International media has been flooded with images of protests in Lebanon that are millions strong, from Lebanon’s southernmost cities of Nabatieyeh and Tyre, to the northernmost city of Tripoli and to the nation’s capital Beirut . This anti-regime movement is largely transnational as well, as solidarity protests have been organized by the Lebanese diaspora across Canada, Europe, and the United States.
The protests were sparked by recent austerity measures introduced by the parliament, but recent devastating forest fires, longstanding government corruption, failing public infrastructure, and economic decline are among the many factors that have led Lebanese citizens across the world to take to the streets. The chants in the streets call for revolution (thawra, and are largely anti-sectarian, equally accusing all political figures regardless of religious affiliation of theft and collusion. The protestors remind all leaders that “kellon ya3ne kellon” (all means all), and that they will not rest until the regime has fallen.
The artistic element of the protest is particularly fascinating, as photographers, sketch artists, and graphic designers alike have created a massive collection of works related to the protest. Mostly shared via social media, the aesthetics of this art are moving and powerful, and are a reflection of the demands and grievances of protesters, as well as a vision of a new Lebanon that those who take to the street wish to see. These works demonstrate that not only is social media an important catalyst in turning a movement from domestic to transnational, but also that digital art is a truly effective and meaningful way of creating unity.
Social Media and Protest Art
Artistic production and protest are definitely not strangers to each other, and many artists feel that it is their social responsibility to produce art that comments and critiques socio-political injustices. Many, like author Sushmita Chatterjee, argue that art that is fundamentally “anti establishment, [and] anti status quo” has been used in many settings as a method of critique, and can even become a “fiery catalyst in political mobilizations”. The widespread accessibility of social media has largely amplified this, as the ability to produce and reach a worldwide audience is literally at the fingertips of most artists around the world. This ease of creation and sharing is apparently evident in the case of Lebanon.
Protests began breaking out on the 17th of October, and within three days, an Instagram account was set up under the name “@art_of_thawra” (or art of revolution). Within five days of its conception, the account already had almost three hundred photos, all shared or reposted from various artists, and nearly four thousand followers worldwide. The range of genres, mediums, and even places of origin of the art produced, is wide and vast. Artists are producing everything from videos to paintings and cartoons about the revolution, and the genres range from data-esque aesthetics and pop art to expressionist. Nevertheless, there are common themes running through the art produced that really speak to the demands of the people in Lebanon, and the overall message of unity that people in the streets have been yearning for for so long.
It is important to note that the mediums used to produce these images are incredibly important. Scholar Hakkı Taş’ article entitled “Street Arts of resistance in Tahrir and Gezi” places the internet as a key space in disseminating protest art, and sees these works as not only “[representing] but also [performing] resistance”. These pieces are a means for those protesting to constantly push against the pro-division narratives of the Lebanese government, which many have seen as a means to distract the people from the fundamental structural issues facing the country. Furthermore, these pieces are conceptualized in such a way as to “occupy” digital spaces so that even those who are simply scrolling through a timeline can see the message. These pieces aim to create the idea of one Lebanese people, both in Lebanon and abroad, but the photos and images can only speak for themselves.
Photographs, Paintings, and Digital Art of the October Revolution
Photographer Louay Kabalan’s (@louaykabalan) images speak strongly to this idea of unity, and his photos taken and posted on his social media account of the protests have a very clear and developed aesthetic. His October 20th post captioned “Color Red” perfectly encapsulates his approach, as the photos are modified in such a way that all the other colours appear less vibrant, whilst the red color of the Lebanese flags is much richer and deeper.
Even if the viewer is simply scrolling through an instagram timeline, it is the vibrant red color that they will see. Kabalan’s work obviously speaks to the centrality of the Lebanese flag in this protest, as many have commented that it is the first time that protests have erupted without flags of political parties. Previously, organized protests have been largely divided along sectarian lines, but the call for anti-sectarianism is incredibly strong this time around both in Lebanon and around the world. Kabalan’s work marks the flag as a unifying symbol, as it is clearly the most important part of the photo, even to those who glance at it for even just a second.
