Dinah Diwan: Wandering City

Nélida Nassar   03.22.2019

The world of architecture has always had its share of mavericks who produce buildings    and sometimes artworks that completely defy the reigning aesthetic and barely comply with regulations, yet who escape ridicule or ostracism thanks to their childlike authenticity and idiosyncratic approach. Elemer Zalotay, for example, has a following in Switzerland for work of this kind, and Lucien Kroll has attracted even greater attention in Belgium. The French-Lebanese artist and architect Dinah Diwan follows this trajectory. 

Exhibited in France, Diwan’s first show in her native Beirut, “Wandering city” at Galerie Janine Rubeiz, consists of 19 paintings, one neon installation and a composite of written pages from her journal dating to 1975. The composite and the neon installation are parts of a different domain of her practice, while her paintings are pieces of cartography that deploy overt references to architectural elements in specific areas of Beirut, redrawing the city through subjective surveying rather than an objective method. Her brightly colored works are depictions of journeys she often made on foot, by bus or bicycle during her adolescence, sometimes mixed with incursions into today’s Beirut.  If you’re standing in front of one of them, the color leaps off the canvas, boldly clashing and fighting as rich hues are layered one upon the other.

As rich in such drawing techniques as stipples, dotted lines, crosshatches, colored areas and embroidered edges as they are sparse in human figuration, they are representative of the type of solitary walk that uncovers the hidden splendor of a familiar route. Ordinary streetscapes of Diwan’s native city appear transformed by her deft workmanship and keen sense of light. They speak to what is comforting about the shared Beiruti experience, as well as what is unnerving. 

She has drawn her own encrypted map of Beirut’s different neighborhoods, abstracted and inscribed with her own mysterious cuneiform-like code. This world of secretive signs suffuses most of the exhibition, and it can be frustrating. While the cognoscenti might give a knowing chuckle upon recognizing the symbols, for the uninitiated they may elicit nothing more than the passing interest of exercise-book doodles.

Yet, these paintings are also about translating the artist’s approach to the city into objects, and people reacting to them initially in a museum setting may well be prompted to change the way they look at Beirut. It helps to think of the show as something like the gift shop at the end of a big museum exhibition, with, in this case, the real exhibition outside in the city itself. These pieces are condensed trinkets of bigger ideas, mini-manifestos of work that has evolved, in some cases, over several ventures into the cold or the sun. They are incitements to wander and discover – an invitation to a voyage. 

Born in Beirut, Diwan was brought up by her Jewish parents in the neighborhood of Wadi Abu Jmeil. She developed her artistic talents at a young age and enrolled in Paris at the École Nationale Supérieure d’Architecture La Villette. An innovative painter and ceramist, she has long been experimenting with paint and creating collages with illegible writing on paper, canvas, fabrics and frosted glass.  She now lives and works between Beirut and California, where she continues to explore the theme of urban drift, engaging in some audacious experiments – in a city, Los Angeles, that is virtually without limits.    

Exhibition taking place at Galerie Janine Rubeiz – Beirut, Lebanon