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Rabih Mroue, the Lebanese artist starting a creative rebellion

By Laura Allsop for CNN
  • Rabih Mroue is a Lebanese theatre director, artist, actor and writer
  • Currently has two exhibitions in Europe
  • Both feature work responding to recent events in Arab world
  • Believes intellectual pursuits to be a form of resistance

(CNN) -- Theatre director, visual artist, actor, writer: there are many feathers to Rabih Mroue's cap.

The Lebanese artist, whose performances, video works and installations deal with Lebanon's troubled history, is currently enjoying increasing visibility on the world's stage.

With two exhibitions currently in Europe (one in London and one in Sweden), Mroue is gaining more and more admirers, though cinephiles may already know him from his role in 2008 film "Je Veux Voir," in which his character traverses Beirut's destroyed neighborhoods with French actress Catherine Deneuve, following the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war.

His exhibitions, which feature video work ruminating on his country's tumultuous past as well as his own personal history, also respond to recent events across the Arab world, with a window work in London entitled "The People are Demanding," also the title of the exhibition.

"There is no particular precise thing (that triggered the new work), but what is happening in the region is really something big and one cannot ignore it," he said.

It's one of the conditions of being a human being -- to think, and to produce abstract ideas
--Rabih Mroue, artist

"It is in a way a problematic word, 'people,'" the artist continued, speaking about the popular slogan "The People are Demanding," which was chanted during the mass demonstrations in Tunisia and Egypt that toppled their respective governments.

He points out that in Arabic, the word "people" is always singular. "We say, "The people is demanding" and in this sense, it's as if you're reducing the people into one quantity," he said.

The window display at London's Institute of International Visual Arts features numerous imagined demands that protesting individuals might make: the right to overthrow a government, the right to love, even the right to tweet -- all written across the window.

"It's in a way a playful piece of work, which starts with a very serious demand and goes to the very basic needs of every human being," he said.

Mroue adds that while he supports events across the Arab world, he is wary of Arab people being dissolved in one mass with a single view.

Tensions like these are at the heart of Mroue's work, which often deals with complex issues such as the desire to remember traumatic events in his country's history, but also the desire to consign them to the past and move on.

"For me, it's a question of, 'What should we remember? And what we should not remember?' What should we forget and what should we not forget, and who decides on these issues?" he said.

He is referring to the amnesty declared in Lebanon following its painful civil war, which lasted from 1975 to 1990, and what he sees as the state's desire to foreground certain things from the past and eliminate others.

"It's all about history -- about writing history -- because history in this sense erases something and highlights something else," Mroue said.

It's all about history, about writing history because history in this sense, erases something, and highlights something else

"If one looks at Lebanese art and contemporary culture, without generalizing or essentializing, one would see that there is a certain kind of obsession for collecting images and traces of a lost life," said Cosmin Costinas, curator of Mroue's exhibitions at the Lunds Konsthall in Sweden, and in London.

"I would interpret (Mroue's) work as a reaction to a certain kind of archival instinct, which you have in contemporary culture," said Costinas.

Mroue began producing theatrical work in the early 1990s. He became central to a loose community of Beirut-based artists and intellectuals and soon found his work crossing over into the realms of visual and performance art.

But Mroue says that both he and others are forced to navigate the thorny issue of censorship. His plays and performances have, in the past, been altered by the state's censors. One particular performance from 2007 was banned by the authorities, though later staged following a public outcry.

"To use the words of the censorship department, they tell us: We don't censor you, we just play with the contrast, we make it less sharp, just make it more gentle, not so violent or provocative," he explained.

He gets around the censors, he said, by only putting on performances for short periods, and not charging people to see them.

Though it gets an easier reception in the West, Mroue's work doesn't shy away from potentially provocative subjects. One work in the London exhibition, entitled "Grandfather, Father and Son," features meticulously filed library index cards belonging to his intellectual grandfather, who was assassinated, aged 80, by Islamic fundamentalists.

"It's one of the conditions of being a human being -- to think, and to produce abstract ideas," Mroue pointed out.

"This is what distinguishes us from animals, that we are allowed to produce and to write about abstract ideas, about justice, injustice, mathematics," he continued.

Having the courage to think about and articulate these abstract ideas is, he believes, an important form of resistance.