Lebanese artist Katya Traboulsi was 15 when the civil war broke out. “Everybody had to go and fight on the street. There was no army, only militias made up of the neighbourhood kids,” Traboulsi recalls. “It was my birthday, and all my friends were in militias, so they could not buy a gift. So they offered me a shell that they’d emptied, and they wrote on it ‘Happy birthday, Katya!’ That was in 1975.”
For years, the shell sat in the Traboulsis’ home, a macabre souvenir of the war that the artist describes as a kind of trophy. “During the war, you collected the shrapnel and the bombs from the ground. It’s ridiculous now that I think about it. But at the time, we were proud to have those objects of war. It gave us power...This object, which had blindly sown death where it fell, ended up in my room, raised to the status of a trophy celebrating the courage of fighters or the defeat of enemies who later would exchange roles as alliances and the masters of war willed.”
The only piece in the series that is not strictly a national identity represents Lebanese political parties.
40 years later - in a similar or divergent impetus of reclamation - Traboulsi began her four-year project of turning 46 replica mortar shells (the exact same size as the one she had received for her birthday) into immortalised pieces of culture. Each piece represents a different country, its history, and what she calls its ‘perpetual identity’, resilient and irrepressible against the violences of war and occupation.
Traboulsi's Afghanistan shell, and the original Minaret of Jam.
Her Palestinian mortar shell, for instance, is covered by the iconic ‘keys of return,’ which families took with them during 1948 displacements, in hopes of returning to their homes. For Afghanistan, Traboulsi replicated the 800-year old Minaret of Jam, which since 2014 has been in imminent danger of collapse, particularly due to recent near clashes between militants and the central government. For Australia, Brazil, Canada, Central America, and Peru, she represents different aboriginal, native, and First Nation artistic identities, which have survived despite centuries of settler colonialist policies that sought to annihilate them.
“Identity is a force no war can eliminate,” Traboulsi says. “It bounces back inevitably. What do they [who wage war] want to accomplish? They want to erase an identity, they can’t. Identity is reinforced by war. The result of our war in Lebanon was a religious identity much stronger than before. If we go back to history, all those identities that I represent went through occupation and war, and they are still here, and they will remain in the future. It’s perpetual identity. You cannot erase it.”
For her Australia shell, Traboulsi - shown above painting it in her studio - chose to represent the 20,000-year old Aboriginal art form of rock art and the characteristic dot painting which depicts indigenous nature as well as dreams, stories, and legends with religious and emblematic significance.
The series, itself named Perpetual Identities to reflect Traboulsi’s projected telos of war and conflict, was - as so much of recent Arab artistry has been - inspired by the war in Syria. “When the war started, I had flashbacks of our war. I thought about the shells on the kids, on families. Because the memory is still somewhere in me, and the impact of the shells - which I think is the worst thing you can live throughout the war, the bombardment of shells - they remain in me.”
For Oman, Traboulsi chose to represent the national symbol of Oman: the khanjar (a traditional dagger). Particularly, the quality of craftsmanship and luxury of the inlay of the dagger’s ornamental handle.
It was her acute experience of not just the violence of war, but the embodiment of that violence in a single object, that spurred her coalescing of a message into the mortar shell. “Because it’s an object of destruction. This ugly object, I wanted to transform into an object of history that can erase the impact of death, to talk about life and identity. The perpetual identity that belongs to history and will remain in the future.”
Germany, depicting the Berlin Wall.
The project took Traboulsi four years to complete, because each of the 46 handmade pieces took months of historical research, travel, and consultation with local artisans. “My creations are inspired by historical events,” Traboulsi explains. “The artisans that took part in the project are the perpetual memory of that history, glorifying through their handicraft talents the heritage of their identity.”
Equally as important as the overarching aim of reclaiming the weapons to represent cultural resilience, is what that represented culture is. Though some - such as Russia’s matryoshka dolls, Germany’s Berlin wall, or even her reproductions of Gustav Klimt masterpieces for Austria - immediately betray their countries of origins, most are unidentifiable at first glance, using lesser known iconography.
For France, Traboulsi chose the figure of Marianne, the national personification of the French Republic since the French Revolution, representing liberty and reason, and a portrayal of the Goddess of Liberty.
“I wanted to get away from the commercial aspect of things,” she explains. “When you go to France and the Eiffel tower is on everything, you see all those commercial visuals as markers of identity, I wanted to get away from that. And some pieces are meant to discover something that you may not know about this country.”
For Italy, Traboulsi chose to represent the country’s renaissance-era role pioneering the grotesque: art that is strange, mysterious, fantastic, hideous, ugly, unpleasant, or disgusting. “It was a period where art was very deformed and bulky, before the art deco,” explains Traboulsi. “So I wanted to show something new, something different that’s still very Italian, and still very much in the history and exists until today.”
At the same time, however, Traboulsi’s categorisation of the pieces according to country begs two important questions. First, does placing one icon for each country - and therefore each culture - run the risk of reducing the complexities of identity into an easily digestible, monolithic image?
In representing the floral patterns in Mecca’s Al-Haram mosque for Saudi Arabia, Traboulsi emphasised how the ornament is recognisably Islamic, but unspecific to a particular epoch or region of the Islamic world. As she phrases it, the pattern “is a simplified derivative form of Egyptian Mamluk floral design.”
On the issue of identity, Traboulsi places the weight on what we inherit. “It’s your mother, it’s like you came out from your mother’s womb and that’s it, this is your identity. You cannot change it. You can relate to another identity, but you cannot in your blood, in your language, in your food, in your skin colour, change it. It’s your identity.” But are national identities inherited traits or constructed, heavily politicised communities? What is a nation at all if not merely ‘imagined communities,’ as Irish political scientist Benedict Anderson phrased it?
For Syria, Traboulsi represented the intricate inlay technique whereby the underlying surface of the wood is almost entirely encrusted with mother-of-pearl ornamentation, creating the characteristic shimmer effect with delicate floral and geometric arabesques.
Second, and on a related note, when we’re talking about the violence of war and occupation, is the modern nation-state truly the best aesthetic or analytical lens? On one hand, the modern nation-state that plays the central role in world politics today isn’t naturally occurring. It is, fundamentally, a European imperialist export whose existence can never truly be separated from violence. Celebrated American sociologist, political scientist, and historian Charles Tilly famously wrote that “the state made war and war made the state.”
But, of course, the onus of this problem is not so much on the singular artist as it is an emblem of a much larger political culture, one for which there is no easily available panacea. With the goal of portraying the resilience of culture against the violence of war and occupation, how else can one represent but through our most readily available tool: the geographic unit of the country? And so if in creating a work against the political culture of violence, an artist inadvertently reproduces a similar dynamic, there are bigger issues at hand.
By reclaiming the shape of the mortar shell, and its distinctive use (in its remote deployment, it is the sowing of death, panic, and fear in a usually unsuspecting community), Traboulsi reclaims violence itself. “Its deadly one-way trajectory becomes an exchange,” she explains. “[It] sows not death, but knowledge and civilisation in the territory of the Other. Its scope becomes sociological, theological, and philosophical.”
Perpetual Identities is featured in Its Liquid International Art Festival in Venice, which is running until October as a collateral event to the Venice Art Biennale.