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Éric Deniaud, director, performer, skilled puppet builder and manipulator, set designer, after graduating from the École Nationale Supérieure in Charleville-Mézières, has been involved in numerous artistic projects across Europe, Vietnam, Egypt, and Japan.
Since 1994, actively participating in various cultural and artistic initiatives in Lebanon, he decided to settle there in 2006, following the 33-day war. He founded the Kahraba Collective in Beirut with fellow artists, driven by the desire to create a meeting place that poetically questions the world beyond social classes, clan affiliations, political or religious beliefs, lifestyle choices, sexual orientations, and ethnic origins.
Since then, the Kahraba Collective's experience has ranged from creating and producing shows that circulate worldwide to organizing the international and itinerant festival 'Nehna wel Amar wel Jiran' and managing the Hammana Artist House—a residency and artistic research space with international programming.
As the co-author, along with Aurélien Zouki, of the performance 'Geology of a Fable,' which has been touring the world since 2015, entirely crafted with live-animated fresh clay, Éric discusses in the interview the Lebanese land and how this territory, a crucible of diverse communities with its fragilities and contradictions, influences and nourishes the collective's vision. It also delves into his personal artistic, poetic, and political daily gestures.
HOW DOES LEBANON CURRENTLY INFLUENCE AND NOURISH YOUR ARTISTIC EXPRESSION, ESPECIALLY DURING A TIME WHEN THE ECHOES OF WAR HAVE NOT YET FADED AWAY?
In fact, one could say that we find ourselves right in the midst of it once again...
The Collectif Kahraba originated from a encounter.
My first trips to Lebanon date back to the 1990s, long before I became a puppeteer.
The company was founded in 2006, shortly after the 33-day war in July of the same year, a period marked by a violent conflict with Israel.
The three founders*, who had been collaborating informally for some time, suddenly found themselves separated due to the conflict.
We realized, all of a sudden, that just when we were envisioning a same long-term aim, the current events could strip us of that opportunity.
Refusing to give in to that possibility, we decided to join forces and establish ourselves in Lebanon to create the company.
*Éric Deniaud, Aurélien Zouki, Rima Maroun, editor's note
Beirut South - August 14, 2006, ©Lalla-Ali
The Isthmus of Tehuantepec is home to a population engaged in pottery, and during a visit for the purchase of some personal items, I saw the image of a doll known in the isthmus as Tanguyu.
This made me think that the gods could be represented with that same clay, much like the Chinese Terracotta Army.
However, it was necessary that they not be heavy, so that students could easily carry the masks.
Thanks to my knowledge of papier-mâché, I envisioned creating interpretations of Mesoamerican cultures using masks made of papier-mâché and clay.
I also thought of using a clay-based makeup for the participants to paint their bodies, and cotton garments with decorations also made of papier-mâché and clay.
Beirut, typical scales of the Mar Mikhael neighborhood.
HOW DID THE "NEHNA WEL AMAR WEL JIRAN" FESTIVAL COME ABOUT?
The name of the festival translates to "Us, the Moon, and the Neighbours."
This festival was born in 2011 while we were living in Beirut, in a neighbourhood called Mar Mikhaël.
During that time, this neighbourhood, which was relatively popular, was undergoing significant gentrification, a phenomenon commonly observed in many cities around the world.
We had lived in this neighbourhood for nearly nine years, and the residents didn't really understand our work.
They would see us coming and going from our house with strange objects, leaving for one, two, or three days, and then returning.
They would hear sounds coming from our house because it was our rehearsal space.
When we told them we were doing puppet theatre, we invited them to come see us in Beirut, but no one would step forward.
On one hand, for the neighbourhood residents, going to the theatre was not a common practice, and it seemed intimidating.
On the other hand, most theatres were in another part of Beirut, mainly to the west, and despite the end of the civil war, there still existed an invisible barrier in collective memory that made crossing into these areas difficult.
©Collectif Kahraba, Festival Nehna Wel Amar Wel Jiran, Beirut
One day, tired of constantly hearing, "What are you doing?" we decided to take to the streets.
We brought our shows outside, including "Arabiyetna," one of the first we had created. Our house was on a street with a large staircase.
We set up there, presenting this show, a form that combined objects, puppets, and storytelling, inspired by Homer's Odyssey, and strongly influenced by our experiences with
Palestinians in the refugee camps.
We invited our neighbours, and we found ourselves with 200/300 people sitting in the middle of the street with us.
It was an extremely joyful and generous moment.
We realized we couldn't stop there.
The following year, we took our entire repertoire outdoors and engaged the entire neighbourhood.
©Collectif Kharaba, Festival Nehna Wel Amar Wel Jiran, Beirut
We asked our neighbor Georgette to lend us her garden to host a classical music concert.
