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Beirut after explosion, Yasmina Hilal
Photography Yasmina Hilal

Speaking to Lebanese creatives one year after the Beirut blast

Following the devastating explosion in August 2020 and a mass exodus of creatives leaving the country, members of Lebanon’s creative community are striving to enact change and hold the government accountable through their art

On August 4, 2020, an explosion from 2,735 tonnes of unsafely stored ammonium nitrate devastated Lebanon’s capital city, Beirut. With shockwaves stretching across the city, the blast killed over 218 people, injured at least 7,500, and displaced an estimated 300,000 civilians from their homes.

After the explosion, the Lebanese government declared a two-week state of emergency, although the country was already experiencing the “worst economic crisis” since 1990, political unrest due to austerity measures, and corruption – all while battling the COVID pandemic. Further, according to the United Nations, up to 77 per cent of Lebanese households cannot afford food. 

While the government refused the responsiblity of repairing billions of dollars worth of damage to homes, businesses, and studios, creatives and artists quickly joined together to provide support where they could. Initially, this meant raising money for medical aid, providing trauma support for the injured, offering up places to sleep, and helping others search through the rubble for their possessions. 

Shortly after the blast, individuals from Lebanon and its diaspora launched grassroots organisations to fundraise towards rebuilding the city and supporting its people. Alongside, many creatives are striving to create socio-political change for the country and to hold the government accountable for its failures.

“Since the explosion, us Lebanese had to go through a collective trauma with absolutely no appeasement, no justice, and no basic action from our government,” said Roni Helou, a designer who helped launch the United for Lebanon Creatives fund, which financially supported 45 Lebanese designers in need after the blast. “We had to figure out how to deal with what happened by ourselves, helping each other out.”

One year on from the explosion, however, the city is experiencing a mass exodus of creatives fleeing the country in search of safer and more reliable living conditions. Meanwhile, other artists have committed themselves to maintaining their roots in the city.

Below, we speak to eight Lebanese creatives and artists about their choice whether or not to stay, Beirut’s creative community one year after the explosion, and navigating creativity through the aftermath.

ERIC RITTER, DESIGNER AND FOUNDER OF EMERGENCY ROOM

“Apart from the trauma induced by the August 4 explosion, I believe there’s a whole set of issues and difficulties we‘ve had to face and are still facing on a day to day basis that are totally out of our control – a currency inflation, rising costs of living, fuel shortages, power outages, etc. Going through a day is, in and of itself, a challenge nowadays for anyone living in Lebanon. Dealing with the trauma of the blast itself is one thing, but I feel that the coping mechanisms we are developing through the multiple crises are affecting our mental health in ways we aren’t yet totally aware of. Sure we are being resilient, a whole nation is, but at what cost?

Just before the blast we witnessed a social uprising, which is an important event to be remembered. It was truly overwhelming to feel an entire nation coming together to express anger and rage towards a corrupt government that’s been in power for far too long. I believe that then and there we truly understood what it meant to unify, and perhaps that we would no longer work against each other but rather with one another. A sentiment that was surely reinforced after the blast, as we all looked out for each other, and helped each other whichever way we could. 

For any creative individual, this is equally a very interesting and frustrating situation to be in. I’m not personally driven by art for the sake of art. I launched my brand four years ago, focusing on up-cycling. For me and my team, whatever situation we’re going through, we’ve already foresaw, and are prepared to face it. If anything, we’re pushing through, searching for even more innovative ways of transforming scraps, and making outfits out of whatever materials we can find in this mess.”

YASMINA HILAL, PHOTOGRAPHER

“Artistically, my voice has changed and developed to the better. I never would have seen myself documenting the aftermath of the explosion for two months straight without taking a break and realising my own trauma of the explosion. I feel like I’ve surprised myself with my abilities to still create and push myself with all that’s been happening over the past year, and even though I still haven’t recovered from the unrest, and it feels like I can’t escape it, I continue to learn and grow and try to find means to move forward.

A lot of creatives have moved away or closed their business because it’s not sustainable to continue with the current situation, but there are also creatives who are still here and are pushing to create. It feels like there’s a small rebirth where new creatives and projects are surfacing as a means to keep the scene alive, but there still is an underlying struggle to keep the momentum going.

In terms of my work, I’m definitely under that realm of the need to keep creating and I believe my work thrives through uncertainty but not to the point of instability. I create to almost distract myself from the current surroundings because it’s my only form of escape. 

Another Lebanese creative who’s work I admire is Mayssa Khoury, she’s a painter and photographer. Her work ranges from sensual imagery of her close friends and loved ones, to the beautiful documentation she does on her grandmother’s daily life.”

ANDRÉA NAJARIAN, DRAG QUEEN

“I lost a lot on August 4, including my house that still has yet to be fixed due to corrupt landlords affiliated with political and religious organisations. I would (also) like to add the physical injuries that I endured that are still engraved as a constant reminder of that day. On the other hand, I’ve been very blessed to be surrounded with my blood family and my chosen family, my community who stood by my side day and night and made sure I was able to stand back on my feet on a physical and mental basis.

There is a lot of talent and creative forces (right now), but we are very limited and challenged with opportunities. Resources not being made available to us, such as materials and supplies, and let’s not forget the famous economic crisis accompanied with shortage in medication and electricity cuts for multiple hours of the day.

