Since it opened in January 2009, the Beirut Art Center (BAC) has developed a reputation as one of the leading contemporary art spaces in the Arab world. Two solo shows by Paola Yacoub and Walid Sadek served as evidence of the gallery’s unique ability to reposition established Lebanese artists with first-time retrospectives. Forgoing the holistic for the personal, the BAC recently presented an impressive solo show by the Lebanese photographer Fouad Elkoury, entitled ‘Be…longing’. The exhibition delved into the 40-year career of the artist, with a collection of works that collated a potted history of the region and unravelled a personal image archive. Together, the works proffered a universe where the glamour of celebrity meets the politics of conflict, spanning a geographical stretch from the capital cities of Europe to Beirut, and Africa.
Having started his career as an architect, becoming a photojournalist shortly after, Elkoury was fascinated early on with uncovering the media’s potential for manipulation, presenting a milieu in which both reality and surrealism intertwined, particularly in his subversive documentary photographs taken during the 1990s in Palestine. Unlike many of his successors, Elkoury is less fixated on the clandestine archive of Lebanon’s civil war, which has often featured in works by a younger generation of Lebanese artists including Walid Raad, Rabih Mroué, and Khalil Joreige and Joana Hadjithomas. Instead, Elkoury presents sumptuous black and white photographs of Egyptian film stars and derelict landscapes with the same effervescence, his subjects often posited against a mesmerizing mise-en-scène reminiscent of the cinema of the late Egyptian auteur Youssef Chahine and the work of Lebanese studio photographer Hashem el Madani. In much of his work, the spectre of the civil war is near, but rather than fetishizing the trauma of violent disagreement, Elkoury approaches it with a noirish humour.
The installation Time Monologues (2011), which presented an array of images from different countries and cultures, testified to the artist’s frequent travels (what he calls ‘itinerancies’). The work incorporated images from 1989–90 when the artist retraced the steps of Gustave Flaubert and Maxime Du Camp’s mid-19th-century travels in Egypt. In Atlantis (1982), Elkoury presented a slide show that showed the late PLO leader, Yasser Arafat, in some of his private moments, while the collection of images in ‘Palestine’ (1993–5) record the daily resistance of ordinary people under the Israeli occupation.
In a more recent series, ‘What Happened to my Dreams?’ (2008–09), Elkoury turned his camera to the thorny politics embedded within the modern cityscape. Consisting of several black and white and colour photographs mounted on aluminium, often with superimposed, handwritten text, the title references Paul Virilio’s writing on war and cinema. The most memorable work in the series, Smile (2008), depicts three armed soldiers overlooking an empty swimming pool, photographed with their backs to the camera. The young men stare out across a barren landscape, with the ocean in the distance, while the poignant text ‘what I miss most is your incredible smile’ is handwritten across the bottom of the image.
Throughout the exhibition, Elkoury’s fascination with place was a potent component that bound the divergent facets and the lengthy chronology of his work. Ultimately, his preoccupation with geographies and architecture is indicative of the artist’s nomadic and nostalgic approach to storytelling. As the urban cityscape of Beirut continues to shift towards the bipolar, with its war-torn buildings rubbing up against new tower blocks, and its history replaced in favour of a supposed modernity, it feels apt to consider the work of Elkoury, an artist whose images reflect the conflicted context of the city and the region’s current evolution.