Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Downtown demonstrators turn to creative pursuits

Downtown demonstrators turn to creative pursuits; Canvases on view in the parking lot near Riad al-Solh Square express dreams of unity and a desire for change
By Iman Azzi
Daily Star staff

BEIRUT: Two blue tents stand in the foreground flanked by a dozen human forms. In the background, a crescent moon tops a minaret next to a cross on a steeple. An endless number of tents are lined up toward the horizon. Pan out to the edges of the painting, one of many on display in a parking lot adjacent to Riad al-Solh Square. The scene portrayed on this canvas represents an artistic representation of the current reality in Downtown Beirut. Since December 1, anti-government protesters have pitched tents, ditched their jobs or classes and settled into temporary digs in Downtown with hopes of overthrowing the government or at least securing greater political power. After two successful mass demonstrations - the last on December 10 was dubbed the largest in Lebanon's history - the numbers have dwindled and some of the protesters who remain have turned to art to pass their time. Some of the paintings are part of organized efforts, others have been thrown up illegally, and all of them are inspired by dreams of change. As a bid to keep the demonstrators entertained, organizers have scheduled a series of events and designated certain areas as "activities tents." Debates, concerts, guest lectures - along with loudspeakers blasting Hizbullah's greatest hits on repeat - have joined nargileh smoking, card playing and backgammon on the list of popular demonstration downtime hobbies. Last Thursday, the first "art night" in the tent city was held. A crew of young women artists donated canvas, paint and time to express their ideas on the crisis. "It was open to everyone but only women participated," says Zeina, a graphic design student who declined to give her last name. "Here we all share a united vision but through art we can express it differently." Over 20 local women gathered in the activities tent in the parking lot across from the Buddha Bar. "The paintings are not for sale. They're on display to show others that there are unlimited ways to express support for the demonstrations," Zeina explains, taking a break from a lecture she was attending on the political scene in Lebanon since the July-August war with Israel. Zeina points to the paintings and says people are free to paint how they feel. Some have chosen to depict scenes of the tent city itself, while others have delved into the abstract.

One particularly morbid canvas shows six gray corpses acting as pallbearers carrying the coffin of Lebanon. Their hearts have been torn out and replaced by bloody holes. Another canvas features a Lebanese flag placed out of the reach of a grasping hand that is trapped behind a wire fence. "I painted a cedar tree surrounded by the colors of different political parties. The cedar is a symbol of standing and perseverance," says Fatmi Najdi, 20. An art student at the Lebanese University, Najdi used her canvas to express unity. "Everybody has the right to participate. I chose to paint all the colors to bring them together around the symbol of Lebanon." Across the parking lot toward the Serail is a 3-meter banner covered in colorful ink cartoons and scrawled messages. The banner was erected as another activity, a blank space open for individual opinions. Some people signed their names, others wrote messages and some drew the symbols of the Marada Party, that of the Free Patriotic Movement or the cedar tree from the Lebanese flag. There is an image of the US flag with Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora's name inside. Another image depicts a bird. Others still seem to relish in the incoherent art of finger painting, replete with wide colorful swirls. While not exactly on the fast-track to fine art museums around the world, the works of the anti-government protesters express the intimate dreams of their demonstrations - a celebration of many colors representing many parties at once.

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