Messages from Beirut

All is Well sends political messages in letters

All is Well is Akram Zaatari’s first solo exhibition in Canada.
All is Well is Akram Zaatari’s first solo exhibition in Canada.

Walking into the All is Well exhibit, the viewer will be struck by its emptiness.

A couple of photos are hung, small glass cases line the perimeter of the room, one television displays the recording of a man writing and a large projection of a typewriter is on the far wall.

Akram Zaatari’s exhibit at the Agnes Etherington Art Centre focuses on the process of written communication.

His projects examine how letters of love, politics and secrets were written and sent between Lebanon and Israel in the early 1990s to present — a time of violence and tension between the two countries.

The first thing to be noticed is the sound of Arabic music, which gives geographic context to the exhibit. The loud clicking of keys is heard as a projected typewriter composes a letter — a dialogue between two lovers.

The rhythmic sound of the typing follows you around the exhibit.

Small glass cases run across three walls holding 48 letters. The project is entitled “Writing for a Posterior Time” and contains letters received by Lebanese political prisoner Nabih Awada during his time in an Israeli jail. The messages were sent from family, friends and other prisoners.

Colourful drawings of flowers and birds line the yellowed margins of the letters. Some are water stained and creased, showing the amount of time passed since they were written.

Highly censored, they contained only personal news, most expressing how much they respect and miss Nahib. Some are only a few lines of text, direct and to the point, while others are more lengthly and reminisce on shared memories.

One letter was particularly touching and poetic: “Remember us every time the ship of your thoughts comes to anchor off the coast of forgetting.” It’s easy to connect to the writers of these letters. The emotions they express are ones we’ve all felt — longing, admiration and love.

A more alien and disturbing method of communication is presented metres from these love-filled letters.

A large screen plays a video of a man writing a letter, then carefully wrapping the folded paper in plastic and tying off the end with thread. He melts it shut with a lighter, then repeats these steps several more times.

The final product, a small plastic wrapped capsule, is shown in a stark photograph hung nearby. The capsule would be swallowed by prisoners and secretly transported out of prison.

The cold way this process is portrayed contrasts drastically to the human approach the previous letters took. It’s disconnected from emotions; calculated, and purposeful.

This exhibit situates communication in time and space, unlike our current world of instant communication.

These letters have a life — the process of writing, the journey they went on to reach their destination, their rediscovery by the artist and their exhibition in Kingston.

They’re dynamic, active creatures. They once conveyed meaning to their original recipients. Now collected and organized in Zaatar’s exhibit, they take on new meaning.

All Is Well will be featured at the Agnes Etherington Art Centre from Nov. 23 to March 30, 2014.

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