The Alwan Residency Program

The idea of an artist residency at Alwan has been incubating for quite some time. The confluence of factors, perhaps serendipities, is briefly outlined below. It first came up in discussions with Rene Gabri of the Sixteen Beaver Group several years ago, and with whom Alwan shares its lower Manhattan space. Surprisingly, despite sharing a physical space, intellectual collaborations rarely occurred. It was primarily the busy schedules of the principals in both organizations, Alwan's niche in focusing on Arab culture and tradition and also its rather embryonic visual arts platform, whereas Sixteen Beaver is engaged in a distinctly visual arts conversation and discourse. Nevertheless, the affinities and conversations between the two organizations took place vicariously.

Lately Sixteen Beaver has been elucidating a notion and practice of the "common(s)" wherein the struggle for creating an alternative space for knowledge and quotidian aesthetics that surpass disciplinary boundaries of privatization and commercialization whose ultimate-indeed failed-promise is to enter the "community of money." In essence the romance of " commoning" knowledge and/or space could potentially turn the gated epicenter of Wall Street into a park as opposed to a site of occupation regulated by the forces of state and capital. Wall Street has always been occupied and it reproduces at large, and worldwide, its forms of occupation.

In parallel, Amir Elsaffer, Alwan's music director, articulated a vision and project based on the musical notion of Tarab – an open-ended, interactive musical encounter in Middle Eastern culture that signifies the transport and inter-transcendence between performers and audience alike. Its conceptual framework is that participants are not given any guidelines and have minimal curatorial direction. By disrupting the hierarchical organization of artistic production (the roles of composer, director, curator), and the autonomy of individual artists, participants are forced to improvise ways of communicating creatively. In this context, the notion of improvisation becomes multivalent. On one level, it refers to extemporaneous creative output. Through intuitive participation, artists will improvise their performance by building a shared vocabulary that opens up new horizons within our cultural idiom. On another level, improvisation describes the spontaneous human organization required; and, in the absence of a formal operating structure or shared disciplinary language, participants will need to forge new bonds to effectively collaborate. In this way, the project is intended to reflect and represent the modus operandi of a social microcosm, refracted through artistic production. In short, the notions of disruption and improvisation are simultaneously a social and an aesthetic experiment that could offer a mobilizing antidote, or a nascent-shared language against entrenched structures, bounded disciplines and particularized forms of knowledge.

It is in this intellectual environment that the Alwan artist residency is taking place. Its primary requirement is neither a commissioned commodity nor the production of objects for consumption. The residency is about meeting in a conversation across geography, genres and disciplines, about a peripatetic walk in the urban environment of the city, everyday or every other day, doing things and discovering the aesthetics of living together.

Marwan Rechmaoui

The choice of Marwan Rechmaoui aligns with the ideological conception of Alwan's residency. He was suggested by George Ziadeh, lead vocalist and ‘oud player in the Alwan Ensemble. Both can spend hours on hours in conversation over Skype, or silently, each practicing his own work. It is an intimate example of solitude in the presence of another.

Marwan Rechmaoui is a Lebanese artist of Palestinian origin, who lives and works in Beirut, Lebanon. As an influential, politically engaged and unique artist, his work is marked by depth andverisimilitude. Rechmaoui is best known for his sculptural works replicating city buildings and the topography of Beirut.

The work of Rechmaoui, though sculptural, three-dimensional and industrial in the raw material it employs for its finished objects, it is never intrusive rather, it emotes a great deal of inclusiveness and tenderness.

“Sioufi Garden Project’ (Beirut, 1997)

His most notable installations include Beirut Caoutchouc (2004), a large-scale work made of black rubber and embossed with precise details of roads and byways. It is segmented into 60 individual pieces demarcating the neighborhood boundaries of Beirut, consequently scrutinizing the physical and social impact of the city’s troubled history on the everyday lives of its inhabitants. Rechmaoui’s other major works include Spectre (2006), a reproduction of the modernist Yacoubian Building, which was built to house the Arab elite whose newly-found oil wealth and who were also nervous about the potential nationalization of their assets in an Arab world swept by socialist fervor, shifted large amounts of capital into Lebanese banks. But once civil war broke out and Israel invaded Lebanon in 1978, they departed and the building was taken over by refugees and later, squatters. A Monument for the Living(2001), a large-scale architectural model of the derelict Burj Al Murr replicates a never-completed, abandoned 1970s high-rise, which towers over downtown Beirut, and once housed sniper militias in its upper levels and prisons in its underground.

