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Nathalie Rosa Bucher

Paradise re-discovered

An old family home in Gemmayze has been transformed into Beirut's newest cultural center: Villa Paradiso.

Villa Paradiso
Villa Paradiso
Villa Paradiso
Villa Paradiso
Villa Paradiso
Villa Paradiso

Walking home in the early hours of New Year’s Day with his wife Noor, British artist, musician, and teacher, Tom Young, spotted a grand, beautiful old house under renovation in Gemmayze. In front of it was a big sign, covered in cement: “for rent and investment.”


A few days later Young dialled the number on the sign and was answered by Remi Feghali’s, the architect son of the family who now own the house. What neither knew then was that this day would mark the beginning of the fabulous, and rather rapid, transformation of an old family house into Villa Paradiso, a cultural center.


Since settling down in Beirut, Young had been thinking and talking a lot about loss of heritage. Eventually, he wanted to try to use art to save or regenerate abandoned houses.


This particular derelict building had been the home of the Baloumian family, a wealthy Armenian-Lebanese trading family who lived in the house until 1975, when they fled because of the war. When Young made the call, the Feghalis, had been renovating the building on and off for four years. “Late last year,” Remi Feghali explains, “I took the decision to restart the restoration because we all felt in the family that the house needed to come back to life and to be useful again.” Remi is in charge of renovations and, together with his sister Rita, will be central to running the cultural center that Villa Paradiso will shortly become.
 
“We had no clear idea of what to convert it to, until Tom Young showed up and asked to use it as a space to exhibit his works. We immediately accepted and gave shape to a dream we all had for years: to have a home where we can celebrate life in our country, in all its forms, the arts, cultural events, social events… hence the choice of the name: Villa Paradiso.”
 
Young’s own bond with Lebanon dates back to 2006 when his Lebanese car mechanic back in England commissioned him to paint the landscapes of his home country. The body of work that came of that first trip consisted of magic, romantic landscapes, which beautifully capture Lebanon’s natural beauty and Mediterranean light. The artist says that he instantly became emotionally involved with Lebanon.


He witnessed the destruction caused during the 2006 war from a distance and decided to come back in October of that year, running art workshops with children in Dahiyeh. “One of the great lessons we can learn from the Lebanese is to live in the now,” Young told NOW.  


“We hear a lot about the Golden Age, how Lebanon used to be. Why be nostalgic? There are lots of brilliant parties. There’s this frenzy here and while some say things may be falling apart, others counter: ‘so let’s party’.”  


The works on display at Villa Paradiso are site-specific. Some, such as Gunflowers and Let the Light In are inspired by the old house itself; others, such as Carousel, The Beat Goes On, and Golden Age, by some of the mementos Young found in the house. Some of the paintings exhibited, such as Cuban Heels and Orientalism, are based on images and sketches captured elsewhere, notably in Cuba and Oman.


Themes of memory, longing, and loss had dominated the artist’s work for some time but especially after his second visit to Lebanon, in the wake of the 2006 war, his work shifted away from romantic landscapes and towards a more honest, in some ways also more political, depiction of reality.


“If you’re sensitive, you’ve seen injustice, courage, and resilience – as an artist I had to respond. It was a real challenge to use my romantic approach. Lebanon’s given me a channel to express these delicate issues.  One example of this is Young’s use of the 2006 statement by Israeli army Chief of Staff, General Dan Halutz that Israel would send Lebanon back 20 years, as inspiration for his drawing of the damage done in the southern suburbs. In the painting, Twenty Years, clear lines partner with soft, eerie, tentatively hopeful hues.


What had always been inside the artist found a way out onto canvas. “It was liberating. It’s harder to carry on doing something you don’t believe in.” Young admits that the space in which he found himself experimenting was also a vulnerable one: “through Lebanon I got to see the whole world through a different lens.”


The exhibition is a carefully executed kaleidoscope of things and scenes: very Beiruti, and very Lebanese.  ‘Does one have to take a step back to see beauty in Beirut?’ Samir Kassir asks in his book Beirut. Kassir’s answer is the same as Young’s: look for beauty in hidden corners, unexpected spaces, details. One of the large paintings, Gunflowers, does just this, combining a bullet-riddled wall with wild indigenous flowers. All over the city, which Young captures in minute detail, scar tissue gets exposed where pain refuses to subside. The bullet-marked walls, however, also become transformed, and beauty re-claims the fabric of the city.


Young found personal belongings - passports, perfume bottles, music scores, old recordings, Armenian books, and photographs - inside the villa. Some of these inspired him to recreate scenes in photos taken on the beach, such as in Golden Age, or at some of the many soirées that took place at this address.


The Beat Goes On, a large painting exhibited on the upper floor, is Young’s take on one of those evenings where well-dressed guests danced the night away. In it he blends frenzied scenes he himself has witnessed at parties held in derelict buildings in and around Beirut, with how he imagines a soirée decades ago might have looked, along with motifs from old original tiles found at the Villa. The painting focuses on the ground: feet in motion, swaying dresses, moving limbs – the energy is palpable, invigorating and life-embracing.


Covered in layers of dust that had gathered since the Baloumian family left in 1975, Young found an invitation card to the opening of their gift shop, The Carousel, which opened its doors in 1965. Displayed in a prominent position on the first floor, the painting this inspired, Carousel, reflects Beirut’s incredible resilience. A symbol of childhood and innocence, the carousel, painted in ember-like colors, lights up a square, mesmerizing children as it turns, setting the night sky almost ablaze. In the same way, most of Lebanon has been rolling with the punches, its people losing belongings and loved ones but nonetheless carrying on, even when it seemed as if the lifeline was a motionless flat line.

 

“I admire that, it’s inspired me,” Young ventures. Asked how he feels towards the amnesia that has dominated the post-Civil War years, Young argues that ideally a balance should be struck between acknowledging and confronting the pain and the past, and moving on.


During the time of the renovation, which was also a time of intense creation, Young, who set up studio upstairs, drew under the gaze of his late mother’s portrait, along with the one he painted of Madiros Baloumian, the pater familias of the Baloumians. The family - all living outside Lebanon now - have given the artist their blessing for his undertaking.  


Up until June 19, when Young’s exhibition will end, various events will be held at the Villa, including musical performances and film screenings, art workshops for disadvantaged children, and open talks and discussions by leading exponents of architecture and psychology.
 
From September, Villa Paradiso will be a home of culture and social events in Beirut. “It aims at being a space where people meet and celebrate life and rebirth of the city,” explains Feghali “It will not only be an art center, but we hope it will be able to embrace all cultural and social activities of our beautiful Eastern Mediterranean Lebanese Culture.” The Feghali family will shape the Villa’s future.
 
“I hope that this momentum that we are now surfing on and with which we are bringing a special Lebanese House from the early 20th century (and before) into the 21st century will also be helpful for other owners of old precious and relevant Lebanese houses,” Feghali adds. “There are many ideas to work on for these houses instead of just demolishing them and wiping any identity left from the past!”


For more details join the Facebook event Villa Paradiso.

 

Read this article in Arabic

'Pursuit' (image courtesy of Nathalie Rosa Bucher)

‘Does one have to take a step back to see beauty in Beirut?’ Samir Kassir asks in his book Beirut. Kassir’s answer is the same as Young’s: look for beauty in hidden corners, unexpected spaces, details.