Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Elsn Lahoud: of stereotypes and lack of them at Byblos Bank

Elsn Lahoud's own hand on opening night over imposed on his work "Narcissus" (which depicts his hand) -
Photo by Tarek Chemaly
One cannot accuse Elsn Lahoud of not trying. Dressed in a velvet blazer which has a ribbon tied on top of the buttons, cropped pants a la Thom Browne and complete with patent leather shoes, he gives his opening night its weight: "no, no, tonight is the big prize" he insists, "winning the Byblos Bank Award was driving to this".
"This" is his exhibition "Stereotyped" which is displayed at the Byblos Bank Headquarters in Achrafieh. "It is about hands" he explains, "about how they portray people and categorize them". But the hands in question are inside a box, one tattooed, one manicured, one with a falling bandage, one with a falling ring, one holding a cleaning towel, one with a dog's leach and cuff links.
Three of them are on black backgrounds, the rest are white, and one is a personal work from Lahoud which represents himself whereby flowers embellishing a box adorned with logos of high end brands such as Lanvin, or Louis Vuitton (and Beyonce's name) are burnt and then the final outcome is shown in a triptych condensed into one. Commenting on the above-mentioned work which is intensely private, he says "I have a lot of anime and manga influences. One of my projects is to go and do a master's in Tokyo following working after graduation". Looking at the catalog the work is entitled "Elsn tears up at "Society's Funeral"".
The more one looks at the works, the less one reads into them, the more they become uniform, the more their narratives are lost, and eventually, a zen atmosphere prevails - perhaps these are works to be read collectively rather than independently.
The photos lack titles, even if the exhibition catalog has them, but Lahoud is adamant: "I did not wish for people to be influenced by the title of the pieces, I wanted them to inject in the works whatever background and culture and socio-economic class they wanted to inject".
 Lahoud comes originally from the Chouf area, but his parents (prior to his birth) were displaced from the region due to war and they settled in Byblos. Elsn as a name, apparently means "son of God", and "there was a lot of age difference between me and my older brother and sister, so I grew up very spoiled as a child. I was quite flashy as well. It was fashion this and coloring that, and scribbling whatever, but I am however very attached to my Lebanese roots. A lot of things I like about Lebanon musically and culturally. Even if I tend to say "I don't care what people think of me" as I did in this (the condensed triptych) work. Lebanese can be very confused as people. Am I "stereotyping" them now?" he innocently asks as he makes an oblique reference to the title of his exhibition.
One of the nice aspects is that Lahoud went back to his conceptual work after winning the Byblos Bank Photography Award on a documentary series. "I wanted the work to look more like me" he emphasized. "My commercial work is different from my conceptual part. The market is tough but there's always work if one has a personal obvious style" Lahoud says.
This exhibition's work was directed by Noel Nasr - his teacher at NDU (these works will feature in his graduation project to be shown shortly) and by Serge Najjar (award-winning Lebanese photographer). "I got two different inputs" says Lahoud, "one was to tone the photos down, one to tone them up, I ended up toning them down at the end of the day".
One of the hands in question is Lahoud's own. Which is one of the rare photos to have background on it - a neon circle and a plant leaf. The works have an air of 90s to them, as if influenced by i-D magazine aesthetics, "i-D is certainly one of my visual references".
But Lahoud, born in 1996, cannot hide his bonhomie. He is after all a 20 year old opening his first exhibition while still not out of university. And the bewildered smile keeps coming back to his lips chronically.
Of course, one could be very surprised at the different meanings that people inject into the works. Once abstracted from the person they are attached to, hands, as appendages start to have reading layers of their own. One hand, adorned with a stone-encrusted bracelet and two conspicuous rings, has - on a closer inspection - too much hair for it to belong to a female. "This was the transgender theme, it is staged to tell you the truth. It wasn't laziness from my part or anything, meaning that I didn't have the energy to look for a real transgender person. No, even setting this up was part of the concept. For in the end, who could say it was staged? And even if was staged, what does it mean?" The catalog gives it the title "Dichotomy".
Lahoud is part of the new emerging generation of photographers for whom Photoshop is a ubiquitous tool. "For the army conscription series (which won him the Byblos Bank Photography Award) I put a blue layer on everything to make thing more distance, less warm, just a bit of coloring...." and then he flashes the innocent smile again realizing that "a bit of coloring" could be overusing the digital software a tad too much. "But I did my research as to what is permissible and what is not in terms of documentary photography" he hastily adds.
Even for this series, a lot of visual trickery was used, but no matter, as an ensemble the works are imposing and can hold their own. Martin Margiela was a pioneer in terms of abstracting the models' face to keep the focus on the clothes and by showing only the hand, Lahoud is perhaps doing the same - abstracting all else to keep the focus on a detail, or lack of it.
Every photo has several stories in it, listening to Lahoud tell them while still being excited about his opening is refreshing. He still has time to be blasé in the future, but today is a day for being buoyant - and damn the stereotypes.

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