As the writer and satirist Peter de Vries once wrote, nostalgia ain’t what it used to be. While one might be tempted à la Punch to add “and it probably never was”, nostalgia dominates the global political and cultural landscape today like never before.
From the retro-Caliphism of movements like ISIS, with their hearkening back to what they see as a purer age of belief and the when-we-were-Greatism of politicians like Putin and Trump, with their hearkening back to supposedly ‘simpler’ times, to the pseudo-Victorianism of flannel-clad Hipsters, with their hearkening back to the handcrafted, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the progressive, machine-driven Modernism of the last century never happened at all.
In Lebanon, where after decades of stasis and regression, the period before the war not only retains a mythic status for those who experienced it but increasingly appeals to those who did not, the siren call of a rose-tinted yesterday verges on the centrifugal.
For those who remember pre-1975 Lebanon, nostalgia takes the form of elegy but for the post-war generation, especially those who weren’t born until the Golden Age had definitively shed its gilding, the cultural appropriation of the past says more about who they are and where they want to go tomorrow.
Take the work of Rana Salam, for example. The artist/designer created quite a splash when in the late 1990’s, she began reusing old Egyptian film posters and other mid-Century Middle Eastern imagery in her work.
“There is a bit of a cliché about what I do, the whole Pop Culture/Nostalgia thing,” she explains, as we chat in her colourful workspace on Gemmayzeh’s Rue du Liban, “but I don’t live in the past, my vision is very much about the future. I take from the past and give it a modern twist.”
In Salam’s hands, nostalgia becomes a library from which she borrows images, adapts them to today and creates something new. When I ask her why this period appeals to so many people who were not alive at the time, she says it's the era’s romanticism and naiveté, as well as the emotional tug of its association with parents and grandparents that captivates. Salam describes the use of nostalgia in her work as a celebration of a period of hope, when the region was developing a modern identity, not looking to revive one it (may have) had in the past. She also firmly believes that the past has much to teach the present and that if today’s designers are to evolve beyond pastiche and imitation, they need to understand what came before.
"We don’t know our past. That’s why I believe a lot of designers today don’t understand their role, a lot is just decoration."
'Brilliant Beirut', an exhibition about Lebanese architecture, fashion and design from the 1950’s to 2015 that Salam researched and curated earlier this year was a step towards presenting that past properly. For the first time, the collective genius of the region’s last 60 years, as expressed through its most liberated capital, was on display at once.
The massive 1000 square metre exhibition was part of this year’s Dubai Design Week and even for someone who is no stranger to the era’s creativity, putting it together proved eye-opening.
“It was a time of modernism and independence and power and of empowering women. There was superb stuff going on here. It made me realise how wonderful design was here in the 60’s and 50’s,” she explains. “The exhibition brought so many [expat Lebanese] to tears. Most of them in Dubai are ashamed of Lebanon. They don’t realise how many wonderful things we have. My intention was to get them to look again. None of them knew.”
As many don't here in Lebanon either, the next logical step would have been to bring Brilliant Beirut home and although there were plans to do so, the exhibition has not been mounted in its country of origin because Salam can’t find a willing sponsor. Her hope is now that the findings can be turned into some kind of a reference book that would celebrate and educate.
“We don’t know our past. That’s why I believe a lot of designers today don’t understand their role, a lot is just decoration. Where are the furniture designers? I’m talking about mass production, not one-offs. Where’s the locally-made chair for Abu el-Abed?” she continues. “Who’s designing toilet seats? We have Lecico but no one wants to design with them. It isn’t glamorous. When we went to Istanbul Design Week, the designers were working with local industry. We don’t do this but we should.”
For Omar and Mohammad Kabbani nostalgia serves a very different purpose. Their era of choice is the 1980’s, when they were children growing up in West Beirut and their medium is the street.
Identical twins born in 1983, the Kabbanis are better known as the Lebanese rap duo behind graffiti/street style outfit, Ashekman and they first began to tag the streets in 2004 as a way of promoting their concerts and their name.
Since then, Ashekman’s graffiti has evolved into street art. Murals they have created decorate walls, underpasses and buildings across the city. The brothers may have gone legitimate but Mohammad admits that from time to time, he and Omar still like to sneak out at 4am and tag a few walls “just to blow off steam”.
Two things set Ashekman apart. First is their repeated use of 80’s Japanese cartoon icon, Grendizer, which has a following all across the region. Second is their use of Arabic rather than Latin letters in a free-flowing style that the brothers refer to as ‘calligraffiti’.
Actually, let's make that three things. Ashekman may have begun as a musical outfit but it has evolved into an umbrella organisation that encompasses Arabic Rap, street art and an eponymous line of HipHop/Calligrafitti inspired clothing.
“I always say that I was born with a microphone in my hand and Mohammad was born with a spray can,” Omar tells me before adding that these days, the brothers see themselves very much as entrepreneurs. “If we’d started this in NY or London, it would have been easier but we want to show that even in our region, it’s possible to succeed, despite the barriers. We’re self-made and self-paid.”
While Ashekman’s calligraffiti t-shirts, hoodies and hats can sometimes get you thrown off planes by jumpy airline staff, their contemporised takes on classical fonts like Kufi and Naskh, which they learned by studying with calligraphist Ali Assi, are celebrations of culture, not faith. More importantly, they are breathing fresh life (and interest) into an ancient tradition by making calligraphy relevant to a new generation.
“My parents’ era, back then everything was iconic. Now nothing is. We’ve lost so much time to bullshit.”
Today, the brothers aren’t the only kings of the spray can tagging in Arabic or drawing on Middle Eastern culture and heritage. In Tunisia there’s el Seed and in Egypt, artists like Alaa Awad and Ammar Abo Bakr rose to fame during the 2011 revolution. Here in Lebanon, you’ll find Pascal Zoghbi and Yazan Halwani, whose tribute to Sabah graces the side of the old Horseshoe Café building, just down the street from Ashekman’s design studio in the Strand Building in Hamra.
Despite their HipHop orientation (Snoop Dogg has a portrait they painted of him hanging on his studio wall), Ashekman have also produced murals of traditional Lebanese icons such as Fairouz and Sabah. And Wadih el-Safi.
“He was not my generation or my kind of music but I’m a musician too and I don’t want to be forgotten when I die,” Omar explains, when I ask him what connects HipHop, 80’s Pop Culture and al-Safi’s tarab. “I remember the day after he died, we went to Tabaris and began to spray. A soldier came over. He told me everyone had loved him and complained that the government hadn’t done anything to commemorate his death. He actually thanked us for doing the mural.”
If, on an ironic level, Salam’s use of nostalgia is her way of reminding people today that their (grand) parents were looking to the future, not the past and for Ashekman, their appropriation of the past and use of nostalgia is a celebration of childhood and subliminal act of national conscience, the two share the belief that things are not where they were.
“My parents’ era, back then everything was iconic. Now nothing is. We’ve lost so much time to bullshit,” Omar says. “As a culture, we could have advanced much more.”
Acknowledgement, resource, reminder, inspiration, the past is sexy and it sells but for those who are peddling it, there’s a lot more to nostalgia than just memories.