Chaouki Chammoun was born in Lebanon in 1942. After being self-taught through his early twenties, Chammoun studied lessons by correspondence from London. In 1968, Chammoun was admitted to the Lebanese University, and graduated in 1972 ranked amongst the top of his classes. He then gained his masters degree in Syracuse University, and then proceeded with his PhD in NYU. After falling in love with the innovation of New York, Chammoun began to work as an interior designer for large department stores [blooming dales]. After having experienced New York to the full, Chammoun decided to return to Lebanon and originate a new era of art. As a child, Chammoun always felt lucky because he considered himself one of the few “lucky people who were born in a pure green environment”. Although Chammoun was not present during most of the Lebanese Civil War, he was able to sense the destruction of his “green environment”.
In one of Chammoun’s war-related artworks, On A Spring Day Of 1975, the overpowering color is green. The green color is a representation of his perception of Lebanon and it’s beauty. Chammoun decides to display a large target, in white, in the center of the image in order to emphasize the prior magnificence of the country before war erupted. In the interview, Chammoun even says, “I knew that the land was a target”, almost suggesting that the war was based on the beauty of the land”. Across the painting, Chammoun uses a drip paint technique to create a splash of yellow, white, light blue, and red - These perhaps mimic the presence of flowers. Chammoun always decides to integrate the Lebanese people as a motif throughout his artworks. In my opinion, the people are the flowers.
Since Lebanon is a culturally diverse country, perhaps Chammoun is trying to bring about a sense of anti-sectarianism by merging the colors, and displaying them blurred together. Apart from the geometrical frame surrounding the “green environment”, there is a distortion found on the bottom left corner of the artwork, almost as if the image continues. The concept of framing limits the magnitude of the warfare, however by expanding it even further, Chammoun perhaps is suggesting that the war spread across the entire country. The white surrounding frame depicts reality, exposing the real life situation.
Another real life situation represented through another one Chammoun’s mixed media oeuvres is Cana I. In his artwork, he exhibits a wrinkled, and crushed glossy canvas that seems to be varnished. In front of this canvas is a wooden chair, and a barbed wire placed in the face of it. According to Chammoun, this artwork is based on the bombing of a local church in the suburb of Kaslik. As he described, “The church roof was annihilated”. The obvious emphasis of the mixed media is the canvas itself; this is achieved by the positioning of the lights. The canvas itself is an extracted representation of the bombed roof. Ironically, the roof gives off a sense of whimsicality. This in nature is deceptive, since the bomb left nothing but brittle debris and fire. The whimsical colors are quite misleading; the sudden flashes of red perhaps suggested the bloodshed, the red lighting that subsumes across the barbed wires also emphasizes this. The frequency of yellow found on the canvas perhaps exemplifies fire. The canvas itself is placed on a white backdrop that dangles from the ceiling. This juxtaposes reality and destruction, and highlights the brutality of the event. The concept of the chair is quite abstract, it’s structure, words inscribed, and surrounding elements confuse and challenge the spectator. On the back of the chair, the “UN” is repeated five times in white in order to emphasize its futile presence. The color white is also apparent, suggesting a disintegration, and by extension suggesting the ineffectiveness of the UN in the Civil War. In the central bottom of the ‘hollow’ chair is a crumbled tissue, along with a pair of black shoes. Perhaps this is a disintegrated person who has been destroyed by the bombardment, or perchance it is Lebanon itself.
An Interview with Chaouki Chammoun
I would first like to ask you about your background as an artist. Where did you train, and why did you decide to become an artist?
I didn’t choose to become an artist, I was self-taught through my early 20s, and I studied lessons by correspondence in London in the mid sixties. I did architectural drawing while I was looking for something called “drawing classes”. 68, I entered the Lebanese university, and I graduated from there in 72, being the first in my class, I was granted a fellowship to the US. I did my masters at Syracuse University and my PhD in NYU. This is basically my educational background. I worked in NY; I had a studio there. In addition to painting I was doing design – interior design for large department stores [blooming dales]. I realized I had to support my art. it took me a long time to get recognition and believe in my work. It took me years of study and hard work to get to where I am now. I had a major art show in Lebanon in 85, and since I was exhibiting almost every year. I exhibited in Beirut, NY, and other Arab countries. I have had over 31 1 man shows, and over 50 group shows worldwide.
Could you tell us a bit more about your experience in Lebanon as a child, and how things have changed in your opinion?
