18 November 2021
By Laura Cugusi
On a summer afternoon at the Al Sharq bookshop in Beirut, a young woman leaves through a copy of Our Burning Fingers, a novel by Lebanese author Suhayl Idris. “She advanced slowly and held against her chest all the books that she could carry…” she reads. Instantly captivated by the words the customer approaches the store’s owner Afaf Samra, who offers her own enthusiasm for the work and its author. Later, on her way home after closing up the shop, Afaf becomes lost in thought, lamenting how Idris, founder of the literary journal Al Adab and prolific translator of Sartre and Camus, isn’t gaining the recognition he deserves. At that moment, in 1960s Lebanon, it was publications translated from English that were taking up most of the literary stage, with readers attracted to the novelty of the ease of access to foreign culture and the rapidly shifting geopolitical dynamics of the time were having a deep influence on artistic and literary production across the whole world. The world of the old maxim, “Cairo writes, Beirut publishes, Baghdad reads” was fading away.
I encountered this curious vignette and its historical context during my studio visit with Fehras Publishing Practices in Berlin, shortly after their residency at Delfina Foundation. The recounted scene is one that unfurls across the illustrated speech bubbles of Borrowed Faces, Issue No°1 (2020), a fictional vintage-style photocomic comprised of 134 black-and-white A4 pages, interrupted by a middle spread of highly-saturated close-up colour photos, written and acted out by the collective themselves in elegant cross-dress. This fascinating tale of Beirut’s publishing culture in the midst of the region’s oft-overlooked experience of Cold War politics and its cultural dimensions, is told through the story of three women – Afaf Samra, Hala Haddad and Huda Al Wadi – with a plethora of rich historical details and insights encompassed amidst its vibrant and dynamic format.
Borrowed Faces, the first prototype in a series of editions planned by Fehras (as their name is commonly abbreviated), is the most recent project emerging out of the collective’s pretext: researching the history of publishing in the Eastern Mediterranean. As they explain the origins of this latest endeavour it becomes clear that their practice is an unfolding matrix of projects, which build on and evolve out of each other, exploring parallel and intersecting histories and narratives. The story divulged in Borrowed Faces is an outcome of their extensive, diligent archival research – spanning historical documents, library catalogues, novels and biographies, as well as technical fact sheets, correspondence letters, legal documents, metadata and less obviously pertinent secondary items – but it also draws on the sources and materials discovered during earlier projects, such as When The Library Was Stolen (2017), a book that came out of a project to catalogue the private library of Abd Al-Rahman Munif, one of the most renowned authors and novelists in the Arab world, and the Series Of Institutional Terms (2016), which focuses on the form and content of bilingual art publications through the compilation of ad hoc lexicons, indexes and glossaries.
Fehras is a rather young collective; born in Berlin in 2015, when Sami Rustom, Omar Nicolas and Kenan Darwich reunited years after they first met in Damascus, Syria – the country from which they all originate. The trio draws on their previous experience: Kenan had cultivated an interest in archival and publishing practices, founding the publishing house Raum Der Publikation during his academic studies in design and typography at Leipzig University; Omar had similarly studied fine art and typography, and gained the experience of the performance scene in Beirut in the early 2010s; and Sami, who holds a Masters in Library and Information Sciences from Humboldt University in Berlin, during his earlier studies in media at Damascus University had focused on the collaborative project of legendary music icon Fayrouz and the Rahbani brothers, through which he deepened his passion for untold cultural histories of the region.
Archival research lies at the heart of the collective’s practice, in which the agency of the archive to establish and maintain a hegemonic knowledge agenda is scrutinised. For Fehras, the archive itself is the medium and lens through which to speak about other aspects of cultural production, and the seed to generate alternative endings and turns in art’s historical itineraries. To date their archival research has spanned the Congress for Cultural Freedom (an anti-communist cultural organisation funded by the CIA which laid the groundwork for the creation of a left-liberal scene), the Afro Asian Writers Association archive, Franklin Book Programs, Hiwar magazine, and Progress Publishers in Moscow, to name a few.
The outcomes of this research, rather than pedagogic, is manifested through fictionalising the sources: turning the fragmented, incomplete and often dry archival documents into speculative storylines deconstructing, welding together the pieces to generate new stories and questions. The collective’s approach to the archival legacy of the region comes across as playful, yet rigorous and meticulous: embarked upon with the curiosity of an improvised treasure hunt through the mysterious cabinets of an old relative. The results are presented in a constellation of formats and textures – from the aforementioned photocomic to live performances, photography and video, which share a highly-produced, bold aesthetic, drawing together eclectic references and styles, and comprising a touch of fantasy, if not mischief.
Fehras was founded among a wider wave of artists and cultural producers from the Eastern Mediterranean and North Africa establishing themselves in Europe, having been displaced or migrated in the aftermath of the region’s uprisings in the early 2010s. Within this reluctant diaspora, as well as those based in the region, there’s a section who have used their practice to uncover and rework the traces of a heritage and collective history damaged by systematic revision, modification and/or erasure by those who wield power. Yet in their approach to the region’s publishing history Fehras avoids romanticisation as they tell the story of artists and writers embedded in systems and contexts from which they were unable to completely disentangle themselves from. Fehras attempts to complicate rather than simplify, and is adept at presenting a creative misinterpretation rather than aspiring to restore an incontrovertible truth.
Sitting on the rooftop of their studio space in Flutgraben e.V. (a self-organised artist’s association in an old industrial building) looking out over the Spree, our conversation inevitably ends up at the pandemic. We lament how the COVID-19 has exacerbated the Global North’s hyper-individualism, a tendency that appears in stark contrast to Fehras’s own collaborative approach in their work and their palpable culture of care to each other.
They spoke of their own experience of the pandemic, which had greatly impacted on the residency they had been granted at Delfina Foundation. Originally planned for March 2020 it was inevitably postponed as the world reeled with the outbreak of the pandemic; then rearranged and postponed again as the crisis prevailed. Finally arriving in London in mid-June 2021, they had an intense three-week stay, comprising post-travel quarantine and installing and opening their first UK solo show, Borrowed Faces: Future Recall, at The Mosaic Rooms in a metropolis still under heavy Covid-19 restrictions and surging cases. Unfortunately this was then followed by their own direct experience of the virus and resultantly further isolation. Clearly a chaotic and testing moment, and likely one familiar to a host of cultural producers who have struggled through the pandemic, yet the trio’s show prevailed against the odds, presenting an bold installation of new sound, photographic and printed works, alongside a display of the archive materials that the trio had collected and drawn on.
The next milestone in Fehras’s journey will be their 2022 presentation at documenta fifteen, which they are busy preparing for at the time of my visit. For their contribution the collective is developing Borrowed Faces and incorporating within it an interactive element. The project also aims at providing resources and, most importantly, time for artists to get to know each other, map and establish new configurations and identify possible formats for their work to take shape and ripen. It asks the pertinent question: how do these collaborative practices of keeping archives alive, are themselves kept alive?
“I don’t have many books on Palestine at the bookstore, you know. I don’t want to build a memory, because if I do, the return would be impossible. I would like to return one day.” – Afaf Samra, as imagined by Fehras in Borrowed Faces.
– Laura Cugusi is an artist, writer and researcher based in Berlin.
Fehras Publishing Practices (Syria/Germany) was a collective-in-residence at Delfina Foundation in Spring 2021, in partnership with The Mosaic Rooms and Shubbak Festival.