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Fall 2008 Vol. VII, No. 1

Features

Special Insert–2009 Calendar Living the Liberal Arts

Majors in agriculture, business, economics, engineering, history, food technology—almost every field—are flooding to the newly reconstituted art department (the Department of Fine Arts and Art History-FAAH) to fulfill their elective requirements in the humanities. Many enroll in studio art courses in drawing, painting, water color and illustration, sculpture, and ceramics, while others take courses in concept art (Conceptual Studio I and II), art history, music, and theater. Although the department boasts a modest 16 majors, the number of students enrolled in arts courses swells regularly, and growing interest forces class expansion. Student enrollment is overwhelming studio space.

Students and teachers alike say art courses fill more than the need for elective and humanities requirements; they help develop personal growth, self awareness, and creativity. For Afaf Zurayk, instructor in painting, art courses are important for all students because “art teaches creativity and not necessarily a skill. We do not teach how to paint perfectly realistic portraits or still lifes. We teach how to think in a creative way.” Ghada Jamal, another instructor in painting, agrees. “It’s a must for people to experience art at some stage in their lives—and not only in kindergarten and the early grades. Experience of art needs a kind of maturity.” May Farhat, assistant professor of art history, says, “students take art courses to touch the creative spirit within themselves.” For Zurayk “the important thing with regard to the whole liberal arts education is an approach, an attitude toward learning, toward thinking. Facing a problem and knowing how to solve it, whether you are an accountant or a food technologist. What the students have in common is their humanity, and if we just let them explore their humanity, we have done a lot. And that’s the contribution of the department, [promoting] creative thinking . . . on a global scale.”

Students relish the freedom of art courses, though some fear possible low grades. Maha Shebbani, a graduating senior in elementary education, required to take art courses in order to teach young pupils self-expression, admitted, “When we started the course I was very afraid, because I knew nothing,” but she was relieved when told she would be graded against herself, on her own progress. The effect of the courses, she said, “was almost psychological. Art is one of the best places for forgetting your troubles.”

For Fatima Bustani, a fourth year student in graphic design, a sculpture course was the only AUB course in which she felt really free. “There were no restrictions, no limitations, no such thing as a mistake. The instructor was there to guide, to suggest technical aspects. . . . We were always helping each other. It was a time when I was having fun. . . . We were always talking, discussing many artists . . . and we weren’t doing it for grades.”

Afaf Zurayk finds her students molded by their civil war experiences, “exposed” as they were, “to many, many different cultures because of the war, because of the displacement. Some students have had their high school in Paris or Jamaica or Ghana. The students are so varied. They’re not your main stream students—Lebanese baccalaureate, IC, ACS, Ahlia—not the way we were when we were students. These students are very versatile . . . because of the trauma of going back and forth. All this variety comes into play in their art experience. And I find that fascinating.”

The subtle, almost invisible effects of the war are visible in their art—in their paintings and drawings. “They do not say, ‘I have been in France,’ but it comes out in the way they look at things, even at a piece of garlic. They look

at associations between things. Their inner workings are different. And that’s where art is very, very important. The students seem to be so very versatile and very comfortable with themselves and in relation to other cultures.”

These students take some problem assignments in stride. “They don’t seem frightened by demanding exercises I set, because they have been looking at problems all their lives.” Students asked to paint the sound of rain didn’t hesitate. One, Zurayk said, “painted the most absolutely gorgeous painting—very subtle, very still,” even though in Beirut most rainstorms are noisy and violent. “But for him it was just quiet drops.” Sometimes students do not know what to make of an assignment, “but they don’t complain. They sit down and think about it. That’s what they did when I asked them to go out into the campus and paint the shadows—not the trees, but the shadows.”

The concept art courses, such as Conceptual Studio I, described in the catalogue as an “Idea-based and non-media specific studio course. . . for the creation of artworks that are explorative, interdisciplinary with new notions relating to culture and society,” attract many students, both majors and electors. Instructor Neville Assad-Salha defines his popular concepts courses as “more about intellectual thinking.” He tries to get his students to focus on ideas. “Concept art,” he says, is a big, broad brushy stroke across all disciplines, bringing in all material or non-material—video, film, photographic documentation. Conceptual art can be about all sorts of ideas, as long as the base is strong. It doesn’t have to have a narrative, as long as it has an essence of intrigue about what it is doing.”

Exhibitions at such galleries as Beirut’s Sfeir-Semler Gallery, which deals, says Assad-Salha, with conceptual work, “all areas spread across the horizon. . . . astonish the students at first: “This isn’t art! This is rubbish! What’s this? We were expecting to see paintings.” But after they walk around and discuss the works among themselves, without his interference, Assad-Salha asks them to analyze the show, to document and photograph what has intrigued them both positively and negatively. “And then,” he said, “they begin to write wonderful critiques.”