Being born in 1942, which is one year before our independence, I remember singing in the streets of my village singing songs against Israel, even though contemporary times are similar. My father was in the army we had to move a lot. The fact that my father was a soldier, we would move to single-roomed houses, sometimes built out of clay. I always thought we had a good upbringing, all the clothes and food we needed, we were always looked at as studious and well-mannered kids. My father used to pay for my tuition most of the time. He was a ‘peasant’ he used to grow vegetables and fruits. Some of those used to go against my tuition against school. I always felt like I belonged to a well-mannered family, however I was actually from a peasant family. I am from a village called Sariine. I was one of the few lucky people who were born in a pure green environment.
I noticed when I was researching your biography, that you were not present during most of the Lebanese civil war. Where were you? And did you actually visit Lebanon for prolonged periods of time during this period of uncertainty.
When I left Lebanon in 73 to Syracuse, it was to peruse my higher education. I stayed there till 75.after I got my masters; I came back to Lebanon for a short period of time. At the first stages of war. The first thing I did I visited the fine arts institute. I had my painting hanged there. Unfortunately, this building was the first to get burned. All I remember is a black rectangle on the wall. I joined NYU in 75. I stayed there for 2 years, and then came back for some research. I was shuttling between the east and the west without having a sense of fear, just disgust. When I see the buildings, it reminds me of how when we were kids playing with sand, and some mean bully would step on a sand castle. I stayed in NYU because I was studying. I came back in 82; I had to get back to the states in 85-86. I came back and front, working both ways, and my life went on this way.
While I was researching your artwork, especially that one hanging in Grandmother’s salon, I noticed you often use a dark palette. Any specific reason for this?
This painting was one of a series of painting I’ve done in Lebanon in 84-85. My wife was modeling for me at that time. My wife was everywhere. She would never pose for me, she would go on with her life and I would notice positions and I would sketch. I would always throw shapes around to create composition. Pastels were really something contemporary at that time. This technique was done using pencil, charcoal and pastel, I layered a lot using fixative to fix the color and create layers. The extensive layers cause a darker appearance.
I also noticed that many of your works feature people usually standing upright in rows, as if waiting for something. Could you please explain why you incorporated these?
These people stared sometimes in the early 90s when we started escaping the war and departing to the states. People would WAIT for boats, WAIT for planes. There were always lines; there was always a sense of waiting. it got me thinking about the percentage of time we spend on waiting, This waiting occupied 99% of our time. so the real question is “what are we waiting for?”, “what’s next?”. People are very familiar with waiting. They live in it. Nobody likes to wait for something bad to happen, they avoid it, and we always wait for something positive. The waiting as I see it, although sometimes it portrays negativity, we always hope for the positive. When I was in the US, I used to take the train a lot. I used to sit next to the window, and see the direction of the train. I always felt like the future is coming to me. However, if I look to the back, its almost like the future is passing me.
In your work the presiding moon I noticed you also had the pattern of people. Some in darkness, and some in the moonlight. Would you please explain why you chose to create this contrast?
When I went to the desert, I fell in love, when I held the sand in my hands, it sifted through my fingers. I went there and lied on my back. The sky was clear, dark blue, and I could see starts and moon. I felt like the moon was presiding in the desert. I brought the stars in an architectural form called ‘convening stars’.
Would you say that your experiences of living in a country with such a recent history of war, in fact some people would say we are still at war, has had an impact on the way you express yourself through your art?
I always though that I don’t want to deal with war, but when I look in my work, I find traces of pain. it wasn’t meant to give an art that is really involved in war, but sharpeners were hitting everywhere, even my painting and drawings, even physically. you cannot live in a country at times of war without being part of that experience. no matter how you reject it, no matter how you believe in it, no matter how you think it’s an endless lie taking our lives apart. But again, as the waiting lines are always hopeful waiting, we are always hopeful that tomorrow is a better day, in my paintings I have titles like “there will be peace tomorrow” or “since there will be peace tomorrow”. This title has been given to many of my artworks, and I still say till this moment, there will be peace tomorrow. Does it mean I have it today?
Which of your artworks do you think is more directly influenced by your war experience?
I have a painting which was done in NY after I saw myself in a self-imposed exile, escaping the war in 89, a painting “on a spring day of 1975”. It is green, representing the green Lebanon, targeted in the very center. I think this is war-related because I knew that the land was a target, killing Lebanon, as we know Lebanon was the target.
Do you think that art has a significant role to play in preserving the collective memory of war for the Lebanese? And is it important for Lebanon that this happens?
Despite the fact that art may relate to war issues, it is there to tell you that it’s with art that Lebanon can be saved, not with war.
Do you think that war has featured in the work of other artists?
Yes in many, Arif Rayis, Jean khalifeh, and porbably many others.