Sander embarked on this goal in the 1920's, between the two world wars. He classified people by groups and social types and named them accordingly. The Nazis confiscated the first half of Sander's archive - the photographs didn't conform to Aryan type - but he worked on his portrait collection, called "People of the 20th Century," for the rest of his life. On his death in 1964, he had 1,800 pictures.

The deliberate and contemporary nature of Hage's portrait project provides a nice counterpoint to the mushrooming interest in archival commercial portraiture from the Arab world. The Arab Image Foundation has done serious work on the subject, delving into the economic, cultural and societal forces that affect the practice of people having their picture taken, and indeed the forces these pictures, in and of themselves, unleashed on the world, as they became commodities to covet and own.

Hage's notion of fieldwork is different, more current, less interested in the past and more of the here and now. And in terms of visual style, his work bears a closer resemblance to such images as those by Dutch artist Rineke Dijkstra or American photographer Diane Arbus, about whom the British artist Gillean Wearing once said, "[It's] about the eyes, really. It's about how people are looking at you. There's no way you can disengage with them. It's as if Arbus wants to hold you there, by means of these other people."

For contemporary artists, great value lies in the hatching of plans. You grab hold of an idea, you break it down and map it out, and then you make it happen in the world. Such projects, when executed well, can crackle with anticipation and then ignite upon completion. Of course, such projects also run the grave risk of massive failure, which is why so few people embark on them. Hage is onto something with his portraits. He's harnessed an idea with broad and complex implications on the one hand, precise and simple expressions on the other. If he can mange the pace and process, he will wrap up his project like a genuinely felt and well-intended gift.

Gilbert Hage's "Ici et Maintenant" is on view through Saturday. For more information, call the Heinrich Boell Foundation at +961 1 562926

Beirut,11 15 2004
Kaelen Wilson Goldie
The Daily Star
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