Writing History Under Erasure: Radical Historiographical Practices in Lebanese Postwar Art
My dissertation examines the artistic practices of Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige, Rabih Mroué, Walid Raad and Akram Zaatari, Lebanese artists of the so-called jil al-harb, or the war generation, whose work is characterised by a conspicuous engagement with questions of history writing, mostly, although not exclusively, in relation to the events and the continuing legacy of the Lebanese civil wars (1975–90).
I consider how the works produced by this group of artists attempt to critically problematise and deconstruct the structures and conventions of dominant forms of historiography, and how the foregrounding of such epistemological concerns in their works, rather than signalling an escape into postmodern relativism, is crucially connected to a politics of truth. The dismantling of historicist and positivistic models of history writing by such artists, as I argue, does not seek to destroy the truth-claims of history or the possibility of historical knowledge as such, but to reconfigure the task of historical inquiry as a process of critical reconstruction and interpretative disclosure. Accordingly, my dissertation considers how the above artists’ 'radical historiographical practices' attempt to articulate a dynamic understanding of history and the archive as an incomplete and open-ended project, wherein our understanding of the past is always made and re-made from the standpoint and urgencies of a specific historical present.
A primary point of focus is the way in which such practices interrogate and reassess conceptions of the referential and testimonial power of the document, especially the photographic image, analysing the technological forms and media through which the past is recorded and accessed.
The introduction provides a critical survey of the major debates on artists coming out of post-civil war Beirut, addressing issues around the politics of memory in a society characterised by “state-sponsored amnesia” and sectarian fragmentation; the problematisation of historical representation and the re-invention of documentary forms; and the destabilisation of established boundaries between “fact” and 'fiction'.
Chapter 1 looks at the production and unearthing of photographic documentation in the aftermath of the civil wars. Examining Hadjithomas and Joreige's Wonder Beirut (1997–2006) and Lasting Images (2002), and a number of selected files from Raad's Atlas Group archive, I consider how these works attempt to re-conceptualise the indexical referentiality of the photographic document in order to address the latent traumas and violence that afflict the post-conflict reality of Beirut; specifically, the suspended ontological status of the forcibly disappeared, and the violent processes of war and spatial abstraction that underlie the reconstruction of Beirut city centre.
Chapter 2 explores the place of the archive as a mobile and living space from which, history – animated by the urgencies of the present – can be written and re-written. Focusing on Zaatari's work with photographic and other archival material drawn from the collections of the Arab Image Foundation, the chapter reflects on issues of preservation, media transfer and the semantic instability of the photo-document, as well as Zaatari’s critical relation to the AIF as an institution.
Chapter 3 investigates the narrativity of historical knowledge in the age of information, analysing Mroué's and Raad's performative reinvention of the seemingly obsolete tradition of storytelling. In particular, I focus on the renarrativisation of the informational forms of news media and the deconstruction of the chronicle as a form of history writing in Mroué’s multi-media plays and non-academic lectures, and the emergence of a mode of analytical storytelling in Raad's lecture-performances.
Chapter 4 turns to the topic of art history as a specialised field of historical research. Examining Raad’s multi-volume project Scratching on Things I Could Disavow. A History of Art in the Arab World (2007– ongoing), the chapter interrogates the complex historiographic problems that have arisen as a result of the burgeoning retrospective interest in art in the Arab world, as well as how these problems intersect with an emerging field of global art history.
School of Arts & Humanities
Critical & Historical Studies, 2014–2019
Elisa Adami is a writer and scholar based in London. Her writings on art and cultural theory have appeared in academic journals and art magazines such as the Journal of Visual Culture, Third Text, Art Monthly, Ibraaz and Flash Art. She lectures in the school of Fine Art and Art History at Kingston University. Her current research focuses on questions of history writing in the practice of a selected number of Lebanese artists of the postwar generation.
- BA (Hons) Visual Art, Cinema and Performing Arts, Università degli Studi di Trieste, 2010; MA Visual Culture, University of Westminster, 2012
- Interview with Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige, Culture+Conflict website, Nov 2018, http://www.cultureandconflict.org.uk/views/joana-hadjithomas-and-khalil-joreige/; 'The Truth of Fiction. Some Stories of the Lebanese Civil Wars' in Karine Deslandes, Fabrice Mourlon, Bruno Tribout (eds), Civil War and Narrative: Testimony, Historiography, Memory, London: Springer Nature, Palgrave Macmillan, 2017; Elisa Adami, Alex Fletcher, 'To Think the Home in Terms of the Factory. Social Reproduction, Postproduction and Home Movies in Godard and Miéville', Third Text, special issue on Social Reproduction, Vol. 31: 1, Jan 2017, pp. 79–94; 'How do you watch a revolution? Notes from the 21st century', Journal of Visual Culture, themed issue on Visual Activism, Vol. 15:1, April 2016, pp. 69–84