Rayyane Tabet: Hidden Messages

29 October 2019Tim Cornwell
Rayyane Tabet: Hidden Messages
Rayyane Tabet: Hidden Messages
Rayyane Tabet: Hidden Messages
Rayyane Tabet: Hidden Messages

In 1987, at the height of the Lebanese civil war, the artist Rayyane Tabet’s father rented a boat, and decided to row his family to Cyprus. After about half an hour, the story goes, and about 100 metres out, he realised it could not be done, and turned back. The distance from Beirut to Larnaca is over 200 kilometres. Where was Rayyane, then four years old, on that mythical ride? Who knows.

The episode has the ring of magical realism, of mythical adventure, as in a novel by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. The rowboat was a dramatic, courageous, and futile gesture by a head of the household, a father who had never exercised a day in his life, and who saw a journey into the unknown sea as safer than the land.


Rayyane Tabet, The Sea Hates a Coward (detail), 2015

In Encounters, Tabet’s first major solo exhibition in London, the two oars from the boat hang at the entrance of the gallery on pulleys. The piece is titled The Sea Hates a Coward. In June 2012, Tabet relates, he returned to Lebanon after nine years in the US, and took his parents out to dinner at a favourite waterside seafood restaurant. They spotted a wooden boat, and began to argue about whether it was the one they took to sea. Sure enough, when they found the boat-owner’s son, he said:  “You are the family that tried to row to Cyprus.”   


Rayyane Tabet, La Mano de Dios, 2016

The oars hanging in Tabet’s show at the Parasol unit foundation for contemporary art are just that — oars — much like the Sanyo radio that Tabet shows, with a long antenna, playing broadcasts from the 1980s. The piece is called La Mano de Dios, the hand of God, a reference to the World Cup quarter-final match of 1986 between England and Argentina, when the legendary Maradona tipped the ball into the English net not with his head, but his hand - a moment caught clearly on camera, but not by the referee. It brought equal roars of triumph, and outrage. In Beirut, the host at Radio Liban was so overcome with joy that he sounded the siren, typically only broadcast during times of heavy bombing. Another surreal episode bound up in Lebanon’s wound-up experience - a country, one resident once told me, where you live with an alarm clock that could go off at any time. 


Tabet’s art, says the writer Farah Nayeri in the Encounters exhibition catalogue, is “pervaded by the drama and tumult of Lebanon, of its splendid capital, and of a region that, until not so long ago, was known as the Levant.” Does the art exist aesthetically, separate from the stories Tabet is telling? Is it an object of beauty? “The work is neither the object nor the text, it is something that lies in between,” the artist tells me. “Sometimes the form takes over the text, and sometimes the text takes over the form.”


Rayyane Tabet, A Short History of Lebanon (detail), 2018.

One of the most curious , and visually unappealing pieces is A Short History of Lebanon. It consists only of a row of book-shaped cedar blocks, with six books at intervals between them. There is not much to attract the eye.   


Rayyane Tabet, A Short History of Lebanon (detail), 2018.


But the books are pulp paperbacks with racy covers and graphic scenes published in Lebanon from the 1970s to the 2000s about the adventures of Malko Linge, super spy, a kind of French James Bond. They were thoroughly researched spy fantasies set amid true events and places. The piece posits that this is one version of Lebanon’s history - for a country that has never managed to push a common history textbook acceptable to all its communities.


Rayyane Tabet, Steel Rings, 2013

Parasol is showing eight works selected from the last 13 years of Tabet’s practice. “Rayyane had never visited the UK before, and also had never shown in this country, so when I invited him to show the public his work, it was then plausible that I ask him to showcase a cross-section,” says the Foundation director and curator of the show, Ziba Ardalan.


Tabet’s pieces don’t make instant Instagram images. “I was trained originally as an architect, and I completed a masters in sculpture,” he said. “I am very much informed by the legacy of minimal and conceptual art. It’s a proposition, rather than an fact.”



Rayyane Tabet, Colosse Aux Pieds d’Argile, 2015

Colosse Aux Pieds d’Argile, his piece with over 300 cylinders and columns spread out across the gallery’s first floor, is a kind of no-man’s land of architectural salvage. It recalls the marble brought from Italy to Lebanon as ballast in returning trade ships, and then incorporated into grand homes, now replaced by glass skyscrapers. 

Steel Rings runs down the side of the gallery’s longest room and continues out into the gallery’s garden, but it’s not designed for an easy photographic moment. The steel hoops, engraved with time and location, form a ghost of the Trans-Arabian Pipeline, a ringed skeleton. The TAP line has had near-mythical status in the Middle East: this very political project first started in 1947, with the intention of bringing Saudi oil to Haifa, then in the British Mandate of Palestine. With its end point switched first to the Lebanese coast, then to Jordan, it fell entirely out of use in 1990, though there have been periodic hopes of reviving the project.

Rayyane Tabet, Colosse Aux Pieds d’Argile, 2015


Tabet studied both architecture and fine art in the US. It’s curious to meet someone so artistically engaged who has not already passed through London; He headed for the British Museum, to see objects from the excavations at Tell Halaf. His great-grandfather, Faik Borkhorche, was sent by the French authorities to gather information on the excavations of Max von Oppenheim at the Syrian archaeological site. His ongoing project Fragments has been the result, including rubbings from the ancient stones.  

Another London stop was the Sir John Soane’s Museum, the former home of the classical architect and antiquities collector, a must for any architecture student or connoisseur of ancient objects. It was a place “full of great, twisted, perverse contradictions,” he says.  

Tabet’s responses to Lebanon and the regional experience are a far cry from more graphic conflict art produced in the region. But the works, and the text, have simple, strong messages — clear and clean. “His concerns are repeated throughout the gallery and the message becomes far stronger,” said Ardalan. “I greatly appreciate the way Rayyane does not display his message outright, rather just moves the lid off a little bit for us to discover it ourselves.”


Encounters by Rayyane Tabet runs at Parasol unit until 14 December 2019.


About Tim Cornwell:

Tim Cornwell is a London-based arts writer. Formerly a long-time resident of Scotland, he retains a strong interest in the arts scene in that country, but also has a developing specialty in the visual art of the Middle East and North Africa. He has covered art fairs, festivals and biennales from Kochi, to  Istanbul, Venice, and Edinburgh. He is a regular contributor to journals and magazines including The Art Newspaper and The Sunday Times, and currently exploring a new interest in the study and fabrication of Mediterranean mosaics.

“Rayyane Tabet does not display his message outright, rather just moves the lid off a little bit for us to discover it ourselves.” Ziba Ardalan