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Reem Bassous Examines the Lebanese Civil War Through a Hawai‘i Filter

The solo exhibition is on display from Dec. 2 to March 27.


Editor’s Note: Through our partnership with the Honolulu Museum of Art, HONOLULU Magazine publishes a monthly blog written by Lesa Griffith, the museum’s communications director and a talented Hawai‘i writer on arts, culture and food.




The country of Lebanon might be on the other side of the world from Hawai‘i, but Beirut-born artist Reem Bassous sees a lot of parallels between the two places. In fact, she says she wouldn’t have been able to complete the paintings for her new exhibit anywhere else but in the Islands.  


The 10 large-scale paintings of Bassous’s solo show Beyond the Archive: Paintings by Reem Bassous, at the Honolulu Museum of Art, which opened on Dec. 2, are based on her experience growing up in the midst of the Lebanese Civil War, depicting everything from the harsh realities and absurdities of war to identity killings. And though these works are specifically about the Lebanese Civil War, they can be seen as reflecting issues in Hawai‘i as well.


“By making sense of my own history and culture, I hope it will engage people to do the same on a local level,” says Bassous, a lecturer in drawing and painting at the UH Mānoa’s Department of Art and Art History. “A lot of students say to me, ʻYou have the war, this is real drama, we don’t have that.’ But, to quote my mother, we all have our own wars, and that’s certainly true for a lot of people here. It’s just a matter of finding out what that is and bringing it into the light, on your terms.”


This painting, Memory for Forgetfulness, takes its title from a book of prose by famous Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, who lived in Beirut during the Civil War. Darwish wrote about wanting a “five-minute truce for the sake of coffee,” and Bassous captures that feeling of domestic life disrupted.

Over nine months, Bassous worked closely with Healoha Johnston, the museum’s curator of the arts of Hawai‘i. Johnston says, “What’s been amazing to me is that I have followed Middle Eastern art and art history for several years now, in part because I feel like what’s happening there is fueled by the local politics, and I feel like, in Hawai‘i, the art I’m most interested in is also fueled by its political undercurrent and it is rooted in a historical experience. But that history is ever present. It’s really not historic, it continues today. I saw a parallel between what was happening in the Middle East and what’s happening here. What I’ve come to realize is, even though Reem lives here in Honolulu, much of her work is so on track with what’s been happening in Lebanon and other places in the Arab world. It’s been an amazing experience, and I think what we’ve always done where Reem’s artwork is concerned is evaluate her bodies of work and interrogate its art–historical place within contemporary art and, specifically, Middle Eastern art, even though she lives here.”


The viewer enters Bassous’ works, which are many-layered, both physically (paint is added, manipulated, scraped and sometimes even blown up) and intellectually. As she says, “the paint has its own magic.” Bassous is almost a tool to the paint, which “does its own thing,” she says. “Through the process of creative destruction, the image emerges. The paint undergoes a lot of abuse, excavation and sanding.”


For the first time, figures play a large role in her paintings. “I realized that [the figures’] presence is so much about that tension where they are at threat of being destroyed at any moment, and this destruction, or elimination, can come through paint application or through actual destruction, as in those people who have existed in Beirut. So it became very much about the tension of the figure being here but not really being here and the paint is a constant violent act threatening its presence by obliteration. So it became the challenge—how do you allow the paint to do what it needs to do in order for you not to compromise the structural integrity of the figure itself and not force that destruction but also to have it be aesthetically something that is sitting well on the canvas and ultimately have something new emerge.


“I’m not really interested in making figure paintings for figures—it has to be something more. I don’t always know what that is and I’m interested in showing the figure in a new way and I really can’t say that I’ve completely succeeded, but I feel like I’ve started to understand how I can do it.”


Beyond the Archive is on view through March 27 at the Honolulu Museum of Art.You can see more work by Reem Bassous in the group exhibition Four at Kapi‘olani Community College’s Koa Art Gallery Jan. 13–Feb. 4.


Lesa Griffith is director of communications at the Honolulu Museum of Art. Born in Honolulu, one of her early seminal art experiences was at the Honolulu Museum of Art, when on a field trip her high school art history teacher pointed out that the ermine cape in Whistler’s Portrait of Lady Meux was not just a cape—it was visual signage leading viewers’ eyes through the painting.


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