The Forward Thrust of Christine Tohme

Beirut-based curator Christine Tohme has been organizing events in public spaces since 1994, creating platforms of exchange between artists in Lebanon and other countries. Tohme is one of the founding members of the Lebanese Association for Plastic Arts (Ashkal Alwan), a nonprofit arts organization of which she is the director. From the outset, Ashkal Alwan has been committed to developing art practices across a wide range of disciplines and media, including installation art, video art, photography, performances and publications. In 2001, Ashkal Alwan conceived Home Works, A Forum on Cultural Practices, a multidisciplinary event intended as a public arena for artists, curators, intellectuals and cultural practitioners to engage in critical reflection and debate. Since that time, Home Works has grown, with edition III to be held this April (see previews). Beyond the Home Works Forum, her most recent curatorial projects include Missing Links (Cairo-Beirut, 2001), Possible Narratives — jointly curated with Akram Zaatari in the framework of the Videobrasil festival (Sao Paolo, 2003) — and Laughter: A Program of Contemporary Lebanese Art, produced by the London International Festival of Theater (London, 2004).

Bidoun: Which professional background do you come from. Did you work as a curator before organizing the forum?

Christine Tohme: From 1995 to 2000, I worked in public spaces, Beirut’s seafront, and in gardens, one where a public hanging took place after the civil war. This was the first postwar art project. It came at a time when East and West Beirut were still completely closed to one another. Officially, the war ceased in 1990, but there were still many conflicts and clashes between different militias and so on. What was important to me was the question of: do we have a public space in Beirut? And when I say Beirut I don’t mean Lebanon. I’m interested in Ramallah, Cairo and Tehran. I’m not interested in Palestine, Egypt and Iran. I’m interested in cities.

Bidoun: So you moved from working on a specific urban environment to a large international context. It so happens that in this international arena, there is also a huge fascination for Beirut specifically.

CT: Beirut has always been a center. They used to call it the Champs-Elysées of the Orient. And historically, it was a port city, a commercial center, a role that might be passed on to Dubai now, because Beirut has not rediscovered its role, the one it had before the war.

Bidoun: But does the fascination for the Beirut art scene have the same roots as the Champs-Elysées of the Orient?

CT: It is democracy that creates artistic accumulation. And Beirut is still democratic. I’m not saying 100%, but, relatively speaking, it is democratic. You can still talk. Can we talk in Egypt? Can we talk in Syria? In Amman? In Beirut, we’re getting work done to a certain extent. I’m not saying it’s the way it used to be in the Seventies. Even today, censorship is one of the threats we’re dealing with all the time. But in comparison to other Arab contexts, it’s a city that’s kicking.

In 1999, we installed a sculpture by Tony Chakar for a seafront project [Ashkal Alwan’s Corniche 1999], and it created a big row with the mosque. They thought it was blasphemous. At that point, some people started mobilizing to protect the sculpture, because people were feeling that Islamic fundamentalism was invading everything. It was on the front page of all newspapers, even the Municipality and the Minister of Culture dropped by to discuss it. Can you imagine this happening in any other Arab country?

The piece was not anti-Islamic in any way. It was questioning notions of museum art. But even though we felt threatened, we were able to shake the city with this artistic manifestation. This is what I call constructive failure, because it pushed us to ask ourselves: do we have public space in Beirut?

Bidoun: Still, what I find difficult about your distinction between art in democratic and non-democratic societies, is that, working in Tehran, for example, which is largely non-democratic, the largest challenge wasn’t the regime, nor the mosques. It was completely different things, like the fact that the whole art scene was completely bourgeois. And that it had such antiquated, beaux-arts ideas about contemporary art.

CT: I’m talking about artistic accumulation. Not about artistic practices. You can have art practices in hegemonic atmospheres. But I’m talking about layers, about strata of artistic accumulation. And actually, Iran for me is a big example. The Shah got Bob Wilson to come and perform in Iran in the seventies, a twenty-four-hour performance in the mountains around Tehran. And yet, the Shah was the man who built the SAVAK. This is very schizophrenic: the man who built all the museums I saw in Tehran, and who brought in the very best designers, also erected one of the most ferocious secret services in the world. Even the now-famous cinema industry in Iran was initiated under that very structure of hegemony. We have to question that industry as well. Just as we have to question the fascination for Beirut. How many artists do we have here in Beirut? There may be hundreds but all in all, I relate to about twenty-five artists. Why is the West getting seduced by this place?

We have to see that the artists here are definitely privileged with respect to others in the Arab world. They’re functioning in a more accessible, democratic space. It’s much easier for them. Of course, in Egypt, the international funders have decided to shower money throughout the country because they want to quench fundamentalism, and thanks to Sadat’s agreement with Israel there’s more money around, but how do artists function in Cairo? As far as I can see, these artists suffer censorship a lot.

