By Rhona Wells
As the political and economic crisis continues in Lebanon, the country’s artists and designers are struggling to make sense of the worsening conditions.
Designers Tessa (left) and Tara Sakhi (right), sisters who collaborate as T Sakhi, have created an installation at the Venice Architecture Biennale aimed at encouraging communication.
In the weeks after the explosion at the Port of Beirut, the Sakhis put out a call on their website for messages about how people were feeling after the blast. The responses were angry and anguished.
“Help, we are prisoners,” reads one. “This country is hostage of its warlord government.”
“Yes to the resistance,” reads another.
The two sisters transcribed the responses on to rough, recycled paper, and placed the notes in small felt patches that had been woven by the women of the Bidwa Social Development Programme craft collective in Sharjah. The Programme is designed to train and professionally develop Emirati women who practice indigenous crafts, so they are able to generate a sustainable income and achieve socio-economic empowerment.
The pouches were then mounted onto a 6-metre linear wall that acts as a surface for contact and exchange and utilises the senses to engage pedestrians who are encouraged to select one of the 4,000 handcrafted scented pouches to take home. Inside the pouch, they discover both, a personal message from a Beirut survivor to which they are encouraged to answer back to, as well as a seed—a universal symbol of rebirth—to plant and grow. The wall starts to disintegrate as more pouches are pulled out and it finally disappears, a metaphor to allude that through communication and exchange, humanity can overcome obstacles. By the end of the exhibition, in November, the sisters hope nothing will be left of Letters from Beirut, only open latticework where there once was a six-meter-high wall.
“The theme of the Architecture Biennale is ‘how will we live together today’? That’s precisely what we wanted to elaborate, by showing how design and architecture can be an interface for dialogue and communication, if we allow it,” says Tara, the elder sister.
“Lebanon got a lot of attention in the two weeks after the explosion, but now the news has shifted towards other places,” adds Tessa. “We do not have any means anymore to communicate and to voice all the horrific things that are happening, which are now a huge humanitarian crisis. So we wanted to give these voices a chance – to give people a platform.”
Many of the notes were written by those who had experienced the blast directly, when 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate detonated and destroyed most of the port area. But others were written by Lebanese expatriates, in places such as India, Spain and Germany.The number of Lebanese who left the country in 2019 increased by 89%on the previous year. In 2020, the percentage increase on 2019 was 47% – despite the travel restrictions of the pandemic. The project acknowledges this steady brain drain, and the complexities of emotions among those who have entered the diaspora.
The sisters are now based between Beirut and Venice, where they settled after having worked for several years with glass blowers in Murano. They balance their design work with exhibited and commissioned projects for design biennales and exhibitions, such as the Venice Architecture Biennale, organised by the Cultural European Centre.
Their projects help support practices that are on the verge on being lost, which often translates into their working with tactile, natural material. For a recent collection of coffee tables, they used fragments of stone that were left as wastage in Lebanese quarries. In another recent project they are looking into wicker weaving, which is traditional in rural Lebanon.
Currently, the wire mesh is beginning to show in parts, opening up sight-lines across the garden – and the work’s sentiments, generously given away, are travelling across the globe.
‘Letters from Beirut’ is at the Giardini della Marinaressa, Venice, open daily from 10am – 6pm until 21 November 2021. Entry is free