On the evening of 17 October 2019, a memorable incident occurred near Martyrs’ Square in Beirut. A small group of demonstrators were harassed by a handful of security guards and shots were fired – the security forces fired into the air to intimidate the unarmed demonstrators – after a few seconds of shock, a fight broke out and a young woman grabbed the arm of one of the men, who was at least a head taller and armed with a Kalashnikov, and kicked him in the crotch karate-style. The man was a bodyguard for the then Minister of Education, Akram Chehayeb, and the woman whose foot caught the bodyguard’s groin was one of probably fewer than 200 protesters who had blocked several central intersections in Beirut to demonstrate against the planned introduction of increased taxes on tobacco, petrol and online phone calls with messaging services such as WhatsApp. Chehayeb, who was celebrating his 72nd birthday on that day, reached one of these junctions with his convoy of vehicles and was prevented from passing. The bodyguards wanted to force their way through, resulting in the shooting, the struggle and the memorable kick, which can still be seen in a five-second clip on YouTube. The bodyguard obviously did not suffer any lasting damage, but the whole incident quickly became widely known in Lebanon and probably made a significant impact on the increasing number of people joining the demonstrations in the days that followed.
Born in the revolution
Hayat Nazer uses her art to comment on the protests in Lebanon, which have been going on for over two years, creating striking sculptures that have become symbols of the Lebanese revolution. In doing so, she has entered uncharted territory and reached a first important milestone in her search for an artistic position.
Of course, the protests were not purely driven by the fact that smoking and WhatsApp were to become a little more expensive; the planned taxes were just the spark that ignited the fire of the revolution. It came to a country that had suffered from drought for years, where summer after summer devastating forest fires destroyed the livelihoods of vast numbers of people without the government taking serious action against suspected arsonists; a country with close to 50% unemployment and rampant corruption, which had been ruled for decades by a kleptocratic elite that was unable to provide basic electricity, water and health services to the population of the once rich Lebanon. Any form of telecommunication, virtually monopolised by government-affiliated corporations, is also notoriously expensive here, so the tax on internet phone calls threatened to cut off the last affordable connection to other people.
Street art for a peaceful revolution
As a result, more and more people joined the demonstrations and the scattered mob of 17 October quickly became the largest mass protest in Lebanon since the Cedar Revolution. Among the demonstrators who took to the streets in the very first days was the artist Hayat Nazer. This experience had a lasting impact on both the artist and the revolution. The painter began to use her art to spread the message of the uprising and soon the first graffiti pieces appeared in the streets of Beirut, promoting the peaceful protest. Two early images in particular were to become defining: the image of a woman wearing a mask with the inscription “Peacefull” and a phoenix burning up in the flames of the forest fires, only to rise anew from the ashes.
This anchored Nazer’s two main messages, still valid today, of not backing down from the protest until serious change is achieved, but by peaceful means, uniting and not dividing, free from violence. Nazer sees this as essentially a feminist position, because for her it is women who are striving for peaceful change and are called upon to moderate when male protest results in bloodshed.
Heart of the Revolution on Martyrs' Square
The hope for a peaceful protest was not realised, however, and there were violent clashes between demonstrators and the police. However, where states fail, art often finds fertile ground, and so as the protests progressed, Nazer transformed the relics of violence into sculptures which would later become a widely known symbol of the revolution. The demonstrations remained centred on Martyrs’ Square, where a protest camp was quickly erected. When this was ransacked, destroyed and burnt down by government supporters, Nazer found the impetus for her first sculptural work. She started by removing the struts from the remaining tent frames in what was left of the camp and putting them together in the square. After a quick sketch, she made a plan to resurrect the Phoenix from her earlier graffiti as a sculpture on the main protest site. This initially somewhat naïve plan quickly became a participatory act. Other protesters as well as random passers-by joined the project, gathering materials and helping with the construction, building, welding and screwing literally around the clock, creating a several-metre-high Phoenix out of the rubble of the destroyed camp within ten days in December 2019 to symbolise the constant resurgence of the protest against the government. It quickly became a central symbol of the 17 October Revolution in Lebanon.
The protests continued, there was a death, the police regularly fired tear gas bullets at demonstrators and they responded with stones. Nazer, for her part, stuck to her message of continued but peaceful protest. She participated in the clashes between police and demonstrators as an observer, collecting the empty tear gas shells from the police bullets on one side and the stones thrown by demonstrators on the other – material for her next sculpture, the “Heart of the Revolution”, made with barbed wire and half filled with the tear gas shells of the police and half with the stones of the demonstrators. United in pain but sustained by love, it was symbolically placed on Martyrs’ Square on Valentine’s Day 2020.
The heart is erected on a concrete pedestal, a reference to the concrete blocks recently installed in front of parliament as a barrier to protect the government from its own people. The sides of the pedestal are inscribed with the names of activists and demonstrators who died in the current or previous protests. The message could not be more striking – Nazer deliberately avoids the abstract level of conflict between the government and the people and draws attention to the fact that people face each other in the conflicts and make tragic sacrifices, although they should be marching side by side – neighbours, friends, relatives, Lebanese.
