War and paint
When you stare at a blank canvas, the blank canvas stares back at you. It’s not exactly what Nietzsche said, but it is absolutely true that the most intimidating step in the painting process is often the very first one: putting the first daub of paint down on that canvas. But diving right in and working with the paint is the only way to let concepts and themes develop and mature naturally. For Honolulu-based visual artist Reem Bassous, this message is a central one she instills in her painting students at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa.
“Being a teacher is a constant reminder that I have to practice what I preach,” says Bassous. “I make students work hard and, therefore, I need to do the same. I can’t expect them to spend all these hours developing paintings and fleshing out concepts if I’m not leading by example.”
Teaching has also forced Bassous to rearticulate her own knowledge base in ways that are accessible to others. This is a very valuable skill when talking about one’s work as an artist, which she’s had many opportunities to do. Bassous’ curriculum vitae includes two solo exhibitions in Honolulu, and one each in Washington D.C. and Malaysia, as well as nearly 20 collaborative and group exhibitions in cities including London, Annapolis, New York City and Baton Rouge. She’s won two awards from The George Washington University (where she received her Masters in Fine Arts), and was a 2011 winner of The John Young Award in Hawai‘i and a 2013 winner of the Kafiye Project Competition in New York.
“The physical process of studio work greatly informs conceptual decisions. The two develop in sync and are equally dependent on one another,” says Bassous. “That doesn’t mean that one can’t have a general sense for the direction of a piece, but the process is unpredictable and sometimes a work of art takes shape differently than anticipated. Even though the general theme of my work is the Lebanese Civil War, each piece develops organically.”
In 1978, when Bassous was born, the Lebanese Civil War was already three years old. The 15-year conflict had a lasting influence on many Lebanese artists that grew up during the turbulent era and, today, many of these artists continue to focus much of their artistic energies toward exploring its effects on the Lebanese people. But, while much of Bassous’ work also focuses on her memories of the war, her approach to addressing the subject has evolved over the years.
“Initially, I took on this subject matter as a way of dealing with personal memories; but, as the work evolved over the course of multiple series, my interests and techniques refined,” she says.
Bassous’ earlier work is comprised of painterly illustrations of the war, but she wanted to move past mere depictions of the war—to push her work to convey how she felt living through the war and to arrive at a more honest and compelling visual statement. Her 2015 studio exhibition, “Beyond the Archive,” is a continuation of this process.
“When I was in graduate school I worked almost exclusively with the figure. When I started working on the warscapes, there was a very evident absence of the figure, which is true to a warzone’s aftermath. There is an absence of life in general,” Bassous says. “I felt that it was time to allow the figure to return in this body of work, and to allow it to surface from the paint being pushed around on the canvas, rather than as a result of a drawn or predetermined form.”
The figures in the collection of large-format paintings are almost interchangeable with the buildings, lacking identifiable features. They act like empty shells, devoid of humanity; yet, at the same time, the physicality of the paint itself draws connections to the figures as flesh-and-blood, distorted by the violence of the war. The human toll in the Lebanese Civil War was great and, in many ways, says Bassous, the survivors of the war remain scarred.
“I was deeply disturbed by the rubble and the chaos in Beirut during and after the war. My paintings are my way of making sense of that instability,” says Bassous.
Perhaps the war itself also contributed to Bassous’ fearless approach when it comes to incorporating the process of creation and destruction in her work; painting over layers, destroying parts of her drawings, re-working, adding back in, working reductively and applying serious elbow grease to the media.
“The artist Jim Dine talks about how he sends a drawing to its death in order to give it new life,” says Bassous. “It’s definitely scary to take that risk, especially when I am at a good point in a painting. But if I know it’s missing something, I have to push the piece and uncover something new. Breakthroughs happen from risk-taking.
“Conceptually, this act of destroying, rebuilding, and continuously excavating relates closely to my experience and to Beirut’s history,” she adds. “It has been destroyed by wars and natural disasters many times. Rubble is a by-product of war. Therefore, in the painting process, piling on the paint and then excavating, sanding, burning or reclaiming lost passages seems only natural. It’s an instinctive process; one that echoes thoughts I have of my home city.”
Today, Beirut is still rebuilding. Bassous feels that it is especially important to remember the dark history of the war so that similar events don’t occur in the future. The situation in Lebanon is never 100 percent stable, and there is constantly an undercurrent of tension. A major factor in the war was the struggle for sectarian hegemony. Religion is a complex web of identity, belief systems and historic relationships, all of which continue to shape the contemporary Lebanese political arena. This all serves as an endless resource for Lebanese artists like Bassous, who conducts exhaustive research on the subject before, and during, each project she embarks on.
“My research is specific to the role of post-war memory in Lebanon, but it’s not limited to it. I had to study the general history of Lebanon in order to understand what led to the war,” Bassous explains. “Everything is elemental; every piece of information fits somewhere in my work. I have so many ideas I want to tackle but have to filter them to make cohesive bodies of work.”
Bassous will often go through several months of obsessive reading before engaging in intensive studio work. The subject is an emotional one for her, conjuring up nightmares and leading to insomnia; the studio becomes a place to come to terms with all the information.
“Research brings back memories and anxieties that are released through the act of painting, which is why my mark-making is physical and my scale preference is large,” says Bassous.
The name “Going Beyond the Archive” hints at an evolution in Bassous’ continuing development. It taps into the psyche—the individual’s memory—which is not part of national history but, rather, is a very unique interpretation of the custom-made imprint war leaves on each person.
“I don’t think having a personal struggle is a necessary prerequisite to creating relevant art,” says Bassous. “However, where I am concerned, not only did I live through the civil war, I was born into it. That means that I didn’t necessarily choose to work on the issue of the war—I had no choice. This isn’t just about identity, it’s about my entire makeup as a human being. Sometimes struggle speaks to a universal audience. I think the best art marries message and form, while leaving room for transcendence.”