Drawn over a five-story apartment building in Mannheim, Germany, Lebanese artist Yazan Halwani’s mural shows a young bearded Arab man packing his suitcase. His eyes are closed but his hands are quick and determined as he folds clothes into a suitcase. The artwork is called “The inevitability of leaving things behind.”
“I think a lot of Lebanese who would see this think of sad moments — such as watching their parents, siblings, friends or even themselves packing up and leaving the country for an indefinite amount of time,” Halwani, 24, told Al-Monitor after he finalized the mural at the end of June.
Born and based in Beirut, Halwani is known for his murals and paintings that explore cultural identity. He uses Arabic calligraphy in novel forms, breaking down the specific measurements of traditional calligraphy to create pixel-like figures that merge into the mural.
In the last five years, the artist has painted portraits of well-known figures such as Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, Lebanese singers Fairouz and Sabah, and Samir Kassir, the assassinated Lebanese journalist and historian. Some of Halwani's previous works include "Eternal Sabah" in Hamra and "Fairouz" in Gammayze, both in Beirut, and "The flower salesman" in Dortmund, Germany.
“The inevitability of leaving things behind” is part of a new series by Halwani, in which he aims to shed light on new aspects of Lebanese identity, in particular the mobility of the new Lebanese generation.
He said the modern identity of Lebanon was different from its folklore, which includes the internationally known singer Fairouz. “Many of the key elements of Lebanese identity are never represented in art,” he said, underlining that one of the main characteristics of the Lebanese was their tendency to “never be able to live or work in their own country.”
From that point of view, the mural is a reflection on modern Lebanese young people — a generation used to travel abroad for work or university and only returning to Lebanon once they are more established.
Artist Yazan Halwani in front of his mural "The inevitability of leaving things behind," June 27, 2017 (Alexander Krziwanie / Stadt.Wand.Kunst/Montana-Cans)
The artist said that choosing to depict a young bearded man rather than a woman was questioned by art managers who commissioned the mural, but that he justified his choice by explaining that in an Arab family, it is typically the man who emigrates first.
But the idea of leaving things behind is not unique to Halwani’s countrymen. The five-story building that forms a canvas for this image is a micro-cosmos of people on the move: A Turkish man, a member of the largest immigrant community in Germany, lives on the second floor; a German man with his Uzbek girlfriend lives on the third; and a Greek man is on the fifth. A nearby residence for the elderly hosts the older generation who have left their homes. People on the move, such as politicians who come to the nearby town hall, businessmen, tourists and homeless people all rub elbows in this area.
The mural is part of an initiative by one of the cultural centers in the city, Alte Feuerwache, in a partner project with Montana-Cans, an urban arts supplies company, and open urban art gallery Stadt.Wand.Kunst (“City.Wall.Art”).
The project began in 2013 with German artist duo Herakut’s “The giant storybook project.” The mural’s overwhelming success inspired Soren Gerhold, the managing director at Alte Feuerwache, to build an open-air museum in Mannheim where people could watch the process of murals being painted from beginning to end.
Gerhold said he chose this specific spot after seeing Halwani’s work for the first time in Hamra and Gammayze. “The mixture of different nationalities, religions, rich and poor, businessmen and artists, reminded me of Mannheim, where we have 160 nationalities living together.”
Gerhold said people’s reaction to the mural has been very positive. During the painting process, locals would come to take pictures, talk to him and even try to give him money. Some older women brought printouts of Halwani’s work for the artist to sign.
“Yazan was almost running away from a guy who wanted to give him a 10 euro bill, just because he loved his work so much,” Gerhold joked.
“People love to see the murals in different weather, lights, seasons and changing environments, because it is different from normal museums where you see painted arts in a perfect light situation and the same surroundings all the time,” Gerhold said. “Stadt.Wand.Kunst not only brings art to the people, but also brings color to parts of town where nobody wants to go.”