18 May 2015

Meet Haifa Wehbe, Lebanon’s Foremost Conceptual Art Group

For outsiders, Lebanon is known for its excellent food and lively night scene and, less fortunately, for its recent turbulent history. Much less known however is the country’s passion for conceptual art which borders on the obsessive. Conceptual art groups are household names in Lebanon and they are treated like celebrities in this small country. Little is known of this phenomenon outside the country due to the Lebanese reluctance to advertise or promote themselves or their culture abroad. As a result, the thriving conceptual art scene has escaped the attention of international media.

The uncontested queen of the conceptual art scene in Lebanon is Haifa Wehbe, a pseudonym for a collective made up of 32 artists who alternate in playing the role of ‘Haifa’, seemingly a seductive pop singer but in reality an elaborate artistic project that was started nearly two decades ago. ‘Haifa’ has spawned many imitators over the years, which is a testament to the group’s success and popularity.

Few people outside Lebanon get ‘Haifa’, which has been widely ridiculed for being a trashy pop star with little musical talent, by people who completely missed the point of this savage critique of neoliberalism and the social ills of late capitalism. The elaborate ruse has fooled millions of people over the years, as they failed to understand the subtle appropriation of capitalist paraphernalia in order to undermine its hegemony over public discourse.

The ‘in-joke’ about Haifa’s identity was blatantly mocked in her song ‘Ana Haifa’ (I am Haifa), in which she repeats over and over ‘Ana Haifa, Ana Haifa, Ana Haifa’, as if by the mere act of repetition she seeks to confirm her real existence. The song in reality serves as a brutal critique of how female identity is shaped in the global south under neoliberalism, as a procedural reproduction of orientalist fantasies about desirable Arab women.

Another classic ‘Haifa’ artwork is ‘Boos el Wawa’,(Kiss the Owie) seemingly a pop song performed by a coquettish woman in the Egyptian dialect, the collective attacked head on the monopolistic nature of global pharmaceutical companies and the use of traditional medicine as a form of economic resistance. The lyrics, ‘kiss the owie and make it heal’, shocked many into confronting this grim reality of modern life. Boos el Wawa, boos el wawa, boos el wawa, become an anthem for a generation of radical Lebanese anti-capitalist youth.

 In ‘Baba Feen’ the collective took a stylistic leap that nearly gave away the subtext because of its blatant parodic nature but few people outside Lebanon saw through the pretence. The ‘song’, a mock Disney-style fairy tale, is a sprawling mini-operetta satirising commodification and the conservative bourgeois foundations of the nuclear family. The ‘son’ in the video clip, in reality a professor of sociology in the Lebanese university, asks incessantly ‘baba feen, baba feen’ (where is daddy, where is daddy), in a heart-wrenching cry that expresses yearning for a simpler age.

In the group’s latest work, ‘Haifa’ is in a relationship with an astronaut who gets into an accident while trying to fix the satellite dish on a space station so he can watch the Champions League final. As the astronaut drifts helplessly into space, ‘Haifa’ performs a mystical rite under a charred tree repeating a chant whose purpose will eventually become apparent. The moving lyrics repeat over and over:


‘Breathing you in, breathing you in, breathing you in, breathing you in, in, in, in, innnnnnnnn.’ The ‘song’ which is performed intentionally in English, is full of metaphors for the Earth and how in reality it is holding women captive. It then becomes apparent that Haifa’s chant aims to free her from gravity, which ‘she’ eventually succeeds in doing and rescues her lover. The inversion of the traditional gender roles in Hollywood’s conventional representations was revolutionary. Not only has a woman broken the chains of nature, she has become the saviour of her helpless and pathetically handsome companion.

‘Haifa’s’ success over the years has spawned many imitators such as Nancy, Elissa and Yara, representing different school of conceptual art and various shades of radical politics, but Haifa’s supremacy is yet to be seriously challenged by the younger generation. One thing is for certain however, Lebanon’s obsession with conceptual art will continue for the foreseeable future. Over the past few months even Lebanese MPs have created their own conceptual art project by meeting every couple of weeks and ‘failing’ to elect a president for the country. They have been so successful that all international media outlets have been fooled by this performance art spectacle. Whatever you think about it, the country deserves recognition for this unique appreciation of conceptual art.

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Karl reMarks is a blog about Middle East politics and culture with a healthy dose of satire.

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