Art in all its forms offers an exploration of what defines our existence and colors our world, and at times, an escape from what makes it painful. With this section, we hope to shed more light on its significance and use our platform to showcase some amazing Lebanese artists both in Lebanon and abroad.
With talent like our treasured Fairuz and the magnificent Rahbani brothers, our inspiring Nadine Labaki, our great writer Khalil Gibran, our favorite magician, Carlos Gho… (oops) and our amazing painter Saliba Doueihy, it’s no wonder that Lebanon is a breeding ground for creativity in all areas of the arts and we should be so very proud of all our artists.
In our inaugural edition, we’d like to introduce you to Ivan Debs, a gifted Lebanese illustrator and artist, who generously designed this issue’s cover too.
Fann w Fenjen = Art and Coffee 😉
Can you introduce yourself?
My name is Ivan Debs, I’m 28 years old, I’m an independent illustrator/artist and I’ve been working in the art field and in everything around it – animation, political drawings, newspaper, books and the music industry for about seven years. I was born and raised in Ivory Coast [and live here now]. I went to university in Lebanon and I started working very early, and have been doing this since then. I’m just a young man trying to survive.
What is your professional background/education?
I got my scientific baccalaureate in Africa, then I went to ALBA Fine Arts to study illustration, advertising, and art direction, so I’m also an art director in addition to the freelance work I do. I got my bachelor’s degree in art direction, and then specialized in illustration and comic books. I began doing freelance work in my second year of university for L’Orient-Le Jour, Executive Magazine and other newspapers, as well as working on covers for magazines and illustrations for political issues in the country. I also worked with advertising agencies like Leo Burnett, or others as a freelancer on certain projects. On top of that, I would do cover artwork, animations and video clips for the reggae music industry with the family of Bob Marley and other African artists.
Were your family and friends supportive when you decided to take up art as a profession?
I was lucky enough to have parents that understood what I wanted to do, and I think they understood quickly that there was no other option. I have never thought twice about my path. They have been fairly supportive, but I have struggled at times, and there have been times when I’ve had to defend my work and choices to more than twenty members of the family who were all trying to change my mind and get me to start a “real career”. It’s hard, but when I think it through, I do understand them; in the end all they want is for me to live well and not to struggle too much in life. I understand them, and at the same time I have had to work hard to make myself understood by them. But now, many of them see how fulfilled I am, and that this is something I cannot not do. They try to be supportive and advise me on how to better manage my life and work.
My mom was always the most supportive, because she always wanted to study fine arts. Her family didn’t want her to be an artist, because it doesn’t pay well, so she studied medicine for a few years and then dropped out. She has always pushed me to do what I wanted, but also to be realistic and find a way to live well from it and not be too much of a dreamer. She pushed me to find a balance between my business and my art, and it’s hard, but I’m trying to.
Where does your inspiration come from?
My inspiration comes from daily life. As cheesy as it is, it comes from the world and I cannot explain how. It comes like that. I see a situation or a friend tells me a story and I feel the need to express it. My inspiration is mainly my own experience, this world and this life. For political drawings, it’s easy, you have to look outside and see what is happening.
Sometimes, it goes away. I can spend one or two weeks without inspiration but it always comes back very quickly. There is always something inside that needs to get out and unfortunately I can’t stop.
I was born and raised in Africa and I had a lot of experiences here before I went to Lebanon. I have seen civil wars. I have seen people killing each other. I have seen the media, how they lie. I have seen the military take over. I have seen people entering our houses. All of these experiences have stayed in my mind and started to build who I am now and my way of thinking.
I also grew up listening to reggae music, it taught me a lot about spirituality, rebellion, political issues and about love in general. I grew up with several different people and at the end of the day, we all had the same struggles.
What do you want to mainly express through your art? What do you want to share with others?
Mainly, what I want to express is a start of consciousness for a better tomorrow for the next generations. I want to express “don’t get tricked by everything that is around you, think for yourself and be conscious of your surroundings, learn from what is bad to teach the children the good so this world can, in 1,000 years, be a bit better”. I’m just part of this message, like many before and many after. It’s mainly unity. People should learn to get together and not fight one another.
Tell us more about the Flamekeepers initiative.
Right now, it’s a simple platform where my friends and I are selling products and giving percentages to NGOs. It’s a platform for collaboration between artists and a way to spread awareness through art, through our products, on different prints and t-shirts. We sell products and give money to ourselves and to NGOs. The concept is to remind everyone that there is a flame inside us. (Editor’s note: Instagram account @flamekeepers.official)
How are your art and activism related?
