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Zena Assi at the Tanit Gallery, from June 15 to August 3, 2023

In the twilight phase of his existence, the illustrious English landscape painter John Constable (1776-1837) produced no fewer than fifty paintings and an excess of one hundred studies, through which he endeavored to capture the ephemeral interplay of light, atmosphere, and motion in the Western sky. He meticulously documented meteorological conditions, wind directions, the cloud formations portrayed, and the date and time of each composition’s execution. Constable affectionately termed this practice “skying”. This was his modus operandi in forging and articulating a deeply personal connection with the location, be it Suffolk, Brighton, or Hampstead, by revisiting these locales as frequently as necessitated to render his sketches.

Similarly, Zena Assi explores her idiosyncratic relationship with her city, Beirut, which she juxtaposes with Constable’s English skies. The observer discerns, akin to tales etched on Achilles’ shield, dormant narratives of her urban world. In “Study of a Cloud after Constable,” the artist orchestrates a dialogue between the two planes of the composition in this series comprising 40 small and 5 large canvases, which intimately allude to the two facets of an internal geography. According to Assi, the work also represents “an interrogation on time (symbolized by the sky) and place (symbolized by the urban landscape)”. In essence, the exhibition “Study of a Cloud” proffers a compendium of artworks dating from 2015 to the present, intricately linking temporal and spatial dimensions, and offering the beholder a temporal and spatial odyssey through ancient civilizations, their mythologies, legends, and beliefs. It encompasses an array of ceramic objects, columns from imaginary temples, totems, and gargoyles inspired by artifacts housed within the collection of the National Museum of Beirut. Assi repurposes these archaeological treasures, and, when dislocated from their original context, they resonate with contemporary relevance. The artist’s preoccupations with dwelling in this “interstitial” space, where time and place can converse, are manifest in these works.

The earthenware vessels, utilized since time immemorial to narrate sagas of wars, conquests, heroes, and an array of deities, are often adorned with the tales of cities and their denizens. The erosion they have undergone imbues them with latency and memory. Organically evolving cities also unfurl across the vessels as conceived by Zena Assi, reminiscent of ancient vases. Moreover, some of her solitary characters, as she often elucidates, are inspired by the figures of the Viennese Secession paintings. These objects are repositories of memory, traces, tales, and project beyond themselves, upon the confines of their exterior surfaces, the urban imaginary they embody.

Analogous to the ceramic artifacts, Assi’s columns serve as temporal portals. Drawing inspiration from the six remaining columns of the original fifty-four at the Temple of Jupiter in Baalbeck, her triad of ceramic columns ascend from the gallery floor, reaching an apex of 180 centimeters, evoking an epiphany of time immemorial where memory and the present coalesce into a singular object. These are embellished with intricate carvings, underglaze motifs, bas-relief patterns, and decals representing the city, crowned with gargoyles, which in medieval cathedrals were designed to channel rainwater away. These architectural accoutrements, borrowing from fantastical bestiaries, and animal, human, or hybrid figures, also serve an apotropaic function: the gargoyles ward off malevolence, vigilantly safeguarding the edifice.

Adopting the visual vernacular of the totem, akin to a sacred entity representing a collective in primitive societies, Assi fashions ceramic replicas of animals and figurines alluding to war and mythology. Upon these totems, she superimposes effigies of herself, thereby subverting classical mythological depictions wherein women are often relegated to caricatural roles of victim or manipulator.

Thus, Zena Assi presents an ensemble of works deeply entrenched in the annals of art history, civilizations, ancient mythologies, as well as contemporary visual culture, current history, and its inherent violence, interweaving registers that meld tragedy with satire, and at times humor and playfulness, painting with graphic elements and animation. “Ecce Homo” exemplifies this through a short film, drawing upon the six etchings and aquatints on paper that are inspired by the engravings and drawings of the Spanish painter Francisco Goya (1746-1828). Aptly titled “The Disasters of War” (1810-1820), this series delineates the unspeakable atrocities of war – scenes of sickness, famine, violation, and execution – described as a “prodigious flowering of rage” (Connell, Evan S. Francisco Goya: A Life. New York: Counterpoint, 2004, p.175). Though deeply ingrained within the historical conflicts of early 19th-century Spain – notably Napoleon Bonaparte’s invasion of Spain in 1808, followed by the Peninsular War (1808-1814) and the famine besieging Madrid in the winter of 1811-1812 – these images transcend their specific historical milieu and were intended by Goya to espouse a universal message. By condemning war, violence, and injustice, Goya primarily sought to highlight the human dimension. This is resonant with Assi’s intention as well, as through the title she assigns to this series, she alludes to the depiction of Christ crowned with thorns, symbolizing suffering humanity. The thematic of “Ecce Homo” (Latin for “Behold the Man”) which permeates art history, refers to the words uttered by Pontius Pilate in the Gospel of John as he presents Jesus to the hostile crowd preceding his crucifixion (John 19:5). The artist is engrossed in the treatment of this theme among post-war German expressionist painters, particularly George Grosz (1893-1959), who, in a homonymous series (1915-1922), rendered satirical drawings presented as a critique of his epoch and society. Assi deftly appropriates a minutiae from Goya’s oeuvre, juxtaposing it amidst the urban tumult, replete with the martial iconography of our epoch, thus illustrating what bears semblance to a global crisis in contemporary times. His artistic gesture partakes in venerable techniques, namely, etching and aquatint on copper plates, which were also employed by the eminent Spanish maestro, thereby inscribing himself within the seemingly cyclical narrative of history. All of these elements are invigorated in the ensuing short film, which depicts, under the hegemony of a Leviathan-esque entity, emblematics of dominion and malevolence, looming over the urban landscape, Assi’s poignant humanism as a witness to the inexorable violence, warfare, and historical cataclysms.

This contemporaneity is encapsulated in the denouement of Assi’s exhibition: “Dinner Table,” an installation comprising five chairs encircling a round table, acting as an interface between the personal and the collective, obfuscating the demarcations of narratives. The dining table, emblematic of familial rootedness, is a leitmotif in Assi’s oeuvre. Atop this table rest five ornately decorated plates, each bearing the portrait of a family member (father, mother, and three daughters). Alongside these elements, a series of twenty-two disquietingly textured pencil drawings of flies adorned with serial numbers and various allusions to the contemporary milieu are suspended from the ceiling above the table, akin to an ominous mobile. These insects evoke the casualties of the Syrian war, dehumanized into mere statistics, as they are tragically said to “drop like flies.” Within this installation, the flies also represent harbingers of unease permeating the air, akin to a foreboding shadow cast over a family dinner.

This prolific assemblage, marked by its diversity, originality in proposition, technical gravitas, and intelligent rendering, is on display at the Tanit Gallery in Beirut, from June 15 to August 3, 2023.

Nayla Tamraz
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