Saturday, April 16, 2016

The prime of Miss Carmen Yahchouchy at Byblos Bank

Carmen Yahchouchy is the winner of the Byblos Bank Award for her series "my mother's gun" - and lest I be called hypocrite my own money was on Nasri Sayegh who manages an incredible Instagram account (this is a testimony of how serious the Award is, when finalists are very strong - but very diversified - on yearly basis). Yahchouchy's series - whereas very good - did not stir in me the emotions "it should have" - perhaps growing up in Mali and being in Lebanon to complete her education in photography (she is in her final year at NDU), her (very observant) eye caught an interesting element which - being versed in the art scene since forever - has come to be a Cliché: Women and guns in the civil war.
But the jury found in her something I did not see, and something there indeed was. The proof is in the pudding they say, and her solo exhibition which comes on the heels of her Byblos Bank Award is a testimony of that. She caught a remarkable angle in Lebanese society. Spinsterhood.
In China such women are called Sheng nu or "leftover women", perhaps Europeans are a bit better these days about it, but there is - in most societies - that inherent notion that there is something "wrong" (morally, and socially, and even economically) about the act of remaining single. The common term for such women in Arabic is "3anis" which is the equivalent of spinster or - the veiled derogative in French - "vieille fille" (old girl, literally).
Why would a woman remain single? A cousin of mine explained it plainly one time: "When a girl goes out with a man for a long time, she gets tied to his name, so when they break up, it's difficult for her to find a man to hook up." Surely, this might not be a logical reason, but since when was Lebanon a logical society anyhow. I often hear it that it is easier for men who are single than for women, I myself am single - and like Miss Jane Brodie (from "The Prime of Miss Jane Brodie" by Muriel Sparks fame) am considered past my prime - and can tell you that if it is easier for men, it must be very difficult for women, as I keep having a hard time about my single state.
Yahchouchy - to her credit - is observant, and very investigative. There is no laziness in her works. She hunts down her subject. And in this particular series titled Beyond Sacrifice, she catches them in their boudoir, their most intimate place - even when only sofas appear, they are in fact sofa beds. The show takes an esthetic starting point from Manet's "Le Dejeuner Sur l'Herbe" where a woman looks straight at the public, and Yahcouchy tries - in her mostly diptych images - to show the women on day to day basis, but also at their loneliest hour. There are audio elements too where women confide their stories and tell which song make them remember their lost loves (should the case be).
There is an air of Jean Jacques Goldman's "La Vie Par Procuration" (life by proxy) in some of the works, but not only that, there's sometimes - not just the element of succumbing to fate - but actually making a conscious decision of not being married which to the outside world might seem baffling, specifically when it emerges from traumatic experiences, or as one woman said "I did not even have time to fall in love."
Mind you, being single, and allowing a stranger like Yahchouchy to take photos of it for a public exhibition, is a testimony of how resilient she is, how approachable, and how much confidence she inspires her subjects to permit her to go into that "danger zone" of intimacy and secrecy, normally an act of sharing which is only allowed between people who know each other relatively well and for a long period of time.
Another element that works for Yahchouchy is that, as an oriental society, we do not put elderly parents in hospices, and it usually falls on the single - unmarried - one to take on that task which eventually leads that person (female mostly, but male too) to remain unmarried in consequence as a result of a vicious circle. Ghada, one of the women in the show, says she allowed her lover to leave and is very proud to give back to her mother, by caring for her.
Yahchouchy, in a private interview, said that the project "started with (her) aunt Samia" to whom she was often compared growing up, albeit with a warning that she "had a good heart" like her, so better watch out. As it turns out, Samia figures in the exhibition she herself is unmarried. "I always had that question if I were to be married myself" said Yahchouchy.
"I never go to meet women with my camera, I spend 2-3 days with them. They are busy people, so I try to prepare as much as I can to take snaps quickly."
"This one" she said pointing to the photo of Najah "was so camera phobic, whereas this one" pointing to Laure "was very welcoming to the shoot." "It takes courage to do what they are doing." Courage?
"Well. courage, sacrifice..." Yahchouchy mutters half of her show's name "and a big heart! I don't think my generation would be able to do what the war generation did. Sure, I heard a lot of "God drew this path for me" but people of my age would not sustain a family like they did. As soon as we have a bit of money we want to do this and that."
The Beyond Sacrifice will also be Yahchouchy's senior project at university, but she will keep adding to it "till I reach 20 women or so." Her next project brings her back to Mali where she will explore the effect of terrorism, "my parents sold our house and moved back to Lebanon a year ago so I have no more childhood room there. My school is like a prison, things exploded as soon as I moved from there to come to Lebanon, so it will be a way to see what is left and the effects of it."
The show at Byblos Bank is 17-piece strong (which includes diptychs), and tries to corner the topic from many angles. Either by exhaustiveness, or professional and social conscience. I thought it might be interesting if a man was included in that countdown as well, a single man inbetween those women who are not married either. But that would be asking a lot I suppose. It is a daring move to speak of those women to begin with, and stretching it to men - also in French "vieux garcon" (old boy) - would require a whole new objective and focus (no pun intended). But the way Yahchouchy is sniffing around Lebanese social issues and taboos, who knows? It might happen sooner rather than later.