Bidoun: But there has to be some kind of pragmatic way of theorizing art under dictatorships. I don’t think it’s necessary to set up this hierarchy of yours between places like Beirut, and others.

CT: I agree — maybe it isn’t necessary. But I believe in working for change. And when I talk about censorship and modes of production in this way, people in the Arab world will know what I mean. I don’t believe in art that’s put in the service of political causes. Militant art has lost its meaning. And yet we still have to think about resistance. How can we keep our pockets of resistance?

Bidoun: Some say that in countries that are the object of much international attention, the pressures exerted by NGOs is comparable to government censorship in repressive countries. They say donors can fine-tune your program according to what they want you to be.

CT: Never. Even when they try to do so, I refuse. I say, “Thanks, but I don’t want your money.”

Bidoun: Not at all? You’re never tempted? Aren’t these difficult choices when you can gain so much from the funds they’re offering you?

CT: I’m not a fundamentalist. I’m not saying, “I don’t submit to agendas, I don’t play the role, I’m not part of the market” — I AM part of the market, I’m seduced by it and I’m playing the game. But there are limits. If someone says [takes on a high-pitched voice], “I’d like you to get an African artist to Beirut!” Then I say, “OK, seeing as the Lebanese have historical ties with Senegal, seeing as they’ve gone and done business there, and enslaved the blacks there, then I myself am compelled to do this project. But don’t try and impose it on me.” I’ve been confronted with such requests a number of times and I always refuse, and in an intelligent way. The funders have their own agenda, we have ours.

Bidoun: You use the word “region” in the title to the forum. Isn’t this a slippery slope, conceptually speaking?

CT: Maybe you didn’t realize that, but we dropped it. It’s now Home Works: A Forum on Cultural Practices, and no longer Cultural Practices in the Region. A region means too many things. Some, for example, would argue that Turkey is not in our region, while others consider Turkey its very heart.

The program this year deals more with complementary diversity. It’s a platform for everybody, and not a regional manifestation. We’re not inviting artists for geopolitical representation, but for their work. We’re not interested in creating another cocoon. The region is already full of cocoons, and we have to be aware of this trap.

The forum initially came out of a very honest attempt to try and explore what the region is. What is the role of Lebanon within the Arab world, and what is its relationship with regard to the Arab-Israeli conflict? But then I came to understand the incestuous side to Arab Nationalism. Do we want to go back there? No. Personally, I’m not interested.

Bidoun: There’s a lot of excitement these days that contemporary art is produced in comparable ways absolutely everywhere, art that can be shown in commercial galleries in Paris, at prestigious biennials, etc. Does that leave you optimistic?

CT: Why not? I don’t have a problem with commercial work, nor with biennials, even though biennials are slowly turning into dinosaurs. Some like to pretend that the market doesn’t exist, and I myself, I do prefer small-scale forms of representation, but as much as I have problems with the market, we have to think harder about what it is, and use it as a space.

Bidoun: Then what do you think about Catherine David, for example? Has she opened any doors?

CT: Catherine David came to Beirut like any other curator, and, again, we could talk about a specific agenda. But she did open many doors for Lebanese artists. And I respect her, since, compared to all these curators who come to Beirut and don’t know a thing, she’s a woman who has done her research, who came here for three years before initiating Contemporary Arab Representations. At least this was the case in Beirut, I’m not referring to her other projects. I do, however, have problems with the title. There are nuances and differences within “Arabness.” What is my relationship as a Lebanese to someone from Saudi Arabia or Sudan?

Generally, people like to talk about curators as if they were monsters who come and invade our cities. But we need them, and they need us. We’re playing this game, so why do we have to blame them for “coming and taking.” It’s up to the artist to resist. And if the artist falls into a trap, then that’s the artist’s problem, not the curator’s.

I meet many curators in Beirut, and it’s MY job to resist and to say, “I’m not interested in doing a project with you.” I’m constantly offered to work on projects outside Beirut, and I refuse, because I’m working on the city, and I’m creating a structure. I’m not creating a festival. And if I was seduced by all these offers, I wouldn’t be spending any time in Beirut.

Bidoun: In that context, what role can a magazine like Bidoun play?

CT: Its identity is not clear to me yet. I just hope Bidoun can play a role that is something other than a regional magazine. I’m sorry, but we don’t need a regional magazine. Again: we don’t want to fall into this trap. We need Bidoun to be a platform, so it needs to be in India, Syria, Palestine, Paris, the US; we need it wherever there is a possibility of diffusion. Bidoun shouldn’t take on the responsibility of being the regional spokesman. It took me a few years to understand that I don’t want to be a regional representative. I’m sorry.