Artist Profile: Imad Issa
After fifteen years of the Lebanese Civil War, which lasted from 1975 until 1990, more than 100,000 people had been killed, and nearly 1,000,000 displaced. One of the victims of the war was the Lebanese artist Imad Issa. Hit by an explosion that left shrapnel embedded in his body, Issa dedicated a large part of his work to protesting the war. Although living with the physical effects of violence, Issa became most interested in critiquing the effect that war has on the mind. More specifically, Issa’s work laments the destruction of the intellect, and positions culture as a direct victim of war.
This is evident in a series of untitled sculptures (1995-2013) of clay heads that have been misshapen in various ways. In one the nape of the neck gives way to a row of broad stitches, in another the top of the head is pierced by triangular shards. In perhaps the most simple of the five sculptures, the skull’s curved shape is interrupted by an angular box - suggesting how during the war Issa saw individual thinking become ‘boxed’ up. The works lie within a tradition of busts that in Hellenistic Greece would represent gods and rulers. Rather than venerating his subject, Issa’s sculptural portrait heads expose its degradation; in this case the Lebanese intelligentsia who failed to lead society in critiquing the war.
Issa’s ouevre can be read with Dadaism in mind, like Hans Arp, Marcel Duchamp, and Kurt Schwitters who pioneered the movement in response to the First World War in Europe, he has repeatedly launched attacks on the folly of war. As a performance artist, as well as a sculptor, Issa draws strongly on the Dadaist techniques of satire and nonsense to expose life’s meaninglessness.
The clay heads reappear in a number of his short films from the 1970s. In ‘Penetration’ two of them are positioned on a table so that it looks as though they could be conversing, and the camera then cuts to footage of an electric drill being driven into the side of one of the heads. The artist then blindfolds himself, before the drill is turned on him too. The title card makes the film’s message clear: penetration is ‘To occupy a space, to breach it; to pierce it’. A political breach leads to an intellectual one.
‘In the Ruins’ sees pallbearers carry a coffin through a ruined building, they lay it at the steps of an altar where the clay heads look back down on to the procession. The dramatic staging of this scene is echoed in another film, ‘No Performance.’ Here, it is an abandoned theatre that provides the setting, complete with fog and operatic music. A lone figure on stage performs a spoken word piece in the style of a great orator, but instead of a rallying war speach we hear that this is a “Performance of the no performance, no performers, no performance, no, no invitations, no preclusions, no attendance.” In this theatre, reminiscent of the theatre of war, “no one should witness, because there is no one who can perform this play [...] I wish that no one mentions this work to anybody else. In fact, no one should know why they have not come to witness it.” This complex series of negations is also broadcast at the bottom of the film by scrolling subtitles. Visually, they recalls news updates on television, but rather than announce the ‘factual’ events of war Issa broadcasts nonsense.
In contrast, the film ‘Reappreciation’ takes advantage of the power of spectacle. When Issa was hit by shrapnel he lost the use of one of his hands, during the recovery process the artist took to painting the wounded hand with gold leaf. In ‘Reappreciation’ we watch as the artist performs this act. In doing so, the artist ascribes the healing properties of gold, as well as its value, to his hand. By walking around Beirut with a golden hand, Issa showed respect to a part of his body that had been damaged and deepened his kinship with the city surrounding him - which had also become a victim of the Civil War.
Imad Issa (b. 1953, Beirut) is a war-time Dadaism artist. He studied painting under Professor Hassan Jouni from 1970 until 1973 and sculpture under Professor Nazem Irani from 1974 to 1975. He went on to study at the Institute of Fine Arts at the Lebanese University from 1977 until 1978 and the Institute of Fine Arts, Barcelona from 1980 to 1981. He uses video installation and sculpture to address the violence of war. He has had several solo exhibitions in Beirut including at SV Gallery (2013), the Goethe Institut (1984, 1986, 1992, 1996, 2006) and Zico House (1999, 2001). He has also participated in group shows at Beirut Art Center (2009), the Arts Center at the American University of Beirut (2001) and the Russian Cultural Center (1998).