Gui Mohallem | Tcharafna

How to make grave the ripe flavour of a red fruit?

First, there are stories that began long before the story told by the artist. Working in from the outside, we may recall that the Lebanon that Gui Mohallem visited is not only the country from which his family emigrated. The ethnic and religious complexity of the region is in itself a testimony that every minority is a majority for another smaller group, sparking an interplay of separations and disputes that redraw the landscape and the lives of whole cities and families. It is possible to be a majority in a region, but a minority among the rulers of a country, and also to be a minority in a city, but to have more economic power and thus more control over one’s own life. It is possible—and this is the root of the problem—to be certain that yours is the purest of many systems of belief, the one closest to an ancient or timeless truth. Still today, if you look for news on Lebanon in the main international newspapers, you will find stories about Maronite nationalism, refugees from the civil war in Syria—still ongoing and with the potential to spill over into Lebanon at any point in time—and the typically Lebanese political impasse in selecting a president agreeable to all the religiously and ethnically aligned parties.

Then there is the way these stories intersect with that of the artist’s family and his reasons for visiting the country. From the great famine during the First World War to the long civil war that began in 1975, through the conflict-ridden reconstruction that followed World War II, Mohallem’s family has been marked by events that triggered migration, much of it to Brazil. These journeys combined hopes of a new life with a bitter feeling that casted a certain shadow of death over the migrants’ past, place of origin and friends left behind. This certainly left a gap in the artist’s family life, a memory that did not and could not belong to him, the murky waters of an imagined pool. His trip to Lebanon was, in principle, a way of filling this gap by exploring the hidden histories of his father, mother, uncles, aunts and cousins.

The history behind Mohallem’s work is thus present in the development of his own history, stamping everything he discovered during his journey with nostalgia and loss (what he found had been left behind), with violence and death (many of the people involved had fled conflicts or were living under continual threat) and with imminent danger (at times conversations about his stay ended up referring to the risk of attack, bombings and kidnappings). At the level of conscious thought, at least, the trip to Lebanon, Beirut and the mountainous interior of the country, may have been a process of exposing oneself to pain, fear and loss. However—and this is where the story that Mohallem’s work tells us really begins—the conversations, landscapes and meetings always seemed determined to spill out beyond these boundaries. Albeit involuntarily, the intriguing presence of the artist caused his family members to reconnect memories to people they had not seen for years, sometimes overwhelming them with emotion. With these memories come the vestiges of an old-fashioned different kind of hospitality, the taste of the fruits in season, the color of the tall mountains, the habit of tending a kitchen garden – all gradually seducing this visitor down to a layer different from that of the imminent conflict.

Mohallem’s color photographs and stills thus provide us with a gateway from the signs of difference and conflict present in the landscapes and the spaces portrayed to the visual confessions of a growing emotional attachment. Both readings are present in the red-stained hand, whether we see it as a memory of the taste of ripe fruit or a reminder of the many blood-stained hands that haunt Lebanon’s history. The videos, the pieces in red paraffin wax, the testimony of the artist’s aunt and the poem recited by his father provide allegories of the tension more intrinsic to the story behind all these stories: that between Gui Mohallem and a place of origin that he should belong to and yet feels so strange to him, smothered by his father’s silence. On his travels, the artist began to take on board this hidden legacy and brought his father to recognize a part of his son that he could not see, a part of himself that had been buried.