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Imagining our undocumented borders.

Summary: History and the issues of Lebanese identity, as well as tangible existential questions course through "Undocumented," Mahmoud Hojeij's third solo at Agial Art Gallery.

BEIRUT: History and the issues of Lebanese identity, as well as tangible existential questions course through "Undocumented," Mahmoud Hojeij's third solo at Agial Art Gallery. The Lebanese artist and filmmaker's exhibition comprises multimedia images, made from photos of Lebanon's border areas, and installations using soil and earth. There is also a detailed map of the country that viewers are invited to take with them.

The idea, Hojeij said, is based on research into the Lebanese frontier by Abdel-Rahman Shhaytli, a now-retired Lebanese Army general.

It took Hojeij three years "to be able to go to all these undocumented areas," he told The Daily Star, referring to disputed locations along the frontier with Palestine and Syria.

"There are around 38 or 40 pieces of land that are 'undocumented,'" he said. "They are Lebanese but they're not [fully] under Lebanese sovereignty or control."

Hojeij said he had to obtain army permission to go to the locations, and was escorted by Lebanese security personnel at all times.

The artist's interrogation of borders and identity refers back to the last century, when the Skyes-Picot Agreement divided Ottoman Arab lands into British and French spheres of influence.

Hojeij has used this division literally and figuratively, cutting a stylized version of the Lebanon-Palestine-Syria-Iraq Sykes-Picot line into some images, or using it to create multiple layers that question territory and control. Other times he has made up his own lines and divisions.

Part of the work draws on sharp personal experience. Four images are based on a photo of the Israeli border wall as seen from Naqoura, south Lebanon. The sky is blue and two birds fly in the distance beyond the barrier. Three of the images, created using Photoshop and a plexiglass overlay, also show more menacing objects.

"In 2006, the Israeli army entered one of the villages in the south, they slept in my father's farm for three days. This," Hojeij recounted, gesturing at an image with Hebrew writing hand-scrawled across the sky, "is one of the messages the Israeli army guard wrote [on the walls]. This is the exact handwriting of the Israeli soldier and it says, 'Death to the Arabs.'

"Israel would like the world to experience it [Israel] as free birds, democracy and peace," observed Hojeij, who has enlarged the birds for one of the pictures. For the Lebanese, himself included, he points out, the vision is different.

Hojeij is also interested in the complex social and personal issues that spring from geopolitics.

As a metaphor for a unified and yet divided Lebanese identity, he has turned to the physical territory itself, constructing installations using soil and earth collected from the "undocumented" areas. These bring a tactile, at times provocative, three-dimensional aspect to the show.

One piece consists of an IV drip filled with soil that runs via a tube into separate, labeled bottles gathered together to resemble a bomb.

"We are all born Lebanese," Hojeij said, referring to the IV bag at the top.

"This is the soil combined together. We go through a system," he added, referring to the tube running from the sack. "Nobody knows what this system is. Of course we know, but nobody wants to talk about it.

"After we go into this system, we start separating," he said, gesturing to the bottles below, "we become different colors, different textures and different people. ... We are together but not together." It's like a bomb "that's going to explode anytime and it is exploding every single day."

Hojeij's show is bold and thought-provoking, but a lack of curatorial attention to certain details somewhat diminishes its shine.

Several short, English-language texts appearing in large print feel like over-simplistic instructions. The rest of the show's texts, including longer pieces by gallerist Saleh Barakat, Shhaytli and Hojeij, are in Arabic. Perhaps bilingual texts all around would have been clearer and more consistent.

Elements of the exhibition in the downstairs area would also have been better-placed upstairs. The lower section mostly shows Hojeij's earlier work, providing useful context and insight into the artist's practice and how it intersects with the current show.

The past-present division is unclear, and the combined office-storeroom-showroom leaves the viewer feeling like a guest who's wandered into part of a house that the hosts didn't have time to tidy.

The Lebanese artist has sought to grapple with some of the country and the region's thorniest issues, and the subjects Hojeij raises are certainly current.

U.S. President Donald Trump's decision to recognize Israeli sovereignty over the occupied Syrian Golan Heights, and the question of Lebanon's maritime borders are just two related issues that have been in the news recently.

"I don't think [this exhibition] will get a lot of exposure," Hojeij reflected. "People don't want to ask these questions, because the answers are very complicated."

"Undocumented" is up at Agial Art Gallery, Hamra, through April 13.

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Publication:The Daily Star (Beirut, Lebanon)
Geographic Code:7LEBA
Date:Apr 10, 2019
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