In Neville’s classroom (all the students call their energetic instructor “Neville”) the eclectic variety of the students dominates every available space. “Look at this piece here,” he says, pointing to a large lucite box, with a pair of shoe-like objects inside. “I give the students titles. That one was ‘House.’ Those could be baby shoes or human feet. It’s all about what happens inside the house . . . spaces. She’s dealing with conditions in the rest of the house, what happens there.” He said two large boxes designed for the Green Oval were “all about interlocking of space. They appear as if they should be male-female, right? But they don’t fit together, [prompting] curiosity about what goes on between those two objects. Same scale, but different colors.” Another piece reveals a veiled, faceless head. “Sometimes they want to overwork their pieces, but there’s a point where they must stop.” The students must think and get involved. “Sometimes they get so involved they take the course more than once.”

Many students from lower campus, including science students majoring in biology, pre-med, and physics enroll in art courses to fulfill their humanities requirements, and some majors are actually encouraged to choose art courses.

Afaf Zurayk asks science students to listen to music while painting. “Science students may be more organized than others. Their pastels and water colors may be more in order, but that is [the only difference] I’ve noticed. One particular science student was especially imaginative in putting together stories about his life, but I teach all students similarly, and it’s basically intuitive. I teach for that core of intuition. When you get to science on a very high level, the intuition that meets creativity is the same as that which makes it possible for you to become a painter. Very humbly I say that.”

Science students may have a specifically practical interest in pursuing art courses. May Farhat described Rana Nassereddine, a student graduating this fall, who began as a chemistry major, but decided to move from chemistry to art conservation. “She’s a very good student, very smart and capable, and she’s already training in one of the galleries here. She’s very promising and on the right track. She might go into academia, or conservation, or even gallery management.”

Art history students generally steer another course. Typically, says Farhat, they begin with an interest in modern art, but departmental courses expose them to “other cultural traditions not normally very well known in the region.” Students rarely come to AUB intent on studying art history. “I was going to do architecture,” she added. But now there is a possibility of majoring in art history, as one student, Rima Barakat, waited a long time to do. [See box.]

Many students taking courses in the Department of Fine Arts and Art History, which also offers courses in studio arts, art history, music, and theater, say the art courses they take allow them to learn new things about themselves.  This connects with a favorite theme of the new chair of the department, Professor Rico Franses: “Art has the capacity to challenge us and force us to rethink our positions on almost everything.  It is our mission in the department to bring this challenge to as many students as possible.”

When Rima Barakat, who graduated this June, discovered art history, she was absolutely certain that was what she wanted to study. An older student, she said proudly, “I am the first student in the history of AUB to graduate with a BA in art history, but I started my studies in a very different field. I was in the United States studying nutrition at Purdue. But I wasn’t in the least bit interested . . . well, perhaps on a practical level. In the States I was exposed to art constantly, unconsciously, without my making any effort. And I suddenly realized—this is what I want. It just became so clear—this was it. It’s been my passion since I was 24 years old. Absolutely, but the doors were closed in front of me. Art doesn’t come to you; if you’re really interested, you have to go get it.” She pointed out that in Purdue she was only two hours away from the rich art museums and galleries of Chicago.

She quit nutrition and returned to Lebanon for personal reasons, but in 1995 there were no art history courses available at AUB, so she began studying on her own, reading everything she could get her hands on—four to five hours a day after work and into the small hours of the morning. “I also started going to exhibitions and talking to artists—about issues, concerns, where they thought art was going in Lebanon. And I just read and read, for I was very far behind.”

When the art department reopened eleven years later in 2006 she had a very rough time enrolling, told she could not go for a second BA after her master’s in nutrition. But she persisted. “Whatever it took, I was going to go ahead and do a degree in art history.” She had to choose a concentration, modern art. I’m passionate about art history in general, but I think modern touches my heart more.” She wrote her final paper on Lebanese-Palestinian artist Mona Hatoum.

Asked what lies in her professional future, she said she was thinking of a master’s degree, perhaps in the United Kingdom, followed, perhaps, by a PhD. She realizes that professional potential for art history in Lebanon is very limited, with much competition in universities. “I can continue what I usually do. I go and talk to all the artists. I get involved in their work. I try to buy their work, particularly that of new artists. I try to encourage them.” She would like to break into art criticism. Or she might become a collector, but that costs a lot of money. In the meantime, this newly graduated AUB art historian goes to all the exhibitions and openings. “I just try to get hold of the artists. I ask for their archives and talk to them about their work, about their techniques, their concepts. It’s a mutual benefit, for my own self-satisfaction and that of the painters, too.”


January 2009 February
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May 2009 June
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July 2009 August
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September 2009 October
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November 2009 December
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