Still Lives – still alive
Mohammad Said Baalbaki
"I do not live in a place. I live in a time, in the components of my psyche, in a sensitivity special to me”
The words, expressed by Mourid Barghouti in his story of exile and return “I Saw Ramallah” resonate like an eternal expression of the diasporic experience. And like every exile fleeing the traumas of war and violence, Mohammad Said Baalbaki has had to find a way to come to terms with memories of past traumas and feelings of dislocation and redefine a space of his own in the components of his psyche. Born in Beirut in 1974, where he also received his initial training as an artist, Baalbaki grew up under the impression of the Lebanese Civil War with all its brutality and senseless violence. He came to Germany in 2002 to complete his studies at the University of Art in Berlin and graduated in 2008 after having received a number of prices and has now embarked on a promising international career.
Baalbaki’s personal experiences of war, flight and dislocation take up an important place in most of his works. He investigates the interrelations between memory, knowledge and the imaginary and challenges our perception of images. In a play with the similarities of shapes the artist shows us how memory and acquired knowledge informs the meaning we read into an object. His works “Collateral Damage” make a powerful point in this sense. Roughly triangular shapes with rudimentary limps protruding cross-like from the sides seem to recall the images of tortured Iraqi prisoners that caused an international uproar in 2004 when they were distributed by international media. This is not the only possible reading of the pictures; however, it seems that nobody who has the images from the notorious prison in mind would offer any other interpretation. In this way, Baalbaki parallels his own “loss of innocence” with ours. Our memories all hold images of violence and brutality that influence our gaze upon the world and the connotations of images.
The works of Baalbaki represent states of transition. Situated somewhere in the liminal space between memory and present, they stand out as haunting documents of the left luggage of recent history. And luggage as a multi-layered metaphor holds a central place in Baalbaki’s work. Piles of suitcases, trunks and boxes are continuously recurring motives. These traveller’s props that hold such alluring promises of adventure and leisure for the ordinary European, have far more sinister connotations for the exile. Suitcases carry the remnants of the life one is about to abandon and they are the lonely companions in the early stages of the new existence. They become transitory homes, locations of one’s memory and hopes, the centre of life. In times of war, a suitcase packed with the most necessary things and kept always at hand is a constant reminder of the precariousness of life’s circumstances. This explains why the suitcases in Baalbaki’s work appear desolate, even desperate. Arranged to still lives together with other objects of personal equipment such as jackets and boots, they seem abandoned, left hurriedly behind by the necessity of a final escape. Some have burst open by an unknown act of violence, leaving their contents, clothes and other personal belongings to spill out onto the ground, unprotected and vulnerable, as human life stripped bare.
Human beings are absent in these pictures or only present in rudimentary forms. In some works, uninhabited jackets rise like phantoms from piles of scattered luggage, brought to life by a ghost-like presence, a reminder of people who have disappeared, died or just gone, hurriedly, while leaving their belongings behind. Suitcases, clothes and boots gain a quality that goes beyond the profanity of their function as they refer to life that is longer there, forgotten and left behind by history. In this aspect they acquire a similar symbolic dimension as the empty clothes and hair in Anselm Kiefer’s works, as references to the absent life that is yet to be retrieved from the depths of memory.
Mohammad Said Baalbaki uses his paintings as an analytical tool to uncover hidden layers of memory. They become part of an archaeological excavation into memory and history. For an artist for whom the routines of war were familiar from a very early age onwards, art itself holds the potential of becoming a fence against the brutality of history. And Baalbaki placed his painting against the threatening loss of identity, re-claiming his own personal history, in order to “demand a self-determined biography”, to use Christian Malycha’s words (Christian Malycha: A Heap of Broken Images, exhibition catalogue, Beirut 2009). This complex process of digging through the layers of memory is also reflected in the formal technique of the artist’s work. Multiple layers of colours and motives, applied to the medium in an elaborate work process add to the act of seeing a similar archaeological aspect as is manifested in the conceptual dimension of the works.
When Baalbaki calls a work in this series “still life”, it is not only a formal, art historical classification, but a manifestation of the presence of life, of life retrieved and re-gained from the threat of extinction. This re-claiming of life and the will to leave the ghosts of history behind seems embodied in a small paper boat that appears floating past the heaps of trunks and boxes in the paintings “City Limits” (2008) and “Boat” (2006-07). This playful little toy, light and tender, folded by the hands of a child resembles in all its fragility the exile in his transitory state of leaving the past in favour of an unknown future, the exile who – in spite of all – is still alive.
Published in Mohammad Said Baalbaki, exhibition catalogue, Rafia Gallery Damascus 2010