“Scafander” – Art Résidence Alia, Ain Il Zhalta, Lebanon

Lebanon, studio view. Chris Anthem 2012


Definition: “scafander” (noun)

(n) Life preserver consisting of a sleeveless jacket of buoyant or inflatable design.

(n) A weighted and hermetically sealed garment supplied with air; worn by underwater divers.


Scafander – Art Résidence Alia, Ain Il Zhalta, Lebanon

In July 2012 I was invited to the Artists Residence Alia in the Chouf mountains of Lebanon. The residency is run by the Fadi Moghabab Gallery in Beirut.

I stayed for 2 months producing a body of paintings. Crusaders, Diving helmets, black heads, shields, stags, Greek myths, dogs, trout, cabbages, birds. The word is mentioned around me – “Scafander” – the masked diving thief.

"Scarfander" Gallerie Fadi Mogabgab Beirut

Black headed men – the original form comes from drawings done in Ethiopia last year of a tribe called the Mursi. There’s this distinct Rift valley silhouette to their cranium, and scarification and lip plates. Why they reappear in these Arab mountains now I don’t know. There is something in the work that always obliquely addresses tribal or cultural groups. Something that is missing from the white Empire women whose double strengths of seduction and vulnerability started to seem predictable to me.

In this country, where tribal and sectarian affiliations are the powerful backdrop to confessional hypocrisy, and where political representations of sects is difficult for a foreigner to nuance the Black-Headed men seemed to appear in the paintings. Formally I needed a big counterweight to the delicacy in the paintings. The silhouette is critical but the black is black household gloss, flat and resistant. Helmeted, balaclava-ed, minstrels, veiled, gimped, masked, crusading.

The mountains it is a Druze area. The house a re-inhabited by Christians after the 1976-90 war when that community fled or were massacred here. There is that sense of the house’s re-imposition of the semi feudal values back into a community that keeps its own memories of that past. My black headed men are wearing ecclesiastical robes and carrying shields whose heraldry owes much to Cornish abstraction. One carries pomegranates because the fruit are ripe on the tree in the garden – a grenadier, another in a divers helmet carries a shield to a mythical Crusader sect of marine abstraction.

And from the roof terrace I look out over the mountains and the dusty village, with its men in traditional Sharwaal trousers and black shirts and mustaches, the fucked old Mercedes that drive down the slopes with tomatoes and olive oil, and there are swallows this time of year and the young men carry their hunting rifles taking shots at the birds in the middle of the town. And everything is peaceful and foreboding because of it.

Lebanon, Drawings studio view.

The painting seems to lapse into a funny amateur classicism because of all or none of this. The whole setting, the Tuscan architecture, the garden with the maids picking vegetables for the guests dinner, the long trestles being cobbled together by the gardeners, the sheep tethered waiting for the butcher and the spit. The work seems to get more grandiose, a grandiosity that I am always striking against with the superficial layer of gestural mark that try to reign it back to the figure, the trace of the hand of the seismographic energies of making and being.

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