Lebanese Archive

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Ania Dabrowska

Artist and Chair
About Lebanese Archive project

Thank you very much for coming today and joining us for our first Conversation.  I’d like to say a very warm welcome to our guest speakers, thank you so much for joining us here today.   Michelle Woodward is joining us via Skype from Beirut in a moment, we have Christiane Monarchi from Photomonitor, Laura Caderera, an Independent Arts Manager and Curator who had worked in Delfina Foundation till recently and Diab Alkarssifi, an owner of a collection that has inspired this whole process and now a friend.

I’d like to start by saying a little bit about Lebanese Archive project.  Diab arrived to my studio when I was an artist in residence at Arlington, a hostel for homeless men and women in Camden.  I was doing a residency organised by SPACE Studios and Arlington there.  My job as an artist was to engage the residents in some kind of art process in an attempt to see how we can use art in the re-engagement of the homeless.  Diab was a resident at Arlington at the time and he was one of the first people who came to my studio.

On the day I opened my studio door, he came with two huge bags that looked like bags filled with dirty washing.  The thought had crossed my mind that it could make an interesting portrait to photograph laundry of a person living in Arlington, but they were filled with negatives, prints, contact sheets and documents that made my head spin.   This is not only because of a promise that this material gave but also because of all the other senses that this bag contained.  There was a smell of the celluloid, films, old papers, cologne, powders.  When I started looking at these photographs, quite randomly at first, I realised immediately that something had to be done with this material.

Diab’s collection comes from three different sources.  It is work that he had produced himself as a photographer when he was working as a journalist in various newspapers in Lebanon.  He is from a city of Baalbek, but his assignments took him around the country.  He was also an obsessive collector of people’s family albums, his neighbours and friends, so there is a whole lot of anonymous photography in this collection that tracks lives of ordinary people.   You can see them growing up, getting older, dying.  Finally, there are also small snippets of collections from photographic studios from across the Middle East.  This photographic collections open Diab’s archive geographically as there are photographs from Cairo, Damascus, Beirut and they go back to the end of the 19th century.  We marked the end of this collection, for the sake of my sanity, at 1993 because that’s when Diab left Lebanon with his wife and children to come to London and start his life here.

What he brought to my studio were just two bags, he couldn’t bring what he couldn’t carry with him.  Majority of his collection is still in Lebanon.  There are 27,000 images in the collection, although he keeps saying to me that the number is growing as people are still sending him their photographs.

I wanted to engage with this archival material as an artist, I wanted to fabricate things, invent things.  You can see small snippets of these narrative exercises in the Drift / Resolution work next door.  I also want to create a totally new work in response to this archival material – we will go to Lebanon in October this year together and create something there.

I also have a hat of a custodian if you like, where my job is to make sure this collection is preserved and disseminated in its ‘pure’ form.  This archive deserves this and people deserve to see these stories without me messing around with them.   I was therefore really happy to connect to the Arab Image Foundation with whom we will produce an online archive of the collection, perhaps not in its entirety but as an edited selection.  This will happen at some stage between now and Spring / Summer next year.

The work on the book is starting with a launch of this exhibition at the Four Corners Gallery.  If you come back you will see the walls of this room changed, as I’ve decided to make the process of our book ideas development part of this show.

Documentation of our Conversations will be published on our project website, perhaps included in the book as well.  The website will be developed to include news of our production progress, so I hope you will link with us through there and see how we grow from here.  I think this is enough of a background story about the project for now.

Let us start by connecting to Michelle and hearing her perspectives on archival photographic and artistic initiatives in Beirut.