Nadim Karam moved back to his native Beirut in the early 1990s, after years spent studying abroad during the lengthy Lebanese civil war.
The city had been ravaged by shelling and was haunted by derelict buildings. It was emotionally and symbolically divided along the Green Line that had split the city into East and West for 15 years.
Karam, who had studied both architecture and art, saw Lebanon was not only in need of renovation, rebuilding and improved infrastructure but something else a little less tangible – the city and its citizens needed to rediscover a sense of playfulness, unity and imagination.
This was the Beirut that inspired his first large-scale public-art installation, Archaic Procession, a collection of enormous metal sculptures of weird and wonderful creatures. The series was shown across the city, first outside the Sursock Museum in 1994, beside the destroyed National Museum of Beirut in 1995, and from 1997 to 2000 in various locations Downtown, the former heart of the city.
Through his playful, surreal sculptures, Karam tried to emphasise that the differences and diversity within society are a source of enrichment rather than a cause for conflict.
“I thought that instead of creating problems and dividing a society, they could be a source of fun, dreams and unity, because their presence would encourage the same ideas on both sides of the line,” he says.
“They’re innocent shapes. They’re shapes recognised by everyone, from 7 to 77. There’s nothing insulting in them, there is no confrontation in them. On the contrary, sometimes they provoke because they are absurd, because they are abstract. In that sense, they become an important source of thinking.”
The sculptures, which Karam calls “urban toys” or “dream catalysts”, were the first of dozens of public-art installations that have formed the backbone of his career as an artist and architect.
Urban Stories, a new solo show at the Fine Art Society in London until Friday, reveals for the first time the roots of the ideas that have shaped his discourse for 25 years.
Recent paintings and sculptures are given context and emotional weight by a series of 52 small watercolour studies of silhouetted black creatures, half-human, half-animal, that would later become sculptures. Executed in a sketch book in 1993 they never before have been shown to the public. Although dwarfed by his new paintings, some of which are more than two metres tall, these tiny sketches are the highlight of the show.
Born in Senegal and educated in Japan, Karam displays diverse influences in his work. These small paintings were created in Lebanon and designed to fulfil local needs but the rich, earthy colours evoke Africa. They are reminiscent of Japanese symbols, or perhaps ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics.
Karam is unsure to what extent his time abroad has influenced him but he acknowledges “usually when you live in a place it affects you, whatever your age”.
Preferring to work on patterned paper, he chose a book on terrain he found in New York as the basis of his 1993 sketch book.
Beneath his paintings are faint traces of complex diagrams, which lend depth and complexity to even the simplest sketches. Infused with more spontaneity and movement than his larger, more studied works, these watercolours encourage viewers to put aside intellectual readings in favour of delighting in the simple pleasure of bold colours and inventive compositions.
Some of Karam’s creatures are instantly recognisable as elephants, giraffes or antelope. Others are stranger, more magical beings, some with seven legs or human torsos.
He created the creatures without much conscious thought, he says, but there are symbolic aspects that please him.
“The elephant has this huge memory, which I enjoy,” he says. “I also enjoy the fact that they move in families. Issues of memories, stories, are very much concerns of mine.”
In addition to his sketches, Karam is showing several of his animal sculptures, eye-catching works in polished stainless steel.
His large-scale paintings on canvas are mostly from his Stretching Thoughts series, a focal point of his work for the past several years, in which he captures figures with a complex tangle of lines and shapes expanding outward from their skulls – a visual representation of ideas and a call for open-mindedness and flexibility.
The most dramatic work is a new sculpture called Trou de Memoire, comprises two large forms that are like upside-down teardrops, made of mirror-polished stainless steel.
Another, titled Memory, has a complex cut-out pattern that appears abstract from a distance but close-up resolves into dozens of tiny animals and humans jumbled together. Void is completely blank.
“Memory is a full study of stories relating to my memory that are translucent, you can see through them, and they show the journey I have made,” says Karam. “Void is just simple, polished stainless steel that reflects endless possibilities.
“It can take you into the future but it also reflects Memory, so if you stand in between them, you see from the past 30 years – the journey – to possibilities of what the future can give. This sculpture was essential for this show because it represents a conclusion but also a new start.”