Lebanese artist Nadim Karam: ‘I try to bring dreams to a city’

“I always say that I try to bring dreams to a city in order to create joy,” says Lebanese artist and architect Nadim Karam when I ask him about his iconic work, Archaic Procession, a series of five-metre high animalesque and humanoid sculptures positioned around Beirut in the nineties. In total, Karam and his team moulded 20 figures out of steel – including a wild cat, an elephant, a baby Phoenician and Hannibal – and positioned them on bridges, rooftops and in public squares around the city.

Set against the burnt-out buildings and rubble of post-war Beirut, the public art project brought an element of the absurd to a city emerging from years of fighting. They were anti-symbols to represent the folly of the civil war in which people had fought and died for their allegiance to religious and political symbols. They also became “urban toys”, or Karam’s way of transcending cultures, borders and religions. The array of sculptures all “symbolise diversity in one way or another,” Karam tells me. “It’s a procession of diversity”.

“You have different animals, that’s because I see all of human kind as the same configuration,” he explains. “Why the animals? I can’t put a monkey and a giraffe next to each other and say they are the same in terms of shapes; they are completely different things, but they are still animals. Within the Archaic Procession they are the same height, which means the giraffe is the same size as a monkey and the same size as an elephant. They are archetypes of the same kind, archetypes read by different cultures in the same way.”

A general view of Nadim Karam's 'The Archaic Procession', Beirut Central District [1995-2000]

Nadim Karam's 'The Archaic Procession', Beirut Central District [1995-2000]

It’s not just in his native Beirut that Karam’s “dreams” have been built. A series of figures, each representing a period of migration in Australia, have been constructed on the Sandridge Bridge in Melbourne, the point at which former migrants traditionally arrived in the country. The convict period between 1788 and 1868, when a number of prisoners from England were sent to Australia, is represented by the figure of a man with a shovel in his hand whilst a running couple represent the period of European migration to the country.

Altogether, Karam’s installation “Travellers” is made up of 10, nine-metre sculptures that move across the bridge on a railway at morning, noon and night and together celebrate the meeting of cultures.

In order for his sculptures to communicate with the people around them, an essential element of his work, Karam researches the history, the culture, the memories – “the basic story” – of a city in order to “grasp the spirit” of the place and decide on the context of the project. Collaboration with the local community is key; “All of these projects are a kind of dialogue,” he says.

This is particularly prevalent in his ongoing work, “The Dialogue of the Hills”, set to be built in Amman. Whilst the capital of Jordan as a whole was built on seven hills the communities that have developed on each have their own history, character and socio-economic standing. Karam’s work intends to bring them together around a series of community gardens, each adorned with a sculpture decided on by the people themselves.

“There is a discrepancy in terms of class and this can bring more and more people together,” he says of his project in the Amman hills. “Art is a way of communicating with others, especially the kind of art that I do with an urban context. Doing something like this, there’s no way you don’t communicate with others; it’s a social context because we all work in the middle of the city. You have to communicate with everybody in that city; the citizens are part of the whole process.”

In 2016, Karam created “Shout and Silence”, a series of curved stainless steel figures, some shiny and the others painted with matt, lacquered black paint. The work is a comment on the power struggles, war and mass migration that were taking place in the Middle East, and how many people talk about these problems but not much is being done about them. “There’s too much shouting in our area but not much can be heard. These sculptures also show the silent part of the Middle East, where there’s so much shouting and at the same time there are all these millions of refugees who are just moving in silence somehow.”

Karam describes his work as “social political” rather than political: “I’m more interested in the way we can invigorate and create energy within the social systems,” he says. “Politics and the way it is functioning in this area is, on the contrary, trying to kill this possibility of opening and becoming liberal. My art is standing on the opposite side of politics by being apolitical and creating a social impetus to move forward.”

When I ask how long each installation takes from the moment it’s conceived to the moment it’s constructed, Karam laughs. “Because they are in cities you never know how long they will take. It depends on elections, it depends on which street is going to be transferred or changed, and it depends on which mayor has been demoted or changed or imprisoned. You can’t believe what it depends on.”

Trou de Memoire

He tells me that some projects in Japan took him twenty years. “I started them when I was a student and finished them after I had my three kids. Sometimes a project started suddenly then disappeared for a few years after some elections turned the whole system upside down. It’s an organic thing, like the city itself. They are big projects, the scale of a city, so they live with the city, they grow with the city and they happen or don’t happen based on city life.”

Karam has created a lifetime’s worth of sculptures across the world but all of them began as drawings in his sketchbook. At the end of April this year, the Fine Art Society in London will show a retrospective of his work; paintings, sculptures, the centrepiece “Trou de Memoire”, and also 40 unseen works on paper will be on display. “Sketches are some of the most important things for me to create all of my projects. I sketch all the time, especially when I’m travelling, and I travel a lot.”

Whilst he is the creator behind everything, to realise his sculptures Karam works with a huge team of people. The work begins in the office of Atelier Hapsitus – the creative and architectural practice he founded in Beirut in 1996 – with the concepts, the designs and the detailed drawings. Then several teams of people work on the welding, cutting, bending and creating that it takes to help the sculptures to take shape.

For someone who has travelled so much and has spent time researching so many cities, why did Karam decide to stay in Lebanon as a base to create this work? “It’s where I’m from” he answers. “For me it’s very important that we do the fight from here. It’s a whole different energy being here and from here going out to the world because the consciousness of being here gives a creative input that’s different from anywhere else.”

“I live with refugees, I live with my history in a city that has been bombarded so heavily; this is Beirut and I would like to encourage every creative person here to begin his output and take it to the world with him. It’s very important that if you, like us, go through this resistance you take it further, to another stage, and express it in different ways in the world, express it through creative input, through embellishment, through art, through – I would like to use the words love and peace but because everybody uses them I’m trying to find other words. It’s the energy that comes out and keeps you moving in order to express creativity that needs to always be ongoing.” 

Written by Amelia Smith

Published in Middle East Monitor