The Lebanese geometric artist Gebran Tarazi – From Levantine Tradition to Contemporary Abstraction






By Amor Ghedamsi




There are numerous fundamental meanings in the experience of the Lebanese artist Gebran Tarazi (1944-2010), who remains unknown in our Greater Maghreb, despite the connections his artistic heritage has woven with a significant portion of our visual and cultural heritage. Besides the aesthetic and spiritual significances residing within Gebran Tarazi’s experience, this experience also encapsulates the concept of rootedness, as demonstrated by the following fable from the traditional African literature. There was a young man who returned from war with only one leg, and discovered the state of his elderly father, stripped of all his possessions except for a straw hut and a stick, which were all that remained of his ancestral heritage. Upon returning, the warrior decided to confront the thief. He asked the village blacksmith to make him a leg of iron to replace the lost one. However, this solution did not work. The warrior felt endless pain, to the point of bleeding. Therefore, he asked the village carpenter to fashion a wooden leg for him. Nevertheless, that did not work either. He even felt as if every pore of his body was gathering and clustering to expel this wooden leg. On the day of the confrontation, attended by all the villagers, the warrior faced his opponent with a limping leg. Suddenly, he heard the call of his elderly father who broke through the crowd and handed him the stick he was leaning on. The African fable recounted that the limping warrior defeated his opponent with this stick, which was not just a piece of wood, but the spirit of the ancestors and their inspiring energy as well.

Gebran Tarazi comes from a family that has transmitted, from generation to generation, particularly since 1860 AD, the secrets of oriental artisanship; like oriental sofas, walls, and ceilings adorned with damascened wood, featuring floral decorations in relief and geometric shapes. The family’s reputation peaked when Dimitri Tarazi, Gebran’s grandfather, adorned and furnished numerous palaces and homes across four Arab cities: Beirut, Damascus, Jerusalem, and Cairo. He combined the uniqueness of artisanship with the essence of enhancement.

Implicitly, Gebran Tarazi was none other than the descendant destined to preserve and carry on the craft of his ancestors. Indeed, these traditional professions draw their essence from the purity and continuity of the same environment from which they are originated. The concept of heritage is effective in transmitting knowledge and secrets, as it is subject to a formative approach combined with the sanctity among the Sufis, linking the Sheikh/teacher to the disciple/son.

Gebran Tarazi’s belonging, in both its symbolic and material dimensions, inherited from his family, constituted an essential aspect of his artistic experience. He paid attention to a number of variables that began to threaten the traditional structures in which he was raised and that formed the reputation of his family. Indeed, the artist was born during the peak of what the world experienced as the Second World War, a time when major industrialized countries imposed their mode of production based on high-yield technical and industrial means, often excessive and costly. This contributed to the dismantling or atrophy of traditional structures within the colonies.

It was clear that Gebran Tarazi possessed, both mentally and instinctively, a state of consciousness and attentiveness to the numerous tumultuous changes that attacked the Arab region in general. These changes threatened it through the loss of its traditional structures, yet at the same time, the region was open to embracing modernity. Art, as a free and individual practice, was part of this concept.

In this context, Gebran Tarazi was steeped in a Damascene education, within an architecture that was inward looking, considering the oriental artisanal heritage as fertile ground for an innovative modern path once its foundational intellectual and spiritual roots were rediscovered. According to him, roots are important not only to understand civilization but also to establish a model of resistance. He stated, “The fate of our eastern roots is not decay and corruption but rather to nourish the tree that will yield undesirable fruits in order to combat hegemony… the hegemony of foreign cultures.”

This traditional family artisanal heritage, in Gebran Tarazi’s experience, cannot be considered merely as a manual acquisition, but rather the essence that shaped his innate, acquired, and voluntary predispositions, with which he confronted significant changes. In fact, according to Pierre Bourdieu’s concept of ‘habitus,’ this heritage formed the hidden compass within the individual’s consciousness, through which one was guided to perceive the surrounding world. The concept of ‘habitus’ is synonymous with the trait or character that delimits the sum of innate, acquired, and inherited predispositions expressing an individual’s effectiveness.

The exploration of Gebran Tarazi’s experience leads us to another fundamental question in a different chapter about the method or mindset with which he contemplated these artisanal traditions he grew up in, which imposed a dual burden on him as both a family and cultural heritage. How was he able to transform this burden from a preserved and imitated provision, within the framework of his function and specific environment, into a harvest with a renewed life? It seems that the answer to this question lies in Gebran Tarazi’s personality and culture, possessing a rooted yet simultaneously open vision towards the universal. One of the most significant representations of this vision is his ability to redefine the craft. The boundaries here concern the model on which all trades and crafts rely, through repetition and duplication. In fact, Gebran Tarazi surpassed this model by seeking the essence it hides in terms of spiritual and aesthetic meanings. Here, the notion of surpassing is parallel to the notion of forgetting according to Gilles Deleuze, whose thesis titled: Difference and Repetition helped us understand the pathways of Gebran Tarazi’s experience. According to Deleuze, “If every memory always needs certain habits, a small ‘self’ driven by the eagerness to find a ‘general’ relation with a certain identity freeing it from the false repetition of details, forgetting remains an innovative force of repetition because it repeats only what it wants, that is, what it selects and chooses among the forms of will and power”.

