Behind rusted gates and cracked walls, and obscured by trees that have grown wild, abandoned mansions lie hidden across Beirut like long-forgotten secrets. They stand as monuments to Lebanon’s glory days, and a reminder of the devastating civil war that brought them to ruin.
For Tom Young, a British artist who has lived in Lebanon for the past nine years, they are also a canvas, which he uses to delve into the past and the memories that come with it.
His latest exhibition explores a symbol of Lebanon’s golden age, when it was a playground for stars, diplomats and royalty. Built in 1892, the Grand Sofar Hotel was one of the most famous in the Middle East, visited by Egyptian singers Oum Kulthum and Leila Mourad, King Hussein of Jordan and countless western diplomats and generals who had a hand in carving up the region.
It lay on the old road to Damascus, along a railway line that ran the same route and brought wealthy European visitors from Beirut to the misty hills of Mount Lebanon. They gambled at the casino and made shady deals in the back rooms. In 1975, fighting consumed the country and the hotel was taken over by the Syrian army.
The property was used as their headquarters. The railway closed and later another highway was built linking the Syrian and Lebanese capitals, leaving Sofar cut off. The fortunes of the village fell with the hotel, which lay abandoned and in ruins for decades.
Now, its doors are open again for Young’s exhibition, which draws on that storied past and utilises the overwhelming power of nostalgia to breathe new life into its dusty hallways. “It’s about the evocation and celebration of memory,” he says, standing in a high-ceilinged reception room that looks out onto the garden. “I’ve tried to resurrect those legendary times and those amazing people who were here. And not just the famous people, but the workers; the cooks, the receptionists.”
The exhibition doesn’t ignore the decay of the building, but beautifies it – the peeling paint and crumbling masonry are as much a part of the show as the paintings. Even cobwebs are protected and manicured. All of it is supposed to give the visitor a filter with which to look back at this place: they are supposed to hear the music of those days only faintly, and see the grandeur of the ballrooms only through squinted eyes.
Walking around the hotel is like diving among the ruins of the Titanic. Little treasures that were found in basements and forgotten corners have been brought to the surface and displayed alongside the art: an old roulette table, a broken piano, a radio. Hanging on the back wall of the main room is a piece that looks like a memory made real. Oum Kulthum is in focus in the centre, to her right is Samia Gamal, Egyptian belly dancer and actress, performing for Abdel Halim Hafez, another Egyptian singer. All of them stayed in the hotel at one time or another, but the scene is imagined. The painting is covered by a haze to convey the surreality, and the decay of the walls around it creeps onto the edges of the canvas. “I brought them together in a slightly fantastical way, but it is based on fact,” says Young.
The same is true for many of the paintings in this exhibition, where time is bent and stretched. One shows a bride and groom who were married at the hotel descending the grand staircase in the reception, but the backdrop is the hotel as it is today, faded and worn. There are genuine historic moments captured, too. One of the first meetings of the Arab League took place in the hotel in 1947. Young paints the silhouettes of the gathering – Shukri Al Quwatli, then president of Syria, Amin Al Hussein, Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Riad El Solh, the first prime minister of independent Lebanon and Prince Faysal, foreign minister of Saudi Arabia – the room shrouded in cigar smoke and darkness. The scene was taken from a photograph, but Young has added scaffolding that came much later, during the building’s renovation, to remind us of the shaky structures that propped up these leaders.
Finding these moments and memories involved some deep research on Young’s part. He dug into archives and rifled through hundreds of dusty photographs, spoke to locals and former visitors to the hotel. “My work, in practise, is really about spending lots of time in a place to feel the atmosphere and to research the history. I’ve got to spend time listening to the place, and almost open myself up so it can tell its stories to me,” he says.
Young set up a studio in one of the rooms of the hotel and painted many of the pieces in real life. For others, he used old photographs, and often combined the two. The result is a portrait of Lebanon in sepia, an effort to use the past to say something about where the country is today.
Dusting off old mansions and the memories that go with them is a fascination for Young. This is the sixth project of his that has attempted to transform forgotten buildings with art. In 2014 he took over Rose House, a 19th century mansion in Beirut that overlooks the Corniche. When he heard the building was marked for destruction, he sought out the owners and asked them if he could hold an exhibition. That dealt with similar themes: memory, heritage, decay and survival in the face of adversity.
The Grand Sofar Hotel exhibition came about in a slightly different way. Whereas in those previous projects he had to cajole the owners or convince them of the value of re-opening, Young was approached by the descendants of the Sursock family, who built the hotel. “The building is still owned by the family who built it,” he says. “That’s a very important difference. Sometimes I get into awkward and difficult negotiations with the owners of a building because my attempts to preserve it are sometimes in opposition to the owner’s vision, or lack of it.”
Sofar is littered with abandoned old homes and relics that hark back to better days. The train station, which sits across the road from the hotel, still has its original sign. The track is gone and weeds have taken over, but a straight line of trees reveals the path the trains used to take. The town’s former glory seems to lie just beneath the surface, Young’s aim is to bring a bit of it back. “It’s in an area that was once very cultural and cosmopolitan but has become quite rundown. This is the first time I’ve tried to revive something in an area that has a distinct lack of cultural places to visit,” he says. “It needs it more than Beirut.”
The idea, Young says, is to turn it into something that can be used for everyone – a public space, in a country where there is little of it. The owners haven’t yet decided what the building will be used for, but they think it will be focused on education, and it will likely not be renovated to its former glory.
In any case, Young wants to continue to push people to look back into the past, and at the good and the bad. In Lebanon, where the past is so divisive that the civil war is not taught in schools, these conversations are vital.
“There are so many layers of hidden history in Lebanon, which to some extent have been forgotten or erased after the traumatic years of the civil war,” Young says. “Art is a great filter through which people can experience the history of their country and their culture in a peaceful and creative way; and in a way that acknowledges pain and loss, but that transforms it into something useful.”
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