“I want the smell of coffee, I want nothing other than the smell of coffee. All the mornings of the world, I want nothing other than the smell of coffee, in order to recover, to get back on my own two feet again, to transform myself from a crawling animal into a being of reason, to seize my share of the dawn, before our departure, the daylight and I, in search of elsewhere.” Mahmoud Darwich, Dhâkira li-l-nisyân (Une mémoire pour l’oubli) 1987.
Maha Yammine and Marwan Moujaes sift through the different strata of a common history, that of Lebanon. Each in their own fashion, they develop protocols, strategies that are at one and the same time political and sensitive, in order to grasp the complexities and the turmoil of a memory affected by Colonisation, civil war (1975-1990) and the conflict with Israel which has been going on since 1982. Their works testify to a will to comprehension, to expression, and to the re-appropriation of a collective history, the account of which remains to be written. Thus, they plumb a hidden memory: in bodies, gestures, objects, landscapes, and images.
The two artists devise plastic and conceptual strategies to (re)activate a memory and the account of a collective history fueled by taboo, self-censorship, neglect, denial, by fragilities and by violence. The question of violence, inherent as it is in the contemporary history of Lebanon materialises in a way that is both muted and flagrant. It is visible in the city of Beirut, which is marked by the various conflicts, by phases of reconstruction, and also by an urban cartography drawn by eighteen different faiths. In the Ras el Nabaa quarter is situated the Jewish cemetery of Beirut, the territory of which is demarcated by a high surrounding wall that prevents any intrusion. Since the conflict with Israel, the cemetery has been a no-go area, a ghost area. The Jewish community of Lebanon is now reduced to fewer than a hundred members, as compared with more than 20,000 before 1948. Marwan Moujaes, on the pretext of filming the city, managed to film the interior of the cemetery. The video image is accompanied by a sound–the murmur of a beehive. The artist did in fact install a hive behind the boundary wall. The bees, free to roam, gather pollen from the flowers in the cemetery, producing the honey that the artist then harvests in order to make sweets. In a crystal sweet jar he puts 80g of honey sweets, the weight being equivalent to that of the surface area foraged by the bees in the cemetery. The scale of the place is thus contained in a handful of sweets. The installation I brought you candies, because flowers are perishable (an allusion to Jacques Brel) translates the complexity of a history fueled by conflicts and issues both geopolitical and religious. That same violence which elsewhere is invisible because it resides in bodies, in language, in everyday gestures, behaviour, games.
As Marwan Moujaes reminds us, in Lebanon, “everything is impregnated by war”. Memories and imperceptible traumatisms claim our attention and a particular ear. In order to render them palpable, certain works by Maha Yammine and Marwan Moujaes summon up the reenactment (the reconstitution) of gestures or memories. The work entitled Blast is an example of this. Marwan Moujaes positions an audio headset, unusually low down, in a corner of the space. We have to crouch down, to lean over in order to pick it up and hear the sound of a bombardment. This concerns the first Israeli attacks on Lebanon on 12 July 2006. The artist explains that at the moment of these bombardments, through an instinct of self-protection and survival, people hide,crouch down or tale refuge in a shelter. The body is constrained by fear. By this contrivance, which is very simple and apparently innocent, he reactivates an action, a threat shared with the watcher. Several of Maha Yammine’s works engage in a reappropriation of gestures. In 2017, she asks her mother and her father to play a drum facing a film camera (Fanfare). They had not played this instrument for 33 years. During the civil war, they belonged to a military band made up mainly of teenagers. Embarrassed, a little clumsy, her parents refound certain automatisms, a body language re-remembered and shared. The same year, she asks her father to make a little girl’s dress, a task that he performed for six years when he himself was a child. The video piece entitled Moussa is accompanied by the little blue woolen dress (Blue dress). It has imperfections, in the image of a distant memory, a reminiscence.
On the occasion of their two exhibitions in Vénissieux and Pont-en-Royans, Maha Yammine and Marwan Moujaes perform a joint work entitled Circenses. At the entry to the two exhibitions, visitors are greeted with a strange photograph representing the artists in wedding attire. They rework the codes of a popular family tradition, the wedding photograph, with a mise en scène of their couple. On the carpet, symbolising the garden of origins, they pose barefoot. Maha Yammine wears her mother’s wedding dress while Marwan Moujaes wears his father’s wedding suit. The image, a souvenir of a happy event, generates a confusion between past and present, between reality and fiction. Their respective works articulate antinomies, temporalities, and tenuous links between the personal sphere and the collective domain. Panem et Circenses, literally: bread and circuses.
The title of the project refers to the manipulation of populations by their leaders and to the practice of stifling opinion and critical thought. The anaesthesia of critical thought constructed in a collective fashion pushes people into oblivion, into denial, into self-effacement. Through their respective artistic practices, Maha Yammine and Marwan Moujaes struggle against this disintegration of memories. They divert the bread and circuses in order to catch the spectator with a honey sweet, a glass marble, a garment, a wedding photo. Their works make use of a disconcerting simplicity and a false innocence in order to motivate us toward projection, participation, and awareness. The artists explore a memory that is sensitive and unstable, reflected in this white piece of wall resting upon glass marbles (Wall) to develop works which carry a highly critical reflection on the current situation in Lebanon. By taking possession of a mobile temporality, by creating a movement to and fro between past and present, childhood and adulthood, they analyse the fragmented foundations of a collective history that must urgently be harvested, written about, and completed in order to face up to the present.