Interview with Joanna Abou Sleiman Chevalier, art consultant and curator of Heartland. By Nadia Habib

Interview with Joanna Abou Sleiman Chevalier, art consultant and curator of Heartland. By Nadia Habib

Territoire d’Affects, a collective  exhibition of the works of 15 Lebanese artists at Beirut Exhibition Center.

Who are you Joanna Abou Sleiman Chevalier?

I am an Art Consultant and Curator. I was born in Lebanon but grew up in Paris where my parents fled the country at the beginning of the war. I came back to Lebanon in the late eighties, for the first time after many years, to visit my parents who had decided to stay in Lebanon,  and that’s how I started to come back regularly to Beirut. I made my studies in Paris, then at the American university of Paris where I studied   Political Science.

I grew up surrounded by artists, singers, and composers, who were the friends of my mother, She was very creative, fun, and bohemian.  As a matter of fact, she offered me at 9 a painting as a birthday gift; I had gone with her to an exhibition of  Hrair, fallen in love with a painting, and she got it for me! At home  the mood was creative and joyful, conversations turned around projects, travels, exhibitions, concerts… It was this kind of mood that I grew up with and I guess got me interested in creativity in general and contemporary art in particular.

After my studies in Political Science, I was supposed to go for my Masters, but I quit everything and started visiting museums, worked in galleries and followed seminars on art, etc.. I did not study art or went to an art school,  I am rather self-educated.

I grew up in France, not having any emotional link with Lebanon which was strange. I was surrounded by friends who were expats like me. My best friends were Italian, English, Iranian, all foreigners living in Paris.


Heartland or the land of the heart… where is this land? How come you call Lebanon now your heartland?

I really love this country, but I don’t think It is only my HeartLand , I think it is so for lots of Lebanese. Even those living abroad, still have a link, or some kind of nostalgia regarding their homeland.

This country has a peculiar energy: something very strong.. and very creative… and very lively. It is strange to use these words in a country that has suffered so many deaths and went through a long and devastating civil war, but you can still say it is a very lively country. I mean there is something real in the land, a soul that is very creative and much alive . In a way that’s what is keeping us going on. I mean when you think of what happened or what is happening to Lebanon, with our government, what we are surrounded with, and all the problems that we have , and you keep hearing people saying  for more than 30 years “khalas” Lebanon is finished, well no, it is not finished. Lebanon is still there. I mean yes, this country survives by its own energy.


Did you choose the artists because you knew their work would fit the theme of the exhibition? Or the works of those 15 artists imposed the choice of the theme?

The theme imposed itself, what I felt when I came back to Lebanon after many years was a “raw material” for  creativity. Me not being creative, and knowing very well the artists, I thought if it works on me that way, if it is symbolically so important to me, then it must really be a  raw material to a creative person.   And as a matter of fact I knew some of the artists and  had already certain pieces in mind. It’s the case for example of Joanna and Khalil, the poem of Etel Adnan, the piece of Simone Fattal, Rayyane Tabet etc. But I asked other artists to create something that would fit the theme; which  was the case of Rania Sarakby, Nabil Nahas, Nadim Asfar. It was a mixture of pieces I knew about, and artists  I knew about, who would fit the theme,  and artists who wanted to create something for the exhibit.


Most of those artists live between Lebanon and Europe , was it easy making them listen, as you say, to the call of your territory of love where they had to share their intimate emotions and desires with each other?

Definitely yes, it was easy. I think the theme helped me to get to most of them. They were so happy to participate, and none of them showed any reluctance to come to Lebanon. As a matter of fact they were emotionally very moved by that. One of them, Annabel Daou, for example, who  has left Lebanon many years ago ,and who lives in New York and had never exhibited here, was really very sad because  she couldn’t come to Beirut as she had an important exhibition in Paris.


Please talk to us about the work of  Galal Mahmoud .

Galal Mahmoud did a fantastic scenography, he collaborated with the students of ALBA. They  did a great job by  creating  the perfect framework for the exhibition.  

Galal was very responsive when I explained the mood that I wanted. I wanted to enter a womb, a peacful place, a place where all the art pieces would dialogue with each other. That was something that he really got very well.  Somehow he put my intention into a form.


How did the public react to the exhibition?

Oh they were very much touched especially the Lebanese  public.  The exhibition had fans people came twice, three times, four times. The visitors are used to seeing Lebanese artists working mainly on the war theme. Of course we had a war, we are not ignoring or denying it, but you cannot link a country only to a war. War is one part of what is happening in the life of all these people. I mean if it tends to be only war, it would be unbearable. The exhibition made them feel that it was a way of showing how you can transcend something that is painful. Each person related to a different  piece …. What was very interesting to me was that people “related”, were moved  and this is very important as the only way  for somebody to like art  is to be able to relate to it.


This exhibition was extremely successful,  do you have plans to take it out to other countries in the future?

Definitely yes. I had always plans from the beginning even before it started physically at BEC, I already wanted to take this exhibition  elsewhere. I am working on it and hope it will happen. I am not going to say where as long as it is not done. But if I have to day- dream I would take it to  Mexico because it has a large number of Lebanese, to Sao Paolo, though I don’t have links with these two countries,  to Paris because I live there.  Yes I would take the trouble because you work a lot on this kind of exhibition so it is sad to see it end after only one month and a half.

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