The heart of the revolution did not survive, it was destroyed by opponents of the protests. The Phoenix was also burnt down, tragically returning it to its original form. It is unlikely that the arsonists were aware of how much they were feeding into the symbolism and that they were basically completing the image of the immortal revolution that burns in the fire only to be reborn from its ashes. Both sculptures had a significant impact, becoming some of the defining symbols of the resistance even beyond Beirut and their own survival.
Hayat Nazer’s journey to art
For Hayat Nazer, the first year of the protests certainly marked a turning point in her artistic development. In 2017, the former employee of the Lebanese Ministry of Social Affairs and the United Nations left her role as a communication consultant to work exclusively as a freelance artist. She experimented with different painting approaches in search of exactly how to express her messages. Her earlier works, too, already had an attitude. They were never meant to be art for art’s sake, rather she wanted to reach out to the viewer, to move them to reflection and action.
Nazer has been active in NGOs since the age of 14 and sees herself as a social and ecological activist both individually and in her art. She developed her artistic forms of expression through self-study and found an expressive style early on. With her art, she is not aiming to reach a destination, but to go on a journey and is always trying out new approaches. Clearly, this journey took on a whole new dynamic with the 17 October revolution. Nazer discovered street art, creating her first public works and shortly afterwards, her first sculptures. The message of her art also became more explicit, anchoring itself in the current events of her country, and the artist, in linking her commitment as an activist with her art, found perhaps the first destination of her journey.
Lady of the Port
Politicians in Lebanon responded to the ongoing protests half-heartedly at best. The “WhatsApp tax” bill was quickly abandoned and there were a number of reshuffles and new appointments, which appeared to the population to be nothing more than petty games of political chess. There were no serious changes or even a noticeable improvement in living conditions; indeed, on the contrary, life for most people in Lebanon became increasingly difficult. The demonstrations in the streets continued and were often met with violent resistance, which resulted in several deaths. This may explain why, on 4th August 2020, returning to Beirut after a trip, Nazer felt uneasy, turned around and decided to postpone her return. If she hadn't, she would probably have been near the port of Beirut when the devastating ammonium nitrate-filled warehouse explosion occurred at 18:04, destroying large parts of the city, killing more than 200 people, injuring over 6,000 and forcing 300,000 to leave their homes.
At the time, Nazer had been working for some time on the statue of a woman, which she wanted to use to simultaneously address the difficult situation of women in Lebanon and the increasingly deteriorating living conditions in Beirut.
She decided to transform this sculpture, dismantled it into parts and then rebuilt it, beginning work on what was probably to be her most important work to date. She returned to Beirut immediately after the explosion, where she helped those affected to clear up and save their remaining belongings. She collected fragments and debris from the explosion as material for her sculpture and asked the people in the neighbourhoods affected to give her personal objects that had been damaged by the detonation, had become unusable or had changed their meaning in some other way. Before long, numerous artefacts, the most striking of which was probably a deformed wall clock that had stopped and now forever displayed the time of the catastrophe, and materials were collected and Nazer used them to further develop the sculpture she had begun earlier into the now widely known and still nameless »Lady of the Port«.
Nazer erected her sculpture in the port area, where it seems to tower over it like a cautionary Statue of Liberty. Formed from debris and fragments, decorated with personal belongings from the victims, at the foot of the clock, whose hands are frozen by the explosion, while the woman’s hair still seems to blow in the shock wave of the detonation – a concise memorial of the catastrophe which references the personal suffering of the Beirut population, while standing upright with her arm stretched out, it is also a call for resistance against the political conditions that allowed the catastrophe to happen because of carelessness and corruption.
Political art like the »Lady of the Port« rarely receives approval from all sides. The more international attention the sculpture received, the more disliked it became among those loyal to the government, and it was quickly threatened with the same fate that had already struck the Phoenix and the Heart of the Revolution. Nazer has since had the figure, which is almost three metres high and weighs eight tonnes, dismantled to avoid this happening and is currently hiding it in a private garage. On the anniversary of the catastrophe, 4th August 2021, she added an extension, placing a scale in her hand like Justitia, with one bowl carrying a judge’s hammer on rubble stones, while the other, much heavier, seems to be overflowing with blood – a reminder of the fact that the political and legal process of dealing with the catastrophe has still not been completed.
The hopes of the 17 October 2019 demonstrators remain unfulfilled in other areas as well. Living conditions continue to deteriorate, electricity is scarce, even drinking water is becoming limited, food is hard to come by, money is devalued and access to foreign currency is widely blocked. Patients are dying in hospitals because there is a lack of medicines or electricity or both, and the government remains rigidly inactive. Hayat Nazer, in the meantime, is continuing her journey as an artist and activist, continuing to campaign for a peaceful revolution. Her bold vision is that Beirut will one day be rebuilt to the point where signs of the explosion are no longer visible in the streets but will only be passed on through a dedicated documentation centre, in a huge walk-in statue designed as an architectural replica of the »Lady of the Port«, which is now hidden away, protected from destruction.
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