“Beirut’s Banksy” is a terrible label. The murals and portraits of Lebanese artist Yazan Halwani are not even particularly Bansky like, unless Banksy unironically celebrates celebrities?
Halwani’s images are generally remediations of pan-Arab/nationalist symbols, the immediately recognisable and nostalgia-enducing images of “Arab poets, musicians and actors, encircled by intricate Arabic calligraphy.” People from the golden age of music like Um Kalthoum and Fairouz and the Lebanese actress/singer/diva Sabah, nationalist poets like Mahmud Darwish, cultural figures that “reunite Lebanese, and Arab citizens, without any divisions.”
The intention is to “offset decades of political polarization that has resulted in cultural divisions” through the narrower forms of identification, whether sectarian or class based.
However, Halwani doesn’t only paint celebrities – one of his most famous murals is that of “Ali Abdullah, a homeless man who for years had set up residence in the nearby Bliss Street.”
Halwani’s art also includes calligraphic elements, although not always to write words:
The Arabic letters he places around his portraits often don’t make up legible words; they’re more like ornate crossword puzzles. “What I try to do is I try to evoke meaning without having to use the actual word … I use calligraphy to create an Arabic visual language which can be understood by Arabic and non-Arabic speakers alike,” he noted.
See this interview with Halwani for more.
In contrast to Halwani’s images surrounded by calligraphic elements, Tunisian-French artist El Seed’s calligraffiti is wholly based on words which become images. Hallway uses images to reach out to and try to bridge the divides in a polarised Lebanese society, El Seed seeks to reclaim the beauty of Arabic calligraphy in societies where it is often something suspect.
While his calligraffiti pieces are visually remarkable, they also always feature a phrase, a few lines of poetry or a meaningful quote aimed to make a social impact. For example, in 2011 he painted a calligraffiti stating “This is just a phrase in Arabic” in Arabic in Los Angeles. This piece intended for viewers to challenge their own negative perceptions and associations of Islam with extremism.
El Seed was interviewed a few days ago in relation with MOCAfest.