A war against art and culture

(Youssef Ghazzawi)

This past month, Lebanese artist Youssef Ghazzawi’s studio was destroyed by Israeli military bombardment for the third time in his life. The first time was in 1977 when his home in the southern Lebanese village of Khiam was severely bombed. And the second time was in 1983 during the Israeli occupation of Beirut; the apartment building he was living and working in collapsed due to continuous shelling. Under each barrage, his entire studio and most of its contents were destroyed. He had salvaged a few things from the previous two demolitions and was saving them. In the most recent destruction of Youssef’s studio his entire life’s output was lost. Able to escape the incessant bombing of his neighborhood by Israeli war planes, he and his family returned to his home and studio, both located in Dahiyeh (the southern suburb of Beirut), only to find disaster. Scattered, buried, or torn to shreds in the bombing, were hundreds of paintings, mosaic panels, work on glass and wood, work on paper, sketchbooks, notebooks, precious mementoes, and a vast library of art books in numerous languages.

Youssef, a professor at the Lebanese University, is an artist of breadth and vast experience. He spent many years in Paris studying and later practicing his art. Much of his work bears the stamp of his international experience. His wife, Suzanne Chakaroune, also an artist and art instructor, shared his studio and also lost all of her work.

During a phone interview on August 16, 2006, Youssef discussed what has transpired over the past month, “I was planning a retrospective exhibition of my work from the past 25 years, and all this work is now gone.” When asked if he was able to salvage anything this time, Youssef said, “Only some books, the paintings which I pulled out are torn to ribbons; I suppose there might be a chance to restore a couple of them.”

Later in the interview he affirmed, “We are all fed up with war and the attacks by Israel … We know that at any moment they can hit us. I see this war as one against our art and culture, against our progress and development, a war against humanity. We want to create beauty and they find an excuse to demolish us.”

(Youssef Ghazzawi)

(Youssef Ghazzawi)

The Lebanese government recently declared that seven billion dollars’ worth of damage has resulted from recent Israeli bombing. My guess is that if this number is doubled, it would not yet make up for private loss, let alone cultural loss.

As a painter, I am horrified to learn of Youssef’s losses. I immediately understand what he conveys, his reaction is my reaction. Under the Israeli occupation of Palestine, Palestinian artists are subjected to terrifying crimes against their artistic production. Our art is often destroyed and confiscated, our palette governed by Israeli laws that prohibit the use of certain colors. In Palestine, artists work knowing that their work could be confiscated or cause their imprisonment and many have been put in prison for merely being artists.

Youssef Ghazzawi and Suzanne Chakaroune both lost the creative output of a lifetime as have many other Lebanese and they know as clearly, as Palestinian artists do. As a Palestinian artist, I express my admiration, empathy, and respect to Youssef Ghazzawi and Suzanne Chakaroune and to their Lebanese sumoud. May you both create most brilliant masterpieces as time and life allows you in the coming days.

Samia Halaby is a Palestinian artist based in the US. Assistance for this article was provided by Farhat Center for Research and Studies of Arab Modern and Contemporary Arts.

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