Header image credit: Margaux Chalançon, Zoubeyda from the “Zoubeyda’s World Series”, Film Photography
In times of war, life is interrupted and people find themselves forced from their lands, their traditions and their communities. Tints of Resilience, on show at London’s P21 Gallery, is a collective exhibition that brings together the works of 11 Middle Eastern artists in a rich tapestry of visual artworks, photography, poetry and film, to explore the potential of art in developing resilience in zones of conflict.
The show places art at the heart of adversity, examining its ability to reconnect and maintain the bonds with home, people, and tradition. The artists, currently or previously living in the Middle East, share their experiences in art-making and using art to cope with war, asylum, injury and a search for identity. They present both individual explorations and artistic collaborations with refugee children, social workers, and art therapists.
Here, the artist and curator Rania Mneimneh talks about the inspiration and process of developing the exhibition and why art is essential for children who are suffering.
How did Tints of Resilience come about?
Growing up in Lebanon, in a region facing constant political turmoil and instability, I found myself stuck in a challenging dilemma: of acceptance versus rebellion, of coping with the current situation versus working for change. Coping was, and remains, a challenge for many of us. And I wondered, in this situation, how we could develop resilience—what are the tools and languages that can be used to cope with difficult situations? Or even hold the possibility of overcoming them? Instability does prevail sadly, as a painful norm.
With the onset of the war in Syria in 2011 and the mass migration of refugees to Lebanon the question gained more urgency. At the time I was working in the field of design and marketing, using my skills in art and communication in volunteering projects with the International Committee of the Red Cross; Act for the Disappeared and Artichoke Studio, which work on forced disappearances; and Empowerment through Integration, which works on empowering youth with visual disabilities. Such projects shed a light on the positive influence of art in times of hardship for children and adults. Art has the magical ability to communicate difficult topics and to bridge the gap of languages, of cultures, of political discord. I started to think—why not explore the potential of art in this context?
I contacted the artist Diala Brisly in 2016. She was working on art interventions with children living in Syrian refugee camps in north Lebanon. This is how Tints of Resilience started and it eventually expanded to encompass 11 artists living in the Middle East who share their stories of resilience, addressing themes of war, displacement, loss and search for identity.
How did you choose the artists in the exhibition?
There are 11 artists: Anas Albraehe, Ayman Nahleh, Diala Brisly, Dima Nachawi, Ghaleb Hawila, Ghassan Ismail, Margaux Chalançon, Nour Huda, Youssef Doughan, Zeina Kanawati and me. The choice of artists came through direct contact while working with social organisations or attending art workshops. It was driven by their artistic courage in sharing their stories and working with their community.
Throughout two years of collaboration, discussing themes of adversity and working with children in refugee camps, we moved from a project proposal to a collective exhibition. Each participating artist in Tints of Resilience courageously shares the intimate process of using art to overcome difficulties. The artists offer a rich tapestry of paintings, photography, film and illustration and the process stands in the exhibition as prominently as the final artwork itself.
You went into the refugee camps with some of the artists to do workshops with children there. Can you describe what you did and what the experience was like?
“You must have felt really sad when you visited the refugee camp” said one of my friends when we were discussing the Tints of Resilience project. “On the contrary,” I said, “I felt really happy—I carry with me the driving force of the lives of 50 children whose imagination and enthusiasm exceed the border of tents and wars.”
The camp is often portrayed as a space of desolation and loss but going there showed me that the will to live exceeds adversity. For a large number of the youths and children the life at Yahya camp (the name comes from the person responsible of the camp, who is also part of the community) revolved around the school tent. Alphabet for Alternative Education has established eight school tents in eight refugee camps in Bekaa, north of Lebanon, to alleviate the lack of access to education for children refugees.
My first encounter with the children was with artist Diala Brisly in October 2016. She was working on a mural painting for Yahya Camp school tent. The purpose was to make the space friendly, colourful and encourage the children to attend school. I accompanied her with the photographer Youssef Doughan and for two days we documented the painting of the mural with the children. We also conducted an art workshop with the kids for another two days—divided into two teams, they picked words from a bowl, imagined a story based on it, and then did a painting of it with Diala. It was a great opportunity for the children to work together, perform an activity outside the school curriculum and connect with themselves.
The second project was with the artist Ghaleb Hawila. We installed two big canvases facing each other right next to the camp in the green Bekaa Valley and we let the paint fight begin! For two hours we were all children. The filmmaker Margaux Chalancon documented us playing. Ghaleb took the painted canvases back to his studio and painted calligraphic verses on them by the Lebanese poet Elia Abu Madi which were about migration and the collective force of overcoming adversity. He then cut the big canvases into 53 separate artworks. The intention was for these canvases to spread to new places, for the calligraphic letters to migrate, carrying the voices of migrant children into the homes of an international audience.
As well as curating the show, you also have works in the exhibition. Can you describe them and how they fit with the show’s theme?
I have two projects in the exhibition. The first is Beautiful Mansion, a photographic series I took in a beautiful abandoned mansion in Beirut. Many traditional houses are under threat in the city and the face of Beirut has changed a lot since the civil war. For me, this house reflects my country—beautiful yet stuck in political and economic stagnation. It used to be the home of Takieddine El Solh, the prime minster of Lebanon from 1973 to 1974—the years right before the start for the civil war.
Many issues are pending since the end of war, like the destruction of heritage, the fates of the missing and forcibly disappeared during the war, the lack of proper economic planning and political resolution. A country that is not reconciled with its past cannot strive in the present nor plan for the future.
The second project is a series of three paintings titled If Resilience is a Woman where I depict resilience as a young driven woman, a loving sacrificing mother and wise elderly lady: it is a small salute from me as a curator to the exhibition.
Some people would argue that, with basic provisions and education for refugees in camps being available, art classes for children aren’t a priority. What would you say to that?
I would let the five-year-old me answer—the one that collects pencil colours and draws a half blue sky with a smiling sun.
For children art is an important means of expressing themselves. And I think, for children who witness war, loss and displacement, art activities are still very important. They often witness events that they cannot verbalise and art can slip through their defences, help them express their feelings, and regain a sense of self. In that context, art sessions prevail as a priority for developing the coping mechanisms of these children.
In her research with Palestinian children, psychology Professor Raija Punamaki found that “if individuals are able to move from conscious reality and thinking into play, dream or creativity they have a greater capacity to cope”.
In Tints of Resilience we ask you to accompany artists, art therapists and children through a journey of the imagination: to feel, hear and see their paths in overcoming hardship and gaining resilience. We invite you to explore the positive influence of art during difficult times, not only on others, but on yourself as well. I hope that visitors will carry with them the conviction that there is no limit to the capacity of overcoming hardship and that expressive mediums—whether one knows how to draw or not—can be an enriching resource on the path towards resilience.
Find out more about the exhibition here: https://www.facebook.com/tintsofresilience/
Tints of Resilience is on show at P21 Gallery until 6 September.
Aimee Dawson is a writer who specialises in art from the Middle East and North Africa. She is the Assistant Digital Editor at The Art Newspaper and has written for Ibraaz, Mada Masr, Mojeh and Reorient among others.