“Letters from Beirut” at the Venice Architecture Biennale.

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.

According to  Tara Sakhi, designer, “The wall is the embodiment of all the political and social barriers that we encountered in Lebanon, but again we tried to transform it into a means of communication.”
“There were a lot of expats who wanted to add something because they felt badly that they were not there, ” says Tara. “They feel like they are not entitled to suffer, or that they’re not victims. But their lives have also shifted. No one wants to leave their country – even us. We never wanted to leave.”

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.

“The installation aims to transgress space and time through the lives of other people and provokes a sensorial and evocative experience. Even more importantly, it plants a seed for healing and heartfelt connections—connections among people, as well as between people and nature—at a time when the Lebanese people, and the world at large, so desperately need it, leaving a message of growth and hope. The letters continue a life of their own in the homes of these strangers,” say Tessa and Tara.

Designed both to inspire and raise charitable funds to support various sectors focusing on healthcare, infrastructure, education, and livelihoods post the 4th of August blast in Beirut, the installation will further allow visitors to donate to the NGOs, namely Bank to School Initiative by Arcenciel, supporting children’s eduction in Lebanon, Salam Beirut, an initiative by the Big Heart Foundation, raising funds for various sectors, Beirut Heritage Initiative, an independent inclusive collective striving to restore and preserve Beirut’s architectural and cultural heritage and Beb w Shebbek, an NGO rebuilding doors and windows of more than 80,000 destroyed homes after Beirut’s the August explosion.

To make the project a reality, Irthi Contemporary Craft Council donated 4,000 pouches handcrafted by 37 Emirati craftswomen, from the Bidwa Social Development Programme in Sharjah. The pouches are made from recycled and sustainable felt stitched in silver Zari thread and lined in linen. The process incorporates a weaving technique inspired by one of the traditional hand-weaving patterns used in ‘Safeefah’, a traditional Emirati palm frond weaving craft, that uses techniques similar to basket-making.

The artisans created a contemporary pattern for the felt pouches, inspired by the ‘Sayr Yaay’ technique, replacing palm fronds with recycled felt.

The papers used in the project are handmade papers by University students (Mariam Abdulkarim, Amal Al Hammadi, and Zainab Adel) as their graduation project. The materials used were recycled papers, water, acrylic colours, a blender and wooden moulds.

The seeds to plant are coriander, zucchini, and green beans, all edible plants used in Lebanese cuisine. Each pouch is scented with a stimulating natural fragrance evocative of Lebanon’s flora; cedar, pine, gennet, thyme, or jasmine.

“The mission of the project is to encourage and preserve cultural and craft heritage, support artisans and sustainable design process in the Arab region, as well as instil hope in a nation sinking in an economic collapse and a humanitarian crisis,” say the designers.

A project that carries messages, emotions, smells and memories across continents as it bridges seas and land to deliver the message of humanity and connectivity, even as it celebrated its own individuality through the indigenous crafted pouches, is indeed a powerful message at times when some parts of the world ignore the suffering of the other half of the continent.

The project came to life due to the support of the Patrons: H.H. Sheikh Dr. Sultan bin Muhammad Al Qassimi, Member of the UAE Supreme Council and Ruler of Sharjah, and H.H. Sheikha Jawaher bint Mohammed Al Qasimi, Wife of His Highness the Ruler of Sharjah.

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