The activist side went into people’s minds because I started to go down to the streets a lot, I was acting on it, not only drawing and sharing it. I was very active and I was drawing live on the streets and people were interacting, helping and doing it for me without me asking so it became a form of live protests.
I was living in Lebanon and going to the streets for two months. I think people got my message because I had been spreading it for years before the protests. Many drawings I did work for the situation right now. You can use them now and it still talks to the people because it is the same situation. We have been working on the political situation for a long time so I think my activism came as soon as I started, with life experiences. Again, what I have seen in Africa and Lebanon and the influence of reggae music inspired me. I have always been inspired by figures like Nelson Mandela or Martin Luther King, they were my main inspiration when I was young, I liked to listen to them. I also always liked engaged artists who were talking on social issues through their arts because it’s the only way to send feelings to people. I have always tried and continue to try to keep the balance between love, positive messages and raising awareness about what is happening around us.
As an expat yourself, what propelled you to join the revolution and decorate Beirut’s streets with your art?
I went to Lebanon, I was 18. My family was Lebanese but from Africa. I have two points of view: the diaspora’s and the one of a young man who worked in Lebanon and who struggled to get what he deserves because of the Lebanese system and the Lebanese corruption. I had the right to protest like the others on the streets because I felt the injustice in my own life in Lebanon.
My mother kept me close to Lebanon’s history and I always got interested in it but it comes from my education as well. My dad fled from the civil war in Lebanon and went to Africa, where he met my mum. He used to tell me stories about the civil war. I took his and my mom’s legacy who were very interested in the history of the country. I think the memory and the love of the nation is something to hold onto because in the end, we are all from Lebanon living everywhere. If we do not hold onto it, it is going to disappear and it is going to be hijacked as it always has been. I felt concerned, as a human before being Lebanese. If I was living even in Argentina, I would have done the same.
When you widen this picture, it becomes a common fight between all the people from Earth: oppressed people against the oppressors. It concerns every country. In the end, we are humans living on this planet and we happened to be born in some place and we grew up like this and we struggled for the fight of this nation. But the bigger picture is I think for the younger generation to hold this flame and make the change step by step, because the change is going to take a lot of time, anywhere.
What is your outlook towards feminism and why has it been so prominently showcased in your art?
Interesting question. To me, feminism is logical, it’s one of the most logical fights and I don’t understand why we have to fight for this, it’s a logical right. The feminism talking about rights, laws, equality in opportunities, equal respect, equal freedom, equal possibilities etc.
There is a difference in biology between men and women, but in rights and the capacities in our society, it is illogical to make a difference. I do not even understand how a woman can have a lower salary than a man or how she can not deserve a place in a company. It’s completely illogical.
In the cultural aspects, mentalities have to change of course but towards equality and equity between men and women not a man or a woman taking over.
Women and men of the new generation rising must join hands and fight together, spread awareness about feminism and women’s rights everywhere so the education changes and put everyone on the same level of respect and opportunities, and this fight must be for feminism and for all the fights of equal rights of our society, everywhere, on the streets and in institutions.
Equal rights and justice for every human born on this Earth.
What would you like the diaspora to know about Lebanese artists and what can they do to support them?
The Lebanese potential is equal to the Western world or any other country. There is so much professionalism and great talent in Lebanon people would be amazed of. They should forget that they are Lebanese and see them as artists. If we didn’t know they were Lebanese, people would say they are amazing. There are so many talented artists in all disciplines: music, dance, painting, illustration etc.
This country is full of young talents. So much inspiration, so many things to say, so much soul in the work, and so much guts. They are fighting causes, they are involved. I don’t know how to explain but it is an explosion of talent and it is taken for granted, we don’t see their worth. So if people need work from freelancers, they should look to Lebanese artists.
All my respect and love to artists in Lebanon, I’m honored to be one of them. Such a beautiful generation. I think they understood everything. Seriously, I’m full of hope.
What advice would you give to the diaspora in terms of supporting the revolution? In your opinion, what is one thing that the diaspora should focus on?
First, send love to our Lebanese people. Let’s give them a hopeful feeling. Second, be there for them. Third, talk about Lebanon so people around you, wherever you are, have their mind towards Lebanon. Some of them might have some influence in some institution that might influence another one that might influence an institution in Lebanon.
Like I said before in another interview, each one should do his best in his own field. If your field has nothing to do with activism, politics or business, just do your best as a person. And if someone is working in a Lebanese embassy, he should do his best to put pressure for change and for new elections and etc.
So I would tell people to do their best, whatever they are, in whatever way they can.