Too Close for Comfort? On Lebanon’s Palestine, (In) visibility, and Art

By Hanan Toukan
Submitted to Session P4409 (Palestine: Capital and Material Culture, 2016 Annual Meeting
Cultural Studies;
LCD Projector without Audio;
On the 29th of April 2005, experimental Lebanese film maker Maher Abi Samra’s Dwar Shatila was screened in Qaat Al Shaab (the People’s Hall) in the Shatila Palestinian Refugee Camp in Beirut. The postcard invitation to the film’s viewing, designed by the film maker himself was a playful yet biting critique of Beirut’s art makers and art going public. The invitation featured a special map for the anticipated attendees of the film screening that takes Ras Beirut as its departure point and which purposefully (mis) leads to a maze of the tight streets and alleyways that define the camp and which Qaat Al Shaab nestles amongst. Having found themselves lost between its claustrophobic maze of tiny buildings and streets most attendees, including artists, curators, journalists and critics missed the point and as if falling for the film-makers provocations, commented instead on the difficulties and peculiarities of navigating the Camp, just like he envisioned they would.

Taking its cue from Abi Samra’s sardonic comment on the invisibility of Lebanon’s Palestinians in Beirut’s transnationalized and internationally well-networked contemporary art scene, this paper will address how class as a field in the classical Bourdieuian sense, transnational cultural capital, and material culture coalesce in ways that reinforce the already existing marginality of Lebanon’s Palestinians, even when purporting to ‘speak’ for them or about them. Through a focus on Lebanese works of art, artistic projects and personal initiatives that make reference to or entirely elide the Palestinian refugee condition in Lebanon, the paper inserts the material culture representing a people rendered ‘invisible’ in to a paradigm that takes the twin effects of cultural and material capital circulation in the global art world as its focus. It unravels the ways in which cultural politics in Lebanon function to demarcate categories of identity and class that ultimately define how aesthetic materiality about invisibility is produced, consumed and circulated globally. As such the paper rethinks the recent backlash against traditional sociological accounts of art-such as those found in Howard Becker’s Art Worlds and Pierre Bourdieu’s The Field of Cultural Production and the Rules of Art-that have been criticized for overemphasizing the focus on factors of production at the expense of any agency the art may have. It suggests that bringing in materiality, class, and capital highlights how the relationship between material objects and their subjects perpetuates certain ideologies of exclusion.