How Art Relief 4 Beirut plans to keep people talking about Lebanon

Lebanese artist Mohamad Kanaan, Founder of Art Relief 4 Beirut, believes he's "simply an artist doing his job for his country." In an emotional conversation, Grazia discovers he's so much more
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How Art Relief 4 Beirut plans to keep people talking about Lebanon

A Dislocated Assemblage For A Map of Possibilities by Rafael Domenech is just one of the works donated by artists to contribute towards the relief efforts in Beirut

It's now been over a month since the devasting events in Beirut, and the mood for many in Lebanon and the Lebanese diapsora has been turned from shock and disbelief, and sadness and despair, to anger and action. 

Mohamad Kanaan is a Lebanese artist based between the Netherlands and Paris, whose parents and three siblings were in Beirut at the time of the blasts, including one brother who was at the port. "The street where the explosion happened is the busiest road in Beirut," he shudders. "At the time the blasts took place, we’d be leaving work. It could have been us, it could’ve been everyone. A lot of people could’ve been more badly hurt."

The discovery that this disaster was due to poorly stored explosives came as a further blow. Echoing the opinion of many, Mohamad observes, "This could’ve been avoided and it’s not ok for it to have happened."

They Don't See by Mohamad Kanaan, Founder of Art Relief 4 Beirut

When the catastrophe occurred, Mohamad had already been working on a body of work to help families affected by the financial crash in Lebanon, a country already ravaged by the revolution, declining fortunes, and the threat of famine. "There were already a lot of people in need of help," he acknowledges. "There’s an economic crisis, COVID, and now this. How much more can people take?"

The blasts only served to galvanise his resolve, and Art Relief 4 Beirut was born as "an immediate response to this crisis." Mohamad began by reaching out to his network of artist friends who donated work with proceeds going to directly Impact Lebanon, the Lebanese Red Cross, Baytna Baytak - an NGO that fixes homes that were damaged in the blast and Basmehzeitooneh, and NGO that supports with migrant workers. "The migrant worker issue is important to me," he explains. "We need to help the people who help us."

 Futuring For Beirut by Eva and Adele

Artists wishing to take part can email a photo of their work with the dimensions and suggested sale price to artrelief4beirut@gmail.com, or send it via DM on Art Relief 4 Beirut's Instagram profile. Those wishing to purchase art can comment RESERVE on the desired post and will be contacted with the steps to make the donation direct to the NGOs. "When I started, my aim was to reach US$50,000 in a month and I got it 2 days," Mohamad admits. With donations now at around the US $185,000 mark, he's now well on the way to making his goal of a quarter of a million dollars.

"My initial feeling was that artists wanted to get involved was because they’ve visited Beirut or they have Lebanese friends, but there are now 40 artists who have given their work from as far afield as Taiwan, Chile, Nigeria, America, and Mexico. To see artists wanting to take part from all over the world was very encouraging to me."

And art lovers can expect new donations from: Tosh Basco, an American performance artist, dancer, and photographer known as boychild; filmmaker, artist and performer Wu Tsang; Iraqi-American artist Michael Rakowitz; and Damascus-born Lebanese-American artist Simone Fattal.

There's No Place Called Home (Great Wall) by James Webb

Mohamad's message for Grazia readers? "Keep talking about Lebanon. It’s the third-largest explosion in history. There are lot of people still missing, a lot of businesses were destroyed. This is going to effect Lebanon for a really long time – from the economy to society. Everybody is traumatised."

He continues, "I personally believe that everyone [Lebanese] living abroad need to take action. And those who aren't Lebanese can buy and donate art: it’s making a difference in somebody’s life – they’ll have their windows replaced, they’re having their houses repaired, it’s a ticket for a migrant worker to go back to her country."

Using art as a unifying force for social justice seems to be Mohamad's destiny. As an art student in Chicago, he was once told by American dancer, choreographer, filmmaker, and minimalist artist Yvonne Rainer that being Lebanese, "Whatever you’re going to do is going to be political. Your existence is political." Time will tell if this prediction comes true, but right now he shrugs, "I’m simply an artist doing my job for my country. This is the moment I should be doing my work for Lebanon."

Photos: Courtesy of the artists and Art Relief 4 Beirut