BEIRUT – A photograph of two lovers kissing underneath a Lebanese flag draped over their heads captures the essence of the mass protests rattling the country in recent weeks.
It is the work of Omar Sfeir, who turned to artist Magritte for inspiration. For him, the protests have unleashed a new ability to express himself.
“The artist might feel more free to create, especially that we are feeling that this city and nation belongs to us. Every film or picture taken before and after the big revolution was a small revolution on its own and a brave act of resistance,” he said.
Sfeir is one of 11 artists exhibiting their work at a building referred to locally as the Egg, which was abandoned in 1975 at the outbreak of the civil war and has now become a hub for popular protests in Lebanon since 2005, when the so-called Cedar Revolution forced the departure of Syrian troops from the country.
The artist said his photograph, which has been adopted by some groups as a banner in the leaderless protest movement, represents the past and the present “kissing each other.”
In downtown Beirut, there are two buildings abandoned mid-construction during the brutal war: “The Grand Theater and the Egg,” which was meant to be a cinema.
Sfeir said both were off-limits to the public for a long time but that they had now become symbols of the demonstration as protesters use their spaces to express themselves.
The Grand Theater, which is near the prime minister’s official residence, was closed off after protesters occupied it in the early days of the unrest but the Egg is still open and activists have since reappropriated it, screening films in the unfinished room.
Its exterior is daubed with slogans calling for an end to the confessional system imposed on Lebanon after the civil war.
“When the revolution started, it started taking an absurd shape,” Sfeir said.
“There was so much beauty in the street, so much anger, so much fear and so much happiness as well. And so much hope.
“As an artist, I wasn’t able to express it in one piece of art. For me, it was already a piece of art that was done, sculpted, everything.”
For that reason, he chose to display the photograph of the lovers as a symbol of unity in Lebanon, a country still racked with sectarian tension among the 18 recognized religions in the Mediterranean nation.
“In the times of revolution, gender and religion, sex, ethnicity are irrelevant,” the artist said.
Sfeir has five years of experience working in cinematography and photography, during which time many of his projects have not been “accepted” by more conservative groups in Lebanese society.
The protests first erupted when the government unveiled plans to slap charges on calls made through social media apps like WhatsApp and Facebook but have since morphed into a movement demanding an end to sectarian politics.
Prime Minister Saad Hariri announced his resignation amid growing pressure, although President Michel Aoun has yet to begin the process of finding his replacement. Lebanon’s already fragile economy has been battered by the unrest.
Malak Mroueh is another Lebanese artist displaying work at the Egg.
Her work is different, however. She was beaten during the first two weeks of protesting and documented her bruising with her camera phone.
“After that incident, I went home and took a photo of my bruise in the bathroom with my iPhone to keep a trace and I posted it because the revolution isn’t only strength but vulnerability too that makes our resistance human,” the 26-year-old said.