”As a make-up artist and drag queen, I find it quite aggravating to depend on our fellow expats to provide us with such things” – Andréa Najarian, drag queen

Just today I had a friend who was telling me how the power went off in the middle of a number she was performing at a bar. It gets pretty frustrating when simple things are not available to you such as make-up (most stores have closed due to the crisis), and as a make-up artist and drag queen, I find it quite aggravating to depend on our fellow expats to provide us with such things.

I do not have the luxury to leave at the moment nor do I feel being called to the outside… Something is still gravitating me to my land. If the time is ever right, I will look at my options given I have any. It’s sad to say but August 4 gave me a bigger love for Beirut.”

JUDE CHEHAB, FILMMAKER 

“What happened on August 4 shook us to our core, physically and emotionally. My Beirut, my muse, my city didn’t look the same and has continued to deform itself. It is the feeling of when you run up to someone, call out their name but when they turn around it isn’t them.

Beirut’s art scene has always flourished, ask anyone in the region and they’ll tell you Beirut is where it’s at. The city has a magic to it and of course that magic then gets translated into the work. The creative community now is struggling. It is attempting to pick up the pieces that remain and make something out of them. This is not an easy task.

After the explosion, we did grassroots work to aid our people that had been directly affected by the blast. This work rooted me deeply into the country and it felt like a responsibility to stay, but I realise the privilege I have in getting to decide. I’ve always lived between the US and Lebanon. I’ve been here the last couple years – the pain is deep right now, and I stay because my roots are here, but I feel I can no longer grow.”

DAYNA ASH, POET, ACTIVIST, AND DIRECTOR OF HAVEN FOR ARTISTS

“To overcome trauma, some parts of you need to understand what happened, while other parts need to attempt moving forward – either way, we are trapped. We mobilised for our community, while fearing for both their safety and ours. Beirut was destroyed and partially rebuilt, but no amount of funding, concrete or glass can glaze over the wounds that will never heal. 

After the blast we turned our space into a shelter for eight people from vulnerable communities who had lost their homes in the blast. We received $99,000 in cash donations which we were able to distribute to 35 artists, 195 LGBTQIA+, 201 single mothers/families, and 22 migrant women with direct cash assistance to ensure autonomy and agency.  

And now, we aim to rebuild and reconnect. The first step is to ensure the community has a safe and secure place to gather, organise, and produce. Therefore one of our new projects is just that – to open a safe cultural community center, as soon as humanly possible.

In the end, artists and activists will remain in some form or shape, speaking about Lebanon and attempting to at least archive events and document the time and space in which we reside. The government previously demonstrated with the Lebanese civil war that accurate documentation of events and history is not their goal, therefore many artists and activists have made it theirs.”

WASSIM BOU MALHIM, MUSICIAN AND ARTIST

“Since the youth lead revolution started on October 17, the music scene has been somewhat in a new age where artists are working all the time on the topic of our identity, our culture and generally what makes us who we are. A big part of the scene had dissociated itself from our culture and roots for the longest time because it was just painful to look inwards for inspiration. 

So a lot of us looked outwards for that inspiration and associated ourselves with so many different scenes happening all around the world. Lebanon is a global city in a sense, and the lack of care for our culture and arts throughout the years, and the heavy focus on politics, the economy, wars, assassinations, explosions, and many other issues that a person should not necessarily worry about or deal with, rendered our own arts scene without the right infrastructure or care to grow. It was easier to be part of what was happening globally; it was effortless. The revolution, and the fact that it was youth-led, changed that, and people started looking inwards for inspiration, finding it, molding it, discovering their voices and culture again, and starting to incorporate that into their art.

Salim Azzam, who is a fashion designer, is doing marvelous work. He is presenting our culture in the most talented way to the world. He is taking our narrative to the world.”

OHMYHAPPINESS, WRITER AND ACTIVIST

“There’s a before the Beirut blast and there’s an after the Beirut blast. It’s hard to imagine how things were before August 4, 2020. I feel like absolutely everything has changed. From the way I think about Beirut, to the way I imagine the future, to the way I approach survival. As problems continued to pile on after the blast, it has been difficult to stop and think about everything we have lived through. The full scale of what we have lived through will only be understood in many years, in my opinion.

I think Beirut has always been a creative hub. The challenges of everyday spark a need for creativity, to escape or to deal with everything. In many ways, my writing has been therapeutic for me. I write what I feel and it helps me deal with the onslaught of emotions that Beirut throws at me every single minute.

Beirut’s creative community is never given the time, attention, funding it requires. It’s a challenge to make a living off of it, and the state provides no support whatsoever. Schools and society in general look down on artists, painters, writers, seeing it as a hobby more than a career. With lack of support, we are left to figure things out on our own, often having to take on side jobs to be able to continue creating.”

RONI HELOU, DESIGNER

“Beirut’s creative community was alive and peaking. People from all around would enjoy walking in the streets of the district, discovering shops and galleries and then ending up altogether at the nearby restaurant or bar. Now, a lot of people have left or are considering leaving. The environment is no longer nurturing. People are living day by day. 

Once my attention shifted back entirely towards the brand, I realised that we were facing a lot of difficulties. We were not able to reclaim our showroom nor afford a new one, we were extremely discouraged and creatively blocked, our local market became almost non-existent, and we basically fell hard from the momentum we had built. After the year we had, the decision to move was not difficult, as I also realised that I can help myself, my family and my country from abroad much more than I can from within.

I think creativity is difficult to tap into when you are going through a healing process. At least, this was the case for me: juggling all the different responsibilities and finding peace within myself were my number one priority this past year. But, all of this has been silently fueling my creative energy, and I cannot wait to release it into a new collection.”