Anyone visiting Beirut has seen Yazan Halwani’s street art: Fairuz in Gemmayze or Sabah in Hamra. Yazan has painted in different countries such as the UAE, Tunisia, France and Singapore and he is considered as one of the most talented Arab graffiti artists of his generation. By reinventing Arabic calligraphy, from purely abstractive to figurative, Yazan Halwani is defining a new Beiruti identity. Over the past few years, the 23 year-old artist works have become major sightseeings around the city. We have met him to discuss his relationship with his hometown, Beirut.
THE CONFUSED ARAB (TCA): How does Arab identity (and especially yours) influence your work?
YAZAN HALWANI (YH): My identity is at the center of all my work. However, it is not a monolithic identity as it can be split between who I am and my environment. I started doing regular graffiti in the late 1990’s using latin alphabet inspired by what is done in the US and in France. Then I quickly started to interrogate myself on how to bring more of who I am into my work. The general perception was that if you want to be an Arab, you have to stick to classic rules. Arabic calligraphy was here, very traditional, with the same styles and fonts being used since centuries. Arabic calligraphers are very keen to maintain these styles.It was and still is very easy to reject this status quo but I went into the way of reconciling my heritage with the modern art.
My personal identity mixes also with my environment. I was born and grew up in Beirut, a city polarized by political and sectarian cultures. Political parties split up the space and impose their presence with pictures of their leaders throughout entire streets. As a citizen of Beirut, I couldn’t accept this space segregation. One of the main purpose of my work is to show and develop a non-sectarian culture common to all Beirutis and all Lebanese.
TCA: Is that how you explain the choice of famous icons painted in the streets of Beirut?
YH: Exactly, I wanted to focus on secular faces. These icons are a great way of defining cultural common bases for people in Beirut far away from religion or political views. It is also linked to specific locations of the city having a relation with these icons like Sabah and Mahmud Darwish, close to Al Safir newspaper’s headquarter in Hamra for example. However, I am not trying to impose my opinion on people and by choosing these icons I am aiming to open a discussion on who we are. Selecting these legends is also a way to leverage on nostalgia. It does work as a filter as a lot of people think that the social and political situation was better before. People do remember what they want to remember. In Lebanon, nostalgia is an easy way to convey a message.
My artworks are not provocative but softly polemical. Fairuz or Sabah are now acclaimed but that has not always been the case. Women artists still share a schizophrenic relation with their audience, acclaimed for their talents, beauty but also still perceived as being of a small virtue. Sabah, who got married 7 times, was often criticized for living a free life far from social rules.
TCA: How does Beirut inspire you?
YH: The energy of the city is definitely something which inspires me and that we all embrace. People are always trying to find a way to do things. Artistically you can easily have access to art. Visually, my work was also inspired by “Aftat” the white cloth banners with black or red text that you can find everywhere in the streets of Beirut, specially in Hamra or Gemmayze. It’s like a trap: it uses very neat Arabic calligraphy which catches your attention and make you read political or governmental messages
TCA: What do you miss when you are away from Beirut?
YH: Walking in the streets is something very simple but which makes me very happy in Beirut. The city is like a big village where everybody knows each other. You canbump into people in the street and change your schedule for the day!
TCA: If Beirut was an image?
YH: I have always imagined Beirut as a woman, a battered woman or a hooker. A battered woman as years after years it always gets abused by politicians who don’t really take the full potential of the city. A hooker because we all travel in and out, claiming that we can’t continue to live this way in this city but as soon as we are far from it we miss it, sometimes in a very passionate way.