A nameless woman stands at the devastated port of Beirut holding the flag of Lebanon as wind from the Mediterranean whips at her hair and skirt. She is made of broken glass, twisted metal and things that used to be in the homes of people before a stockpile of ammonium nitrite exploded in the port on August 4. She represents the 190 people who died, more than 6,000 who were injured and the 300,000 displaced from their homes in the event. A broken clock at her feet still shows 6:08, the moment of the explosion.
The statue symbolises the audacity of hope in a troubled country. It has been created by Hayat Nazer, whose works come from direct experiences with the sociopolitical anxieties of Lebanon and have, in the past, so incensed authorities that they have destroyed several.
“I opened the opportunity for people to name the woman in the statue so that they could participate and put their emotions into the name. When I put her on the streets, I saw people crying. They said to me that she portrays exactly how they are feeling inside. It is not just that the woman is rising — and we have to rise and move on — but that the statue, if you look at her face, hands and feet, is also showing the pain and the destruction,” Nazer tells The Indian Express.
“The work made people feel something and the beginning of change happens inside us. This is my message through art — to make a change and plant a seed in each viewer’s heart and maybe the seed will grow one day and bring change in every one of us,” she adds. Here’s why her sculpted woman at the port of Beirut is a powerful sociopolitical statement:
Collapsing economy, corruption and a pandemic
Lebanon is facing its worst economic crisis since the 1975-1990 civil war. In October 2019, people were out on the streets to protest the sinking economy, corruption, crony capitalism and deteriorating public services. This was the largest display of mass anger since March 2005, when protests brought an end to a decades-long Syrian military presence in the country. Nazer, who used to work with the UN, was among those who participated in the protests.
“When the police chased us, we would run and help one another,” she says, adding that the energy inspired her to make graffiti and other artwork. The pandemic has compounded Lebanon’s problems by stretching its healthcare system to snapping point. With the Beirut port explosion, even the landscape is ruined. Residents report finding glass shards in flower pots, and once-proud heritage sites are bereft of a wall or other parts.
An artist called Life
“My name Hayat, in Arabic, means Life. I paint about faith in life, about hope in a better future and about reflections of the self. My acrylic paintings aspire to disrupt reality, encouraging the Universe to conspire to make a perpetual change,” writes Nazer on her website. Born in Tripoli, she is an arts and science graduate from the Lebanese American University in Beirut as well as a self-taught painter. Since she was a teenager, Nazer has been volunteering in vulnerable neighbourhoods where Lebanese and Palestinians live. “Art is my way of seeking reality, a reality that transcends a world of pain and poverty tarnishing my country Lebanon. …my volunteering in the ‘rough neighbourhoods’ has implanted a perpetual drive for change. A change reflected in my abstract expressionist paintings that aspire to morph the darkness into the light, to transcend the good into great,” she writes.
Rising from rubble
Nazer was a part of citizen groups picking up the debris and cleaning the city after the Beirut explosion, when she had the idea to use the found objects to create a memorial that would inspire her country to fight for a better future. She collected material from the destruction of the port and visited the houses of victims to ask for contributions.
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“I told them, ‘I just want you to give me anything I can include to make you a part of my sculpture,'” Nazer told CNN. They gave her relics and heirlooms, including mementoes from the civil war, so that the statue of the woman is also a powerful compilation of a country’s memories. She stands opposite the site of the blast, dwarfing the landscape of landscape and keeping the flag flying.
Woman in danger
Nazer has posted on social media that she is apprehensive about the life of the statue. “She will be leaving the port in a few days, as I am worried that some government protestors might burn or destroy her like they did to the Phoenix of the Revolution in Martyr Square,” Nazer writes under her Instagram handle, @hayat_nazer_v. The Phoenix, inspired by the mythical bird that rises from the ashes, was made from bent and broken pieces of protest tents that had been destroyed by government supporters during the mass demonstrations in 2019.
“People had come from all over Lebanon and helped me build this but, a few days ago, pro-government protestors came and burnt it because they want to put an end to the revolution. This is how you see that art is making a change and a statement and bothering them, else they would not have tried to destroy it,” she says. Another work by Nazer was a gigantic heart built after the riots from the litter of stones and teargas canisters. As for the future of the statue, Nazer adds, “I have to protect her for now, but I wish to create a much bigger replica that would be long-lasting… carrying items from people’s homes, and souvenirs from the people we lost at the explosion, with their names and memories, to stay for future generations to come and see what happened to us on the 4th of August 2020.”
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