Hi my name is Arteh Odjidja and I am a photographer and educator based in London, I was given the opportunity to be part of the Who Are We project this May 2018 organised by Counterpoint arts and the Open university with the Tate exchange program. The Who Are We! Project was an interactive week long program of arts, discussions on identity, belonging and citizenship. The program was being run on the 5th floor of the Blatvanik building. At any point during the day people could participate in workshops and get a more hands on experience of Tate and making their own arts and crafts.
I was given the opportunity to do a ten minute talk for the project and was asked to find a piece of art in the Tate modern’s permanent collection that particularly stood out to me and that I could also, draw parallels with my own artistic practice.
I chose to discuss the work of Lebanese artist Marwan Rechmaoui an artist with a particular fascination with urban phenomena. He lives in Beirut and has completed artworks specifically inspired by Beirut’s history of conflict and neighbour hood divides.
The piece I focussed on was Rechmaoui’s Monument for the Living 2001-8. Situated on the 2nd floor Artist and Society gallery, which is a human scale cast cement replica of the notorious Burj Al Murr building. A derelict 34 story concrete High-rise that towers over downtown Beirut. The Burj Al Murr is an existing memory of the recent civil war that devastated the city in the early 1970s. The structure was originally designed to be office blocks but when war broke out in the early 1970s work was abandoned. Because of its dense towering structure and location, the unfinished building was considered a key strategic point in the city by subsequent militias. Who would post snipers on different floors to maintain a strong hold in the area.
Many years later the city has peace and the Burj Al Murr building still stands as a reminder of this time and blight on the city’s sky line seen by millions each day. It’s too tall to demolish safely and too dense in implode so it remains a daily reminder of a violent chapter in the Beirut’s timeline.
I was particularly drawn to this piece ‘Monument for the living – 2001 – 8’ because the building truly has become an accidental monument to the city. Revered by some, loathed by others. But a stark reminder none the less of a time when violence and killing was an everyday occurrence.
In my own portraiture work, most notably my ongoing Portrait series, “The Stranger Series” Which highlights the dreams and aspirations of young migrants to major cities around the world. I utilise monuments to frame and contextualise my subjects and their desires to become a part of a new society. Monuments are particularly important in reminding a society of what it holds dear and sacred. A city will often showcase its historic faith with cathedrals and statues in prominent locations to emphasis the religious foundations and values of that society. We commission monuments to great political, military and cultural leaders, monuments to industry, wealth, power and government. I use these monuments & architecture to frame my subjects in a way that they visually appear equal to and a part of those pillars of societal values. In an effort to emphasise how those values grow through integration, embracing of new culture and most importantly shared values.
I would like to thank Counterpoint arts for once again inviting me to be part of this great week of engagement with the public. I appreciate their warmth and ability to provide opportunities for artists discussing these issues to be showcased in this way.