The victimization of Lebanon in art has become both boring and redundant to the Lebanese; their experiences have has left indelible marks on the memories of the children of the civil war, now grown up and weary about politics. Joe Kesrouani is one such artist.
“My life as a voyeur began with peeping through keyholes. Becoming a photographer made it more respectable, writes Kesrouani on the back cover of his recently published book “Monochromes. Through this respectable voyeurism, the book presents a new lens with which to look at Lebanon, post war.
The book encompasses shots he’s taken from 1989 to 2009 that reveal, in shades of black and white, narratives of a past and present that have been interwoven seamlessly. He places images shot as a young man in Paris with portraits shot in his studio in Beirut, side by side, blurring two worlds together.
Having studied architecture in Paris, he is now a painter and photographer in his native Beirut. His photographic themes are portraits, landscapes, street scenes and images of the aftermath of war. His artwork, oftentimes borrowing from those very same themes, is ruefully humorous.
For someone so soft spoken, Kesrourani has an ability to paint acerbic statements about contemporary issues through bold images with a style that points to his former schooling in architecture, relying heavily on composition and order.
“I’m not a painter; I paint when there’s a story to tell. I don’t paint systematically, explains Kesrouani.
Whereas people outside of Lebanon wish to ascribe the country images of bullet riddled buildings and refugee camps, the prevalent attitude now amongst artists is to stay away from subjects that would entertain such wearisome nostalgia or, as Kesrouani does, discuss them differently.
With a studio in an elegant and quiet neighborhood of Beirut, Kesrouani paints, shoots portraits and lives in this one space, oftentimes choosing to withdraw into this world. “They don’t know the amount of things that can happen when you disconnect from the superficialities of the world, he muses one afternoon in his studio.
It was in Paris that he explored the genre of nudes, capturing women at ease with themselves. To a young college student who was forced to flee his native country embroiled in a civil war, “Paris was a virgin experimental country, says Kesrouani.
Having taken up photography as a young teenager whilst in Beirut, it was in Paris that he explored other themes in photography. “Paris was a new culture of nudity, I was impressed by female subjects who wanted to do nudes . to be an expressionist you need guts.
One shot in his book is of a Parisian woman who stands topless in a cemetery, underneath the doorway of a crypt. The shot blends into another of walls in Batroun, a historic seaside town in Lebanon. “I was initially scared of the meaning people might perceive from these images together, but Kesrouani’s intention is not to titillate nor trivialize, he is simply not concerned with Lebanese society’s sense of propriety, attempting to redefine what is socially and artistically acceptable.
Flipping through the book’s 310 pages, one can’t help but question the order of images. There is no order be it by subject or chronology, inviting readers to view Kesrouani’s world as he sees it: the Paris of yesteryear is placed next to the Beirut of today. People are to be viewed up close and studied, a naked body is a landscape of textures and physical contours whilst a building’s charred structure has a beauty and dignity about it too.
Whereas he prefers Paris’ natural light, his portraits of some of Lebanon’s most recognized artists and celebrities have all been staged in his studio, and they are an indicator of how the Lebanese, and particularly Kesrouani’s generation, seek to represent themselves. There is softness, humor, sexuality, and self-expression in bold strokes.
“A picture is work done by both photographer and subject. The photographer has to put people at ease by the character of the photographer and with practice.
As much as one can intellectualize Kesrouani’s work, it’s old school portraiture in its most basic sense; they are posed yet honest shots, not sullied by gimmicky camera distortions directly capturing a subject. These are the people of Lebanon, and Kesrouani’s work ultimately seeks to redefine what it means to be living in Lebanon today with all its dualities of politics and its current state of artistic renaissance.
“Monochromes has been receiving a lot of attention in Lebanon. Having been selected to be amongst the country’s representative titles at the Le Salon Du Livre de Paris 2010, it was showcased on French TV. But Kesrouani does not seem concerned by the hype; he is planning on focusing on photography again, commencing shooting of more subjects for a second book and asks: “Are people in Egypt willing to pose nude?
“Monochromes can be purchased on Amazon.com and in all major Lebanese bookstores including Antoine Library, Papercup, Al Bourj bookshop, Stephan Library, Malik s bookshop and Orientale Library.
Atelier 68Tel.: +9611204019http://joekesrouani.viewbook.com