Fann w Fenjen: Carlo Kassabian and Badih Ghanem

Foreword

Having moved to Paris in August, I was excited to discover the art and design scene that the city is so well-known for. Scrolling through my Instagram feed, I came across an acquaintance’s story which immediately caught my attention. It had a picture of a flier in it with BEY-PAR-BEY, and within 5 minutes, I had made plans with a friend to go see this exhibition. I had no idea what to expect.  As soon as we walked in, we were met by Badih, and later joined by Carlo, who both walked us through and described all the thoughts and emotions that went into creating their art. An eye-catching exhibition that dazzled you with its bright gold hue and its colorful accents, BEY-PAR-BEY brought up feelings of nostalgia, happiness, pain, and anger, reminding visitors of a Beirut that was, a Beirut that is, and a Beirut that is no more.

Carlo first exhibited his installation, Menhara, last May (2021) in Beirut. BEY-PAR-BEY brought his work together with Badih’s photographs and was part of Paris Design Week (September 9 – 18,  2021). 

Poster of Menhara
Poster of BEY-PAR-BEY

Can you please introduce yourselves? 

Carlo: I’m Carlo Kassabian. I have worked as an art director for almost 12 years now, in film, music videos, TV commercials, and short films. I usually do freelance work between Beirut, Dubai, and Saudi Arabia, and Menhara was my first experience as an installation artist.

Badih: My name is Badih Ghanem and I’m an architect and urban designer. I live in Paris and have my own small company here.  I have an interest in art and photography. I do urban photography, and BEY-PAR-BEY was the first time I have had the courage to showcase my photography in public.

How did you two meet?

Badih: We met at a house party back in November 2020. A friend introduced us and we started talking about life, Beirut, work, and art. We discovered that we share the same interests and values, and decided to do something about it. It was from this that we started to bring BEY-PAR-BEY to life. 

Installation artist Carlo Kassabian and photographer Badih Ghanem posing for a portrait during their exhibition BEY-PAR-BEY.  Paris Design Week, September 9-18,  2021. Paris. Photo courtesy of Carlo and Badih


How did Menhara and BEY-PAR-BEY come to be?

Carlo: I had been wanting to do my own art installation for 2, maybe 3 years. One night, I finally decided that it was time to make it happen. Badih and I were talking about so many things and I began throwing out ideas everywhere. I wanted something different, something that wasn’t a common feature of Lebanese art, like the cedar tree, Fayrouz, or Beirut. I had to be able to relate to it, which is how I came up with Menhara. It was inspired by my own lifestyle in Beirut. I like to party a lot, so I decided to make Menhara about nightlife in Beirut. Every time I meet someone who isn’t Lebanese, they always mention Lebanon’s crazy nightlife. So I decided to create art that reflected Beirut’s nightlife following the crisis and the August 4 explosion. 

It all began when I saw this gold material on an Instagram story being used at a party. Upon doing my research and asking around, I found out it was actually a rescue blanket and it struck me as quite a remarkable material that could hold many different meanings. It’s gold, shiny, and glamourous, yet, there’s a sadness to it as it’s used with victims of conflict, war, and other tragic situations. Then it dawned on me that I should cover an entire club with this material, since essentially, after the explosion and the crisis, many clubs and bars shut down, or in other words, died. We then held our first installation of Menhara at HNGR Beirut and then our second one in Paris. 

First exhibited installation of Menhara at HNGR Beirut, May 6-8, 2021. Beirut, Lebanon. Photo courtesy of Carlo and Badih

Badih: We contemplated doing it in a club in Paris as well, but eventually decided that it would not have the same impact as it did in Beirut, especially since Menhara is about Beirut’s nightlife. So we settled on recreating it on a smaller scale in my office space as a way of bringing a piece of Beirut here.

As Lebanese abroad, we are privileged. We are privileged to be able to go to Lebanon and to leave it. Following the blast, I got on the first flight to Beirut I could find to help on the ground in any way I could. I felt a sense of responsibility to be part of this installation and to showcase my photographs because it was about my country. A country that I love, but that can’t seem to love me back. People needed to know what was happening in our country so it was an awareness-raising initiative as well. 

