Rescuing memories by creating new ones

Spring 2014 | ArteZine

Rescuing memories by creating new ones


The Lebanese witnessed 15 years of civil war and subsequent decades of random cruelty and political violence. During the lengthy years of the country’s reconstruction no effort was spared to conceal the physical traces of the war, yet its survivors were left uncared for, asked to rise from the rubble, and to raise a new generation.

Ara Azad, Portrait, Charcoal on Paper, 75cm x 56cm

I am of that intergeneration, the most psychologically damaged individuals, who have witnessed all their references, associations, distant memories, and their short lived youth turn into the otherwise unsayable. I left Beirut. I returned from Boston seven years later to find my city clean itself from the debris of its own doing. In Beirut the masses cast a cruel sleuth wondering who amongst the living is to be blamed: is it he, she, her dad, sister, brother or distant relative? But for Beirut the worst was yet to come. In 1989 and 1990 two wars vanquished all that which denoted the Beiruti hatred. I longed for my Bostonian friends’ comforting faces. “I have much to write you, but I do not want to do so with pen and ink. I hope to see you soon, and we will talk face to face” [3 Jn 13-14]. I wrote many letters to my friends overseas, each ending with a make believe plans for the future, with the hope that these plans will give me courage to bear my daily morbid life: from one funeral to the other. I have gone to the cemetery once, and I thought Beirut was like a cemetery. It was nothing like it, it was it, and it was hit by madness, ashes to ashes scattered in the air, coffins opened “to my son” written on white ribbons on “stage”, black bearded priest and the Bible. Too many times remains were relocated from one make shift cemetery to another. Our lives were dependent on death. Have I died and I don’t know it.

As a grown man I live in an ill society with saturated infirmities with its occurrences visibly manifested in our present collective mental state. Even to the toughest amongst us that would be too much.

How could I explain to my long dead self why is it that he saw chopped off heads on a light green station wagon Volvo, the scent of burning cadavers in the middle of the road, the color of its rising smoke, the tortured scream of a living mankind being dragged behind roughed up asphalt avenues?

Who were these people, why were they sullying my familiar places: My school, my street, my neighborhood, my playground? Why are my parents startled? My mother no longer takes me to my nightly walks to calm my fears, I stuttered all the same. In the daylight the civil war reenacted pages from my history books, those chapters from the Armenian Genocide; I have grown to realize that my Genocide is no greater or more tragic than that of Darfur’s. My families’ losses were no more sorrowful or less important than that of the holocaust’s survivors. My city’s calamity is no grander than the daily explosions taking lives elsewhere in this world.

At nights my nightmares recited verses from my own, in the morning I relived my nightmares, then once again in my sleep. I long for a nice dream, still each and every night.

Ara Azad, Sleeping dead thru a century of specs, SMFA Boston, 1994

Traces from my childhood now bombarded and all in ruins, the war took on a personal vendetta. I will stay alive, but I will be one of them, I will kill the war, and I will erase it from its core, and then replace it with love. I will befriend each and every race and gender, learn as many languages as I possibly can, I will travel the world and all of its cities, that someday I may wash away that black residue of war and make up for wasted times. My art provides a visual parallel of those otherwise unsayable, unavowable blemishes, and accumulated experience of having lived a life of psychologically damaged maturity, all the while rescuing those memories by replacing them with totally new ones.


Ara Azad, Rescuing Memories

“Surely in vain have I kept my heart pure; in vain have I washed my hands in innocence” [Ps 73:13]. As a consequence I set for myself a task to replace my memories of war by creating totally new ones. To instigate my in-situ exhibitions I hold pieces of black charcoal in my palms and wash my hands in a bowl of clean water to thaw that hard black residue from the war. That bowl holds my collective memory, and the melted charcoal translates my new “memories”. I wire with microphones the surface on which I “paint” to magnify the sound of my mark makings which replaces my memory of the sound of sorrow, the screams, the shattering glasses, and, the whistling shrapnel: a remonstration against that memory, abolishing it by constructing new ones.

After all I am all what I have.

Ara Azad, Composition in crowd, Beirut 2009

My formation stems from the urgency of staying alive versus living. It (urgency) is my single “medium” manifested in multitudes of presentations. I subject myself to the custody of constantly being on my toes in front of wide audiences, in an in-situ context creating the whole of an exhibition right there and then. One more for the instant, one more for the trail, one more for the witness series, one more for my testimony, one more for that which should never happen again.

Ara Azad, Embrace Art Exhibition, Beirut 2013

Growing up I was captivated with configurations and multitudes. I remember the center pattern on my family’s rug. It had always felt like a giant map of an anonymous city, its border as its streets. My fascination with symbolism, circulation, composition and how and where two things met, and what happened where they met took birth on that very rug. “…and my school goes there!” I had decided, and placed the first of the playing cards on the rug, and thus my imaginary city grew. However stale of a cliché or sophomoric at best this may sound, it is one of my most distant memory of a serene play. I skipped a few beats each time my house of cards silently came crumbling down flat on the rug. Years later I learnt what a Déjà vu meant; only this time it came with a magnified roaring sound with the screams of both tortured branches and the tormented living souls for a constant score which accompanies me to this day. The dead have an eerie silence.

Ara Azad, Playhouse-Mosaic, San Gabriel California 2013, Photo Hrayr Eulmessekian

On one of the streets leading to my school there sat a man on a tiny wooden chair, on a porch built of cement, along the curve of the street across from a military barrack. The man was big. He felt to be out of place, out of proportion. He had an overall imposing light gray color, matching that of his very small house made of concrete. There were no shutters on the wall, only an opening with vertical metal bars. He seemed happy, comfortable at the least. He always had a stack of blank papers. At first I thought he was a writer. The dean of my school was a   linguist, a writer, and a “saint”, but some of my teachers though…they were masochists.

On my way back from school, when that big man saw me hurt and in tears, he would stop me and make funny faces while doing his magic trick. He had a too small of a pair of scissors for his hands, but would always manage to make a stretch of paper-doll. With a certain pride and generous gesture he’d present me that paper dolls while the guard at the barrack would glance at me with a nod of official approval. Now all happy and in awe, I wipe my tears off and off I continue home with my “people.”

How could a young boy do something so wrong to instigate 15 years of bombardment of that street?

My city’s calamities aren’t any grander than the daily explosions taking lives elsewhere in this world and turning them into brutes and asphyxiate their children, just as they have done to my generation. Chagrined and sensitized that I could not prevent the war from happening, I decided to create my own emissaries to convey my beholding. I designated my paintings to be my delegates, and put them thru the mail unpackaged with their destination “painted” on the “face” of the painting. These “paintings” having traveled the continents alone on their own became my envoys to scream their eyes out begging “Handle (me/you) with care”. In the past 19 years I mailed over 100 paintings. They echo their given nod only when they reach their addressee. Only then do they convey the disorders with which they survived. Seeing that trust is not something of the past lights in me a sight of hope.

Ara Azad, Dream Sequence (back of the painting), acrylic on canvas, 20in x 16in, Boston 2009, Galerie Janine Rubeiz Collection, Beirut

Ara Azad, Dream Sequence (back of the painting), acrylic on canvas, 20in x 16in, Boston 2009, Galerie Janine Rubeiz Collection, Beirut

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