TACOMA, Washington — The impact and the importance of culture and the arts in impoverished communities are often overlooked by both philanthropic individuals and the general public. Although people around the world are indeed struggling for basic necessities, the presence of artistic humanism in global communities is indispensable, not only for creating a shared understanding of the world but for preserving the very spirit of the people. An emphasis on the arts in Lebanon has never been more important. The country is not only facing economic and social challenges from COVID-19 but is also confronting the aftermath of a deadly blast suffered in the capital city of Beirut. While the region is battling poverty in its ugliest form, art is serving as an enduring form of restoration, unity and expression.
In August 2020, the most powerful non-nuclear explosion of the 21st century upended the city of Beirut. Thousands of tons of ammonium nitrate, a dangerous compound used in explosives, had been irresponsibly stored in a warehouse at the port of Beirut. With nearly 100,000 people living within one mile of the warehouse, the results of the sudden explosion were devastating and killed over 190 people. Hospitals already crippled from COVID-19 received over 6,000 injured people and countless citizens and families whose lives had been upended.
Prior to the disaster, 55% of people in Lebanon were living in poverty. Government corruption, political deadlock and continuous interference of global powers have continued to contribute to the deep unrest not only within Lebanon but throughout the region. The U.N. World Food Program estimates that between October 2019 and June 2020 food prices rose by 109% in Lebanon. This economic crisis has only been exasperated by COVID-19. With the blast in August leading to 300,000 people losing their homes, poverty rates in Lebanon have undoubtedly skyrocketed.
While the current situation is dismal, the arts in Lebanon have found a way to continue to thrive. Lebanon was and remains one of the artistic hubs of the Middle East, in which paintings, music and literature are cornerstones of Lebanese culture. It is no mystery why the people of Lebanon are, in turn, using the arts as a form of expression and healing in times of devastation.
The Fine Art Heritage Rescue Initiative
Lebanese conservation specialist and historian Gaby Maamary is one of the many artists restoring destroyed art at no cost. With the goal of preserving the cultural heritage of Beirut, Maamary launched the Fine Art Heritage Rescue Initiative, a movement dedicated to repairing art that was damaged in the blast.
The 961, a media site that covers Lebanese news, writes that the work of this initiative takes more than patience and precision, “[it takes]most importantly love. Love for arts, sure, but that’s love for one’s country and heritage.” Recognizing the value of art and refusing to let it vanish in the rubble is a way in which the people of Lebanon are supporting not only physical restoration but a restoration of hope and morale.
Beirut Year Zero
With hundreds of homes, museums and businesses destroyed, physical art is now being displayed in creative places. Nabil Debs opened the doors of his home to host the exhibition “Beruit Year Zero” after witnessing the destruction of many art studios and halls that happened in the blast. The importance of this particular art display extends beyond visuals and artistic studies. In an interview with The Jakarta Post, Debs comments that “the political system, the economic crisis, everything is coming against us, so we transformed that anger into art.”
Although “Beruit Year Zero” art is used as a means of violent expression, of channeling the emotional effects of destruction and loss, many of the featured paintings, sculptures and installations express themes of ruin and rebirth. The exhibition’s opening night even featured musical performances of classical Beirut numbers expressing these very themes. Additionally, “Beruit Year Zero” partnered with the Lebanese Red Cross, and the exhibition has a goal of using its art for financial relief.
The Arts at Tyre Church
Days after the Beirut explosion occurred, evangelical humanitarian and music teacher Chelsea Lyman was set to return back to her home in Lebanon after a visit to the United States. “It feels redundant to explain [that it was]the world’s third-largest explosion,” she explained, “that it was the result of government corruption and neglect, that hundreds are dead and thousands are misplaced. It was a whole other beast seeing it.” Working through Tyre Church, Lyman expressed that after the accident and amid the wake of COVID-19, the church began to shift much of its usual roles. They began to focus more on humanitarian work, “switching full gear into disaster relief.”
The work did not stop there. Lyman, as well as other members of her group, have leaned on the relief and the comfort of art in mending a broken region. In the weeks following the blast, Lyman alongside Tyre Church launched “Camp Isaac,” a camp focused on bringing the arts and a sense of community to disabled individuals in Lebanon. This camp teaches members interactive songs and dances, joyfully bringing together an often marginalized group of people in the wake of economic turmoil.
Outside of the camp, Lyman serves as a music instructor and leads a small band in Tyre. She sees her work in the arts in Lebanon as something that positively impacts impoverished communities, giving her students not only a transferable skill but a sense of necessary wonder and delight. Tyre Church and its emphasis on the music and dance is just one example of a community that is focused on maintaining the cultural value and benefit of the arts, even amid economic and social hardship.
Lebanon’s history is defined by destruction. From bullet holes and bunkers from the Lebanese Civil War to the newly scattered rubble from the port explosion, Beirut is home to physical reminders of this history. But more than this, Lebanon’s history is defined by resilience. Chelsea Lyman notes that “although Beirut is in shambles, it has been an honor to witness the resilience of the people.” The ability of the Lebanese communities to perpetuate culture and art through strife is a way in which relief and hope carry on. Through individual art-based initiatives and programs, impoverished communities in Lebanon are continuing on a path toward restoration.
– Karli Stone