I’d had the idea of creating BEY-PAR-BEY for a while. Then I met Carlo, whose work I love and we got along well and then BEY-PAR-BEY started coming together. I wanted to curate this event and have it be about Beirut with only Lebanese artists. This idea subsequently brought together Carlo for the Menhara installation, Michael Yazbeck for the lighting design, and myself with Farid Issa from Atelier Relief for the photography.

People walking through the second installation of ‘Menhara’ exhibited in Badih’s office space in Paris, France.
Photo courtesy of Carlo and Badih

What did people see once they stepped into the exposition? 

Carlo: While conceptualizing Menhara, I had three elements of partying in mind. The first element was the club itself, with all its glasses, chairs, and tables covered in gold. The second element was the disco ball, the life of the party, which had been shattered in the middle, as if it had suddenly fallen. This symbolizes the life of the party being physically and symbolically shattered. The third element was the confetti, which is the party itself in all its colors surrounded by the glamor. 

The process of walking through the exposition in Beirut took around 10 minutes and less than that in Paris since it was held in Badih’s office space. People could walk between the tables, go to the bar, and even backstage. They didn’t know what to expect at first, many thought they were walking into an actual party, when in fact they were, but rather one covered in gold with glasses, bottles, tables, and everything else that you would typically find at a party or in a nightclub. It was as if you were looking at a static movie scene. 

Neon sign spelling out ‘Menhara’ in Arabic. Photo courtesy of Carlo and Badih

Badih: You know, a lot of people told us it felt like somewhat of an archeological site, something that was but no longer is. In Paris, we explained to people that we often used to go to parties and enjoy Lebanon’s nightlife, but that it’s no longer possible anymore, with the crisis, the explosion, and all that. It was sad, because nightlife was very important to so many people in Lebanon and held a special meaning for them. It was a safe space where people felt comfortable being themselves. 

Also, the gold that covered the entire space is meant to have a double meaning. On one hand, it’s about appearances in Beirut. As Lebanese, we have a habit of covering our misery to portray an unrealistic image so this represents the idea that all that glitters is indeed not gold. On the other hand, this material is also used in rescues. Essentially, it’s a contradiction – some people are still partying in the places that remain open in order to try and forget their daily worries in Lebanon, the crisis, and the explosion, but it’s not the same, and it won’t be the same. So we wanted to show and give life to this static party scene with these gold rescue blankets. 

 

Carlo Kassabian, (2021, June 16). [Video]. YouTube

Carlo, what made you decide to name your installation Menhara?

Carlo: I think the word ‘menhara’ (collapsed) has now become part of my and many other people’s vocabulary, especially with how things have been in Lebanon. When you see someone and ask them how they are doing, they say “menhar/menhara”, “el balad (the country) menhar”, “el lira menhara”, or “Beirut menhara” after the explosion. It describes our thoughts and the environment around us. So this is what inspired me to name it Menhara

It was also my intention to express this in every aspect of the installation, which is why the lighting was flickering. We had a guy specifically program the lights to do this just like they do in Lebanon because it represents the electricity situation there – menhara.

Going back to the third element of partying that Carlo mentioned, the confetti. At first glance, it looks like any regular confetti, but once you look closer, you realize they aren’t. Please tell us more about that. 

Carlo: The confetti was actually made of fake Lebanese Lira bills. Following the crisis and the devaluation of currency in Lebanon, a lot of our bills became virtually worthless with inflation and everything getting so much more expensive. All the values on them were written as “000,000 LL” with “Banque des Reves” (Bank of Dreams) instead of “Banque du Liban”, because this reality today seems more like a dream. I was inspired by Venezuela and how, following the hyperinflation and devaluation of their currency, its paper bills would get piled up and thrown on the side of the road. Some people even used them as toilet paper. A while back, Badih and I were looking through my wallet, and it was crazy how the money in my wallet went from buying me several things to barely buying me one item now. 

The confetti that filled Menhara was of dummy Lebanese Lira bills valued at “000,000 LL” and portray the hyperinflation and devaluation that has taken over Lebanon.  Photo courtesy of Carlo and Badih

Badih, please tell us more about the photographs. 

