Refugee Visions: A Visit With Palestinian Artist Abdulrahman Katanani in Beirut

Abdulrahman Katanani, "Girl with Hula hoop," 2011
(Courtesy the Artist and Agial Art, Beyrouth)

BEIRUT, Lebanon — Abdulrahman Katanani lives and works where he was born: a dilapidated former hospital in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Beirut, which have sheltered hundreds of Palestinian refugee families since 1948. His mother gave birth to him in the building when it was still a functioning hospital, in 1983.

“It’s a vertical camp,” he says, climbing up the stairs of the building, which has been partially torn down and reconstructed. Electrical wires stick out of the walls and, in the lobby, and trash is wedged into spaces between iron bars that have been exposed by the crumbling cement. Shouts of children at play echo through the doors along the hallway and bounce off the walls. It’s a little glimpse of life just 20 minutes away from Beirut’s luxurious downtown — but a world apart.

On the sixth floor, Abdulrahman (his friends call him Abdel) has his studio in a bedroom of the apartment that he shares with his parents, brothers, and sisters. The workspace is small, despite the fact that it’s doubled in size in his recent years of success as an artist. Katanani has won Beirut’s Sursock Museum Prize twice — in the young artist category in 2009 and, earlier, as a special selection by the jury in 2008 — and achieved international recognition after meeting gallerist Saleh Barakat, whose Beirut space Agial Art seeks out and supports new talent.

Since then, the artist’s scrap-metal sculptures and picture composites have sold particularly well in the Middle Eastern auction world. At Christie’s modern and contemporary Arab, Iranian, and Turkish art sale in Dubai in October 2011, his works “Jumping Over the Barbed Wire” and “Girl with Umbrella” fetched $20,000 each; before that, “The Oud Player” sold for $17,500 in April 2011, and “Al Quds” sold for $10,625 at Christie’s in Dubai the previous October. 

The sales haven’t compelled Katanani to leave his home, or neighborhood, where he’s a minor star these days. They have allowed him to spread out and provide more space for his family — the recently doubled studio was enabled by his purchase of a neighbor’s apartment. But the space is still modest. A work bench, a compressed air pump, some electric tools, a little can of WD-40, and the barbed wire and sheet metal are, along with repurposed bottle caps and fabrics, at the center of his work.

The materials he chooses are ones that resonate with his community. “When I started to use sheets of tin, people remembered that they live with this material,” Katanani explains. “The saddest thing is that the people in the camps are also like my materials — forgotten.”

Katanani has had lifelong experience among the unwitnessed lives of refugees — his parents, having left the neighborhood just before the 1982 massacre in Sabra and Shatila, moved the family from camp to camp during the civil war of the 1980s. He began his art career with political cartoons (much like Naji al-Ali, the celebrated Palestinian cartoonist who was murdered in London in 1987). “I started on the walls of the camps — I made a little magazine of different photocopies that I hung up every week. It was very popular, especially with children, who started talking about it,” Katanani explains. He stopped, he says, “when I had problems with military subjects.”

Having now completed an MFA from Lebanese University, Katanani recently took part in the “Chambres à Part” exhibition organized by art consultant Laurence Dreyfus in Paris during this year’s FIAC. Currently, he’s beginning a three-month residency Cité des Arts in Paris, supported by the French Institute of Lebanon, which previously showed his installation “Sans Adresse” (“No Address”) of a slum preparing for the arrival of Palestinian refugees to Lebanon.

In his more recent work, flat wall-mounted sculptures depict children at play with balls and jump ropes, or families during migration, with poetic cheerfulness. The use of new or repurposed sheet metal creates a “contradiction between reflection and non-reflection,” as Katanani puts it. “It’s a symbol of optimism, reflecting positive things. By creating visual vibrations, the meaning of the material becomes more interesting.”

Family is also a central theme in Katanani’s work. It's a lifeline for Beirut’s Palestinians — who, unrecognized by government and lacking rights, live in a neighborhood where crude construction (illegal but tolerated) has replaced the refugees’ tents. “They say that family is the first step of polite society,” the artist says. “We're fourth-generation refugees, and people here still speak traditional Palestinian. We eat together, and even outside we are always together. It’s a very strong connection.” But, he adds, “We’ve been living in the camps for 60 years and there are a lot of things that we’re used to living with. It’s lost in memory.”

Like many Palestinians, Katanani would like to visit his country one day, despite the fact that his family’s home in Yazour was razed in 1948, and despite the fact that the only trace of their former village is a spot on a map indicating its destruction. The artist keeps the front door key to the vanished house, a symbol of the hope of return; perhaps now less likely with the scattering of some 400,000 Palestinian refugees across various regions of Lebanon.

“We have a memory of Palestine before 1948, and we don’t want to forget,” Katanani says. “We have to renew this connection. The traditions of the city are not identical to those of the village, but each family is like its own little society. I have to work on this subject. I’m doing my best.”

To see works by Abdulrahman Katanani, click on the slideshow.