Fantasmic Objects: On the Possibilities of Art Anthropology

Rand Chmaitilly and Rawan Hammoud

“This book is an unfinished project with holes for breathing,
said Kirsten Scheid about her book Fantasmic Objects in a book discussion in March 2023, organized by the Asfari Institute for Civil Society and Citizenship.

Fantasmic Objects: Art and Sociality from Lebanon, 1920-1950, is the product of thirty years of research that Scheid did between 1993 and 2022. It’s a book that explores the history of art in a place that is often considered to lack art; she wanted to be attentive to the practice of “no art”. She followed three main artists, Moustapha Farrouk, Omar Onsi, and Saloua Raouda Choucair, as well as the social world that exists around their art. Scheid is not only attentive to how these artists speak of their art but also to the ways in which the audience receives it – she follows the life of artworks. The question of exchange was – and is – an important one in the creation process of this book; the willingness to receive but also learn from and think with people on their terms, and then give back.

The book cover itself was given to Scheid as a gift by Walid Raad, and this gift is in turn circulating with the book: it is a gift to all of us. “So what do we do with it?” is a question that Scheid puts forward at the end of her book. Similarly, Raouda Choucair’s sculpture, which Scheid discusses in the book, was a gift to Beirut. Scheid describes the unveiling of the installation as that of a bride. The sculpture, like many of Saloua Raouda’s other artworks, is a combination of different pieces put together, forming a whole.

There are different ways to put the pieces together, and in that process, there is space for imagination or takhayyol. One starts with a soura that one has in mind, and can then imagine the different ways of putting the pieces together. A short video of Raouda was displayed during the discussion, where she says: “L faraghat btelaab maa baaed la taamel lahen” (there is an interplay of holes that form a melody), This speaks not only to her sculptures but also to the answers that Scheid received during her research on art in Lebanon: “There is no art here.” This hole, of no art, started to look like a kind of art, according to Scheid. She saw absence as a presence; what do we do with the practice of no art?

The book itself seems to have holes, as it catalogs “the fantasmic and the unfinished” (Scheid, during the discussion). It is fantasmic because it has the ability to trigger tasawwor; it invites you to imagine. The book has the capacity for growth, just like Saloua Raouda’s sculpture. Here we quote from Scheid’s book: “This book spotlights fantasmic art for an“ alternate anthropology of Lebanon ”. To start with, art contributes to an anthropology of dreams, aspirations, and imagination, saluting people not simply where they are but where they might go”. (p.16)

For us – people aspiring to become anthropologists – Scheid’s ideas allow us to go beyond what is already there. She did indeed teach us an anthropology of dreams, an anthropology that allows one to see what is not yet visible, drawing new connections and seeing the world otherwise.

“Everything living grows”, said Saloua Raouda Choucair in the video that was displayed. This book, just as the artworks that Scheid follows, has a life and allows us to go to places that don’t exist yet. Art has its world, and so does this book and its cover; it will grow through continuous novel interactions. Now that we have accepted this gift, what do we do with it?

How do we give back to art? How does it shape us, and how do we shape it? These are the kinds of questions that Scheid’s book invites us to think about.

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