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Lebanese campaign encourages art against racism amid economic crisis

A recent campaign launched by artists in Lebanon called on people from all ages and groups to share their drawings of issues they believe deserve awareness.

BEIRUT — In mid-June, the management of the Istanbouli Theater, an Arab theatrical company established in 2014; the Tiro Association for Arts, a nongovernmental organization (NGO) operating in southern Lebanon since 2014; and the Lebanese National Theater, which is a public theater and a free independent cultural platform established in 2019, launched an online campaign titled “We Paint Against Racism,” with the aim of promoting equality and freedom of expression and rejecting all forms of discrimination.

Actor and director Qassem Istanbouli, who is the founder of the Lebanese National Theater, said in a statement June 16, “In light of the divisions, conflicts, sectarian strife and racism witnessed in the region, we found that we must work to use arts to raise awareness and encourage unity, coexistence, dialogue, love and respect for other people’s opinion while rejecting intolerance and discrimination in all its forms.”

“This is why we must draw for the humanity that unites us,” he added.

Istanbouli told Al-Monitor, “This campaign started with drawings and photographs and will include other arts, such as storytelling.”

He continued, “It is a kind of awareness that there is no difference between people of different skin color and religion and that we have to respect the privacy of others because we are all equal.”

The campaign was launched in cooperation with the Takween Association, a Lebanese NGO concerned with arts and established in 2014, and the Moltaka Alalwan, a Lebanese art association established in 2015, with the participation of artists from Lebanon and the world. It includes online training workshops for children and youth to help them draw about the campaign’s goals.

An online exhibition is to be held in late July, along with an exhibition open to the public at the Lebanese National Theater in Tyre in southern Lebanon, depending on the coronavirus developments.

As soon as the campaign was announced, the Istanbouli Theater management started publishing drawings by participating artists on its social media pages. These included drawings by professionals, amateurs and trained painters from Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine, Iraq, Algeria and Italy. Children between the ages of 6 and 12 also took part in the campaign.

Despite the difficult circumstances that Lebanon is going through, the campaign attracted a high turnout. As of the writing of this article, more than 150 paintings of different qualities and sizes have been shared. Themes were freely chosen by participants, according to Istanbouli.

He said such initiatives will have positive repercussions because art in general — painting, cinema and theater — brings people together, and when it raises an issue, the message is conveyed faster to people.

“The content of the drawings highlighted issues targeted by the campaign. For example, there are drawings about domestic workers who are subjected to ill-treatment as a result of unfair laws. Other drawings shed light on racism and sectarianism. Still others focus on gender-based violence as well as on people’s outlook on LGBT people and their persecution. There are also drawings that talk about illness and some stories that have to do with gender and equality between men and women, as women do not always get their rights.”

Ralph Daghfal, a 17-year-old student taking part in the campaign with a painting of a dark-skinned girl, told Al-Monitor, “Ever since I was little I loved to draw. I wanted to draw this painting at this specific time and use it to take part in the campaign because there are a lot of people who look at black people differently just because they have a different skin color. We saw what happened in the United States with George Floyd. Also in Lebanon, domestic workers were abandoned in front of embassy doors and left on the road for days due to COVID-19 and the difficult economic situation Lebanon is going through. That’s why I chose this drawing of a dark-skinned girl looking far into freedom.”

Lamia Hussein, an Iraqi artist whose medium is plastic and who is also taking part in the campaign, told Al-Monitor, “I gladly took part in the campaign because I am against racism. I chose my painting to express humanity, rebellion and conflicts. It shows a woman’s face screaming against societal, arbitrary and racial injustice, and I chose to draw this woman to exemplify the pain experienced by women. The woman symbolizes the homeland, man in general and society, and I chose to have her shouting to symbolize strength, not weakness, because rebellion against racism emanates from strength.”

While some found the campaign to be a good initiative, others believe that such initiatives will not resonate in society given the difficult circumstances Lebanon is currently going through. There are also some who believe the initiative affects the participants more than the people.

Ziyad Srouji, an activist in the protest movement in Lebanon, told Al-Monitor, “Any initiative against racism is always timely. And awareness campaigns in Lebanon frankly require time, struggle and patience. The more we work, the better the results. This initiative will certainly touch those affected by racism in all its forms, such as foreign workers, members of the LGBT community and everyone who supports action against racism, and this category is not very large in Lebanon.”

Ghiwa al-Ashqar, a Lebanese decorator, said, “The campaign is important during this period in particular, and it is not true that it should set priorities. We are living a revolution and everyone is listening to the ideas presented. So the campaign might leave a huge impact.”

On the other hand, Hanan Zreik, a Lebanese teacher, told Al-Monitor, “Life concerns, such as securing food and medical care and accessing electricity, overshadow our daily concerns. Art is beautiful, but we have other types of concerns.”

Natheer Halawani, a photographer who is also active in the popular protest, said, “The campaign is very important, and it is part of recreational activities that are necessary in light of the bad situation that Lebanon is going through.”

He added, “A painting or a picture is worth a thousand words, and Ralph’s painting managed to summarize a struggle experienced for several years.”

People, Halawani continued, are divided into two groups: “a small group that is aware of the importance of such activities that positively affect people’s mental health, and another group that does not realize the importance of mental health for one to persevere.”

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