Artist @justzhm (or Zari) utilizes similar aesthetics to Kabalan, as her sketches and digital images produced in the protest also place the Lebanese flag and colour red at the forefront of each photo. Some of her pieces imitate reality, as they are sketches of iconic images of the Revolution, such as the image of religious leaders walking hand and hand through the protests. However, some of her images are more surrealist and appeal more to political-cartoon aesthetics. Her sketch captioned “72 hours…” clearly pushes the idea that the government’s greed is contributing to the destruction or “death” of the country, and the inclusion of the young girl points to the idea that this greed means the future of the country will only meet the same fate.
What is important is that almost all of the figures in the image appear inherently generic, and the intent of this can be understood as speaking to the idea that not only are all the politicians the same regardless of religious affiliation, but that all Lebanese share the same dismal fate if they do not join the revolution. In its presence on social media, her art makes the anti-division messages present in the lives of everyday users, and fundamentally contributes to creating the unity many Lebanese see necessary to the improvement of their country.
Artist Sofia Alien (@so.alien), self-described as an “illustrator, painter, and graphic designer” based in Washington DC, produces art that definitely speaks to the aesthetics of the revolution, but in a different way. The same colours and motifs are utilized, but her use of pastels gives them a very unique appearance. Though it is important to note that not all of Alien’s pieces are aimed at the diaspora, her work entitled “A ticket to the revolution” and “Through the eyes of the revolution” definitely speak to the transnational element of the October Revolution protest art. “A ticket to revolution” not only acknowledges the solidarity protests of the Lebanese diaspora, but invites and encourages those living abroad to participate in the revolution through every means possible. “Through the eyes of the revolution” carries a similar message, as it is not clear to the viewer who the eye belongs to but only that the eye sees the flags and people in the revolution. It acts to remind those seeing the revolution that it is their fight too, and the inclusion of the orange colour around the pupil (or image of the revolution) denotes the idea that even to see is to ignite the passion and desire for the unity of one flag, one Lebanon.
The October Revolution: Only The Beginning
It is impossible n to predict the outcome of the October Revolution at this time , but these images are incredibly important nonetheless. Taş stresses the idea that political science often ignores the very clandestine interactions between the messages of those who are politically dominant and those who are subordinate. The work of all of the artists included in this article, and all the other artists featured on @art_of_thawra are making these ideas impossible to ignore. No matter what the outcome of the revolution is, these images will forever exist on the internet. They will continue to be present and serve to resist the divisive nature of Lebanese politics, as well as corruption of Lebanon’s political system. The hope is that they will occupy the psyche of every person who looks at them, and continue to be a source of inspiration and mobilization for those within Lebanon and abroad.
The correlation between protest, social media, and art has always existed, but Lebanon is presented as a specific example of how messages of unity have maintained their place at the forefront of the movement. Lebanon is a country that many have watched crumble at the hands of sectarian violence, and one that has been fraught with divisive politics along religious, class-based, and ethnic lines. To those who have studied and followed Lebanon in an academic setting, and more importantly, those who have had to leave Lebanon because of these circumstances, the moment this article is being written in is truly one of joy and excitement. There is no doubt that the art produced in this protest captures that spirit and excitement, and the hope is that their ability to unify will maintain salient through the possible dark moments of the revolution, or more optimistically, be only part of what is a story of triumph for the Lebanese people.
Edited by Naya Sophia Moser
Photo credits: “Lebanon Protests Ring Bridge” by Nadim Kobeissi. Published October 26th, 2019. This work was sourced under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International. No changes were made.
Adriana Gabriela Franco is a fourth year student at McGill University, pursuing a Bachelor’s Degree in Arts with a double major in Political Science and World Islamic and Middle East Studies. Adriana has been a staff writer at Catalyst for three years, and her areas of interest include food anthropology, and identity politics.