These works are emblematic of a particular vision that reads the subject-object formation as tragic. In a sense, one never really recreates oneself but is recreated through history, circumstances, power relations and filial ties. However, this does not deny agency. If anything, Rechmaoui’s work is particularly detailed and intensive. “If I lived in London, I would work on London as a space,” he says, so it is not Beirut itself but what is happening in this place. It is the exchange and inheritance of things.” (Goldie-Wilson, Kaalen, Bidoun, Spring 2010, PP 40-41) In that sense Rechmaoui is not an anomaly to the conceptual contemporary aesthetic common to his peers in the region that is highly textual, archival and documentarian. Rather, he is a step ahead in his employment of raw material and scale: instead of paper or video, he uses concrete, cement or rubber.

Beirut Caoutchouc (2004),

Spectre , (2006 Yacoubian Building)


A Monument for the Living (2001), Burj Al Murr,

 In a more recent project, Rechmaoui turns his focus to the Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon and the cluster munitions and ordnances in South Lebanon. In The UNRWA Series: Camp Dwellers Narrating Sites of Dereliction, Rechmaoui shows how Palestinian refugees chart their way through a make-shift world that was only meant to be temporary. Collaborating with the Arab Resource Collective (ARC), a non-governmental organization, camp residents from different age groups were asked to map their local surroundings. Rechmaoui took these diagrams, enlarged and reproduced them on different media—concrete, rice and sugar bags, corrugated metal—giving them a powerful sense of the day-to-day reality of the camp’s environment. In this manner, Rechmaoui seeks to create a “virtual Palestine” by linking the various communities living in these permanent “temporary” spaces.


 Cluster Bomb - Enamel on Aluminum


The temporary plays a significant role in Rechmaoui’s output. Ironically, he uses maps, signposts, majors markers of the city of Beirut that do not only define it physically but in all its historical and mythological imaginary precisely to highlight its instability. This originary tension, or enabling contradiction is what renders continuity to his oeuvre. The more he excavates the social, historical and geography of Beirut, the more undefined and manipulative the possibilities of representation become. In his Work in Progress, which is the subject of his lecture at Columbia on December 3rd, Rechmaoui dismantles the topography of the city to various statistical elements that are in essence the prerogative of the modern state, but which instead usher scenarios of conflict and war games. 


Work in Progress


The theme of the map whose borders are malleable and that is drawn and redrawn, a land that is in conflict, haunted by catastrophe, runs throughout his career. Early on in 2001, paradoxically enough, he exhibited a delinked map of the unnamed 22 countries of the Arab world in Cairo, the hotspot of Arab nationalism and home of the Arab league.


The League (Untitled 22) (2001)


It is a literature that is haunted by catastrophe. Rechmaoui’s origins are in Palestine, and also Lebanon. The seismic proportions of the catastrophe of 1948, of many Lebanese civil wars, unending Israeli invasions and daily incursions all in all, it is not merely the tragedies that took place at a particular time, but the enduring trauma of the project of displacement and appropriation, are intuited by every Palestinian and by Arabs the world over. The Nakba or catastrophe is not an event relegated merely to the short span of individual memory. Rather, it is a transformational predicament that has shaped the careers, psychological makeup, and vision of millions of people over generations.


In one of his most poignant and personal works Marwan Rechmaoui superimposes his adult image on his parents’ wedding photos.  He invites himself-wondering why he was not- to the event that was the cause of his birth. It is as it were to take in and absorb the trauma as the joyful celebration that it was.  


Never-Part / Histories of Palestine’ –2008

As memories of such experiences enter the annals of history, the physical records of it, through memoir, documentary, photographs, letters, and transcripts and sculptures, create a feverish, profuse archive of representations and images. Paradoxically, the nostalgic reconstruction of memory of what once was has inscribed into it forgetfulness-which does not limit itself to repression-and thus, to paraphrase Derrida, it commands into the present the possibility and specter of the future.


Alwan Auction 2016

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