Bullets and bandages: the artist healing the wounds of Beirut

Bullets and bandages: the artist healing the wounds of Beirut

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The old buildings of Beirut still carry holes left by bullets and shells during 15 years of civil war in Lebanon, and many of its people have matching psychological wounds. A Norwegian artist, exhibiting in the UK for the first time, is attempting to heal both through her work.

The project, installed by Mari Meen Halsøy at the William Morris Gallery in Walthamstow, north-east London, recreates the wall of a shattered building known as the Yellow House. The building is located on the former “green line” that divided Christian east Beirut and Muslim west Beirut during the 1975-90 war.

At first glance the work combines beautiful pieces of traditional tapestry, some as small as postage stamps, which are dyed in muted shades of grey, blue and ochre. In fact, each has been precisely matched in size, shape and colour to a hole left in the Yellow House wall by bullets or shells, many of which took human lives. Each tapestry is made from a tracing on cotton fabric taken directly from the wall’s surface.

‘Bandages’ made by Halsøy for damaged buildings in Beirut.



‘Bandages’ made by Halsøy for damaged buildings in Beirut. Photograph: Mari Meen Halsøy

Halsøy, who lives in Beirut, has made similar “bandages” for the wounds on many other buildings, often leaving them in situ. One has been covered in graffiti and then repainted with the rest of the wall.

“You see the wounds in the buildings everywhere,” Halsøy says. “The house that I live in in the Christian quarter has bullet holes, though my landlord has filled them up, but you do not see the wounds in the people.

“But everyone has stories. When you speak to them, the stories come pouring out. Often people come up to me when I am working in the street, curious, and ask what I’m doing, and then they tell their stories or they send me to other people to hear their stories.”

She recalls being invited into a small sitting room, where she was offered tea. Then, falteringly, a man told the story of how he and his family had taken refuge in the mountains, returning to Beirut when they thought the fighting was over. But the man witnessed two members of his family being shot dead against the walls of the sitting room.

“I fell in love with Beirut, but the wounds are so deep,” Halsøy says. “You see the holes and think how the bullet has torn through the hardness of the wall, and then think of what it has done to the soft fabric of human flesh.”

Halsøy installing her work at the William Morris Gallery.



Halsøy installing her work at the William Morris Gallery. Photograph: Stuart Leech

Her installation is part of an exhibition called Weaving New Worlds, which brings together 16 female artists working in textiles, many using ancient craft to express contemporary political ideas. “Some of the most interesting and radical work in contemporary art is now being created in textiles,” says the show’s curator, Lesley Millar. “This is not a story of genteel craft work.”

  • Weaving New Worlds is at the William Morris Gallery in Walthamstow, London, from 16 June to 23 September. Free admission.



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