Taking Lebanese Ceramic Art to a Higher Place

Ceramics is getting more and more popular and this competition proved us right !

The ancient medium of ceramic art recently received special attention – and a welcome boost – at the Modern and Contemporary Art Museum (MACAM) in Alita, near Nahr Ibrahim.

A double showcase of sorts, consisting of a retrospective of ceramic art pioneer and first Lebanese modernist ceramic artist, Dorothy Salhab Kazemi and the Age of Ceramics Competition and ensuing exhibition of the 43 submitted art works, gave visitors to the museum the opportunity to experience ceramic art in all its versatility and diversity.

Whereas academic, ceramic artist and Age of Ceramics jury member Samar Mogharbel thought that “this exhibition did not represent the state of ceramics in Lebanon, as many well established ceramists did not participate,” she underlined that “yes, ceramics is gaining momentum in the Lebanese art scene.”

“Ceramic art may well have been leading a bit of a shadow existence in Lebanon but Bouez asserts that it “is slowly but surely changing,” Nevine Bouez, winner of the Audience Choice Award at the 32nd Sursock Salon d’Automne (2016/2017) who also participated in the Age of Ceramics Competition suggested. “Ceramic art is growing and excelling in Lebanon.”

“Every year, we choose a different medium,” Gabriele Schaub, co-founder and co-director of MACAM explained. “After bronze, iron and wood, we chose ceramics this year.”

The fourth competition since inception of the private museum in 2013, drew submissions from a wide variety of ceramic artists, ranging from amateurs to established artists. “We were very pleased with the many submissions the competition drew,” Schaub added.

“Ceramics is getting more and more popular and this competition proved us right!” museum director and co-founder Cesar Nammour said. “Feedback and turn out to the exhibition was positive and received great resonance. We were also pleased that the pupils of Dorothy admired, and lauded the expo.”

“Dorothy's work was very daring at the time and still is,” Mogharbel, a student of the late Kazemi, concurred. “She influences me every day! Not with the themes of my works, but through the experimentations, the constant researches and the dedication.”

Probed about the winning submission, Maha Nasrallah’s Cinderella’s Slippers or Qobqab, Mogharbel pointed out that, “as a jury member, the winning piece was first evaluated through the subject and the firing outcome. When the work was chosen we looked into the explanation as well. The work should speak by itself. It does not matter to us whether it is political or not. Any important work will call you.”

Nasrallah’s winning submission is indeed a bold and powerful work of art. Her depiction of shoes, lowly slippers really, remind us of the banality of everyday life in the context of war. It exposes summary executions in Assad’s Syria echoes Bertold Brecht’s Mother Courage.

While Qobqab, connected to Syria, had indeed a political dimension, the artist underlined that more than a political comment, a human position lies at the genesis of her art, which often is about death: “I worked on the Qobqab, the Syrian sabot, as a symbol to represent the absence, the loss,” she explained. “The loss of a culture, of a human being, of the second slipper of the pair. The slippers left behind become an evidence, an evidence of a crime, of loss, of absence.”

“For the past three years I have been experimenting with marble pottery, mixing two types of clay to produce one piece. The combination often creates surprises in the way the two clays come together, merging or separating. For this Qobqab piece, I followed the accidental separation of the two clays to produce the effect of fragility and fragmentation,” she underlined.

“The competition was very instrumental to me personally,” Nasrallah said. “Besides bringing together more than 40 ceramists from all over Lebanon, it allowed me to think about my work as art rather than usable objects only. It also exposed my work to art curators who are interested in following my work.”

Whereas May Ammoun’s Cherchant sa forme, which won third place and Sabine Karam’s second place winning Hommage à Daumier are both organic, Karam’s artwork reveals itself to also contain critical undertones. “I was not at all inspired by Daumier and I hadn’t seen his clay caricatures before,” Karam revealed. “While I was completing my piece, my husband immediately saw the link and suggested the title. The satirical intent of his clay figurines was a good match for my great displeasure with corrupt Lebanese politicians.”

Probed about her work process, Ammoun explained that once she reached the right shape, “I bake the stoneware artwork in preparation for its enameling, which I prepare myself from scratch, using minerals, metals, oxides and ash that I apply in layers before baking the artwork again at 1280 C. I try to turn soil into dreams.”

Karam, who has participated in several collective exhibitions, and was one of three winners at MACAM’s first competition, The Age of Bronze, put forward that ceramic art in Lebanon is moving forward. “Witness to this is the high number of participants in competitions and the good quality in the pieces exhibited. For me personally, obviously winning was a great source of joy and provided an impetus for continuing along. At the award ceremony I’ve noticed a great sense of excitement among the participants. As for the Dorothy Salhab Kazemi retrospective, I enjoyed a great deal admiring her work. I truly believe that she was a great artist and a trailblazer.”

An architect by formation and profession, Nasrallah is also co-founder of the Bkerzay pottery workshop in the Chouf, a hub that is becoming a centre for contemporary Lebanese ceramists. “In the past 15 years, the ceramic scene has become much richer in Lebanon and it starts to show.”

Beyond the recent exhibitions focusing on ceramic art, MACAM is becoming a site where ceramic art is being created. May Abboud together with a group of ceramists have built a raku (a kind of lead-glazed Japanese earthenware, used especially for the tea ceremony) kiln and once the first firing is completed, will also be offering workshops.

“MACAM has filled a great gap on the Lebanese art scene by introducing to the general public the work of numerous Lebanese sculptors,” Karam put forward. Similarly, Bouez praised Nammour and Schaub for having singlehandedly created and put together a wonderful sculpture museum, adding that “competitions bring artists together, in the end everyone is a winner if the process of creation gives them joy, energy and enthusiasm. My hope is that new workshops open, we need more shops that are specialised in glazes, kilns, clays and ceramic materials, thus encouraging more and more pottery lovers to follow their passion.”

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