The difference between artisanship and art in Gebran Tarazi’s experience is not a difference of primacy that leads to a state of cultural confusion, but rather a tidal relationship between belonging and liberation, memory and forgetfulness, skill and creativity, collective and individual.

Deleuze summarized this idea in his thesis: “The connection between difference and repetition is not the same as that between homogeneous and heterogeneous, equal and unequal, similar and dissimilar, but by surpassing this opposition, favoring a critique through which philosophical thought usually represents difference as between two things, and repetition as the repetition of situations and occurrences. However, in both cases, difference and repetition diminish together because they are absorbed by an original position of identity… Difference means moving away from supposed identity, and repetition means reproducing a copy or a model. In fact, the critique of repetitive thought aims to eliminate it to achieve a positive and affirmative difference, and a creative repetition far from being superficial and abstract.”

Geometrically, a square possesses all the properties of a parallelogram, a rectangle, and a rhombus; two diagonals, opposite sides, and angles. This geometric abundance capable of generating an infinity of shapes reflects the importance of the square as a symbol of balance, logic, and order. Moreover, its four sides designate the physical elements of the universe: earth, air, water, and fire. According to the semantic characteristics of the square, Gebran Tarazi’s experience paves the way for vision and hypothesis. Through the same form and measurement of the square, in its generation, repetition, succession, and symmetry, a visual and rhythmic identification is formed with the movement of the universe and the unity of existence. In fact, a part of the universe contains the characteristics of unity. Multiplicity exists within unity and vice versa, according to Ibn Al Fared, who also considers that multiplicity returns to unity, and we perceive unity only through multiplicity. The images that appear before us are multiple images for one, and the details do not exist in themselves but rather in one. This is a concept close to the ‘essential individual,’ as stated by Massignon in his book titled: Les méthodes de réalisation artistique chez les peuples de l’Islam, which means that the whole is divided into indivisible parts, and finding it depends on the very obligation of existence. It is essential to highlight here that the concept of an ‘essential individual’ is similar to that of an atom and the ‘indivisible part’ in the Greek philosophy of Democritus.

In the framework of this Sufi approach, the works of Gebran Tarazi rely on several literal and creative foundations interconnected through which the style was formed. This was recounted in his book titled: Variations géométriques, in which he presented an inventory of his research spanning from 1988 to 2003 on the theme of ‘Qayem Nayem,’ which is a compositional unit containing two adjacent rectangles horizontally and two vertically. They connect at right angles around a central square, thus creating a new square. He presented them through a series of diverse compositions representing variations of rectangular forms, unequal squares, and configurations derived from diagonal diameter, twin squares, graduated squares, and sleeping rectangles. Within this profound research work, Gebran Tarazi revealed in his aforementioned work the elements that connected his art to the spirit of music and poetry; at the level of generation, proportion, and rhythmic construction, to which color provided a solid foundation. It appeared in the geometric structural space as horizontal, vertical, and diagonal visual tones, and in different paths that merged color with form, following this approach that transformed the geometric structure into a musical one. Gebran Tarazi’s works bring us back to the ‘Brethren of Purity,’ who considered that the science of music, as an examination and interpretation of sounds, maqams, and rhythms, was fundamentally based on mathematics. In fact, the ‘Brethren of Purity’ sought the essence of melodies as sounds inherent to nature on one hand and in harmony with the movement of stars on the other. Gebran Tarazi was interested in this kinetic and musical dimension in his works. His pinnacle was the creation of a mixed work that summarized his unique experience, composed of 25 mirrors, each being a grove, and capable of being altered in 24 different ways.

Gebran Tarazi spent a significant part of his childhood in Morocco. His father, Alfred Tarazi, had businesses there, notably in Casablanca and Rabat, in addition to his close relations with His Majesty King Mohammed V. Between 1952 and 1957, Gebran Tarazi studied at the Ecole des Frères de La Salle in Rabat, specializing later in law. We believe that these years of residence in Morocco, captured in his novel entitled: Le pressoir à olives, have left their impact on Gebran Tarazi’s consciousness. Indeed, they encapsulate, for the family of a great craftsman, the journey of trades and crafts between the Levant and the cities of the Maghreb, from Fes, Tlemcen, Kairouan, to Andalusia, where the testimonies of these places are still vivid and unshakeable, preserving within their walls the arts of glazing, arabesques, engraving, and marquetry, known in Spain as Damasquinado, due to its Damascene origin.

We mention this stage in the artist’s journey to also reference the extensive and connected geography that constitutes the Mediterranean basin, and what has settled between its shores or what it has produced throughout its long history of philosophies and spiritualties. Among these, the most significant is the philosophical and spiritual meaning that shaped the aesthetics of the square as singular, as well as support and a breeding ground, still visible and real in our ancient architecture. Therefore, Gebran Tarazi’s works do not seem foreign to our visual culture, as they remind us of what exists, as well as what could exist or emerge, if time had flowed from the past to the present, much like Gebran Tarazi’s works.


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