Badih: Carlo’s first exhibition in Beirut, Menhara, inspired it. We discussed the photos and I told him that for Paris Design Week, I wanted people to see Beirut as it really is. Not a romanticized version of Beirut with a picture of a pretty building and an old lady doing her laundry on the balcony. What’s important to know is that there’s a message behind every photograph. We took the photos during the day but then edited them to show the contrast and duality between black and white. The contrast between what was, what could have been, and what is no longer. In almost every photo, there’s somewhat of a fence or something that separates the two different images. One of the pictures is of a building that had been shattered because it was right next to the explosion. This is actually right next to my parents’ apartment and I saw it while I was walking nearby after the explosion. I could see the frames of the windows, but with no glass. Behind it, you can see that part of the city had been saved and preserved because of the silos. And then there is a picture with the Lebanese flag. It’s a collaboration with Atelier Relief, who usually turn every photo in a 3D image. This is one of the pictures that holds the most meaning for me due to the flag that’s in it. It was taken on the first anniversary of the August 4 explosion, so you can imagine the feelings behind it. In it, you see the flag, almost crumpled, and the cedar tree that has long been a sign of hope and longevity also distorted, and I think it describes the country today perfectly. We are shattered. 

Installation of Badih’s photograph of a building that was shattered by the explosion that took place on August 4, 2020 in Beirut. Photo courtesy of Carlo and Badih

What were some of the reactions you received from non-Lebanese people who visited your expo in Paris?

Carlo: There were many people who weren’t Lebanese that came in, some who loved Lebanon and knew what was going on and others who had never visited Lebanon but had heard about current events. Imagine going to an exhibition about a country you don’t really know about and don’t really understand, especially with everything that’s happening now. Our installation was based on the past couple years in Lebanon and thus appropriately charged with emotions. So it felt good that some people had the cultural awareness and knowledge and also made an effort to understand and feel with us. But at the same time, we met those who had absolutely no idea what people in Lebanon have been living through day in and day out. 

Badih: There were three Russian design students who came in, and were a bit shy to speak to us. At one point, I looked at them and encouraged them to share any questions they had with us. They then asked what we were talking about in the expo and what had happened in the blast. To be honest, these questions came as a bit of a shock to me because generally even if people don’t necessarily know the details of the blast, I’ve found that they at least have a rough idea about it.

Other people came and completely blew us away. I remember one particular woman who I used to share an office space with who has never been to Lebanon, yet every month, she finds a Lebanese charity, and buys food and medication to send just because of how I ‘talked’ about Lebanon. I never spoke about it and expressed that to her, but she said that she always noticed a certain sadness in the air whenever I was around and Lebanon was brought up. After seeing the art exhibition, she said she wanted to start doing it every week if possible. The message behind BEY-PAR-BEY had been well and truly heard.

Do you have any future plans that you would like to share with us?

Carlo: We plan to exhibit Menhara for a third and final time in Montreal by March this year hopefully, and then the goal is to start working on a new installation.

Badih: Some people from Paris Design Week have expressed interest in collaborating with us as well, so we’re hoping something will come out of that!


End note  

Being far away from Lebanon, we tend to flock towards things, memories, places, and experiences that hold remnants of ‘home’. BEY-PAR-BEY is one of those things in which I found a piece of home. A unique aspect of this exhibit is the use of such a vibrant color palette, which at first glance, can be interpreted as a romanticization of Lebanon’s situation, but upon further inspection, clearly provides a cold, harsh truth of Lebanon. We have long had a habit of hiding our miseries and giving the illusion of ‘moving on’ from tragic events, but this is no longer possible, as seen by the exhibit’s party scene frozen in time. We are at a pivotal moment in Lebanon’s history. We have every right to reminisce about our good memories and unforgettable experiences. Yet, we simply cannot romanticize these tragedies and believe that hard times will pass “like they always have before”. As heartwarming as finding and supporting other people from your home country’s work is, we cannot nor will ever forget what has led us to this. 

Written by

Michelle Eid
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Michelle Eid is a Lebanese student who recently graduated in the United States (US) with a bachelor’s degree in political science and Middle Eastern studies majoring in human rights and international relations. Considering social justice an integral part of her life since her youth, Michelle had been a member of the Lebanese Red Cross Youth Department before moving to the US, where she continued her commitment to human rights by becoming a tutor and advocate of refugee communities in her area. She is also passionate about art, art history, and cinema. Relocating to Paris to pursue her masters degree in human rights and humanitarian action in the fall, she is excited to be introduced to yet another perspective of both the international arts and human rights scene.