Additionally, we used the rooftops of buildings, which had flat terraces, to create an artistic path.
About thirty people guided the audience through six different rooftops to witness various performances, some of which involved puppetry.
During a special edition of the festival, we interviewed some neighbours to collect their life stories in the neighbourhood.
We then created puppets and staged short shows that told the story of the neighbourhood.
This way, the audience, especially the residents, could discover local life through these puppet scenes.
Afterwards, they had the opportunity to meet the neighbourhood’s inhabitants, who themselves prepared meals for the audience.
©Olga Habre, Festival Nehna Wel Amar Wel Jiran, Beirut
The festival grew through our commitment together with local and international artists whom we progressively invited to contribute to the programming.
For us, this is a moment of collaboration with artists in various territories.
Currently, events primarily take place in Beirut and in Hammana, our village of residence.
However, the festival also extends to three other cities, which can vary, including Saïda, Hermel on the Syrian border, Tripoli, or Deir Al-Ahmar.
The festival has evolved alongside the company's history, acquiring a decentralized dimension.
In the last edition, we held a day in one of the Palestinian camps on the southern outskirts of Beirut, hosted by a group of women who shared their theatre with us.
Three of our shows were presented, and they came to perform their show with us.
This artistic circulation is fundamental in a fragmented territory, where communities often remain separate.
Living in a predominantly Christian village, we are aware of existing prejudices, particularly against Palestinians.
Suddenly proposing a show with eight Palestinian women in the heart of the village, in a school run by nuns, goes beyond political commitment.
For us, it is always an artistic perspective.
These women have a story to tell, without necessarily making a claim, which transforms the relationship between the audience, the artists, and the host inhabitants.
This is a crucial aspect of our approach.
©Olga Habre, Festival Nehna Wel Amar Wel Jiran, Beyrouth
Our priority is also to involve the inhabitants.
This year, we invited a Spanish choreographer to work on a show with 14 village women, mostly over 60 years old.
This involves introducing a new approach to the body, movement, and femininity in an extremely traditional village.
To better understand, imagine this Lebanese village as a small Italian village from the 1950s.
So, you can imagine what it means for these women to choose to perform in front of the entire village community and to try contemporary dance for the first time in their lives.
All these encounters, whether they involve amateurs or professionals, are of great importance.
This space is a place where we try to overcome divisions between different artistic practices.
Multidisciplinary work is essential, as it allows puppeteers to meet musicians, dancers, actors, writers, thus promoting mutual enrichment.
©Olga Habre, Festival Nehna Wel Amar Wel Jiran, Beirut
We have regularly hosted professional artists, such as the Spanish company Mal Pelo, accustomed to performing in venues like the Théâtre de la Ville in Paris.
For these artists, our festival represents much more than just a National Theatre.
It offers a true encounter with the audience, an authentic moment of life and hospitality, under the best conditions to present their work.
It is also their choice to adapt to our context to experience something different from what they might have in perfectly equipped theatres.
This experience is truly enriching.
We are fortunate to see that our space and the festival we created encourage both professional and amateur artists to look at each other differently, giving artistic practice a popular dimension.
CAN YOU TELL US ABOUT THE HAMMANA ARTIST HOUSE?
We began by creating a company and then embarked on tours throughout the country.
The creation of the festival came later, but we quickly realized the importance of having a dedicated workspace.
For years, we rehearsed in our living room, which, although spacious, was not a true rehearsal space.
It's essential to note that in Lebanon, and in Beirut in particular, there are currently only 3 or 4 venues that can be qualified as theatres, but they must be rented.
There is no public institution offering the opportunity to work properly or to benefit from artistic residencies.
This opportunity doesn't exist.
We've always dreamed of such a space, hoping that one day it would become possible for us and others to have a dedicated place for work and life.
©Collectif Kahraba - Hammana Artist House
In 2014, we were contacted by Robert Eid, who had left Lebanon shortly after the outbreak of the civil war in 1975.
Since then, he had been an expatriate constantly on the move, living in several countries, including France, Kuwait, Argentina, the UK, and Saudi Arabia.
Hammana, his mother's village, held a special place in his heart. He had recently acquired a large house in this village with the goal of developing a long-term cultural project aimed at revitalizing the region's tourism economy.
These regions were once popular destinations for Arab society, from Iraq to Egypt, attracted by the cooler mountain climate. However, periods of crises gradually led to the desertification of these villages.
Robert had the desire to breathe life back into Hammana through a cultural project that could stimulate the entire village, attracting visitors for reasons other than mere consumption.
We collaborated with him for three years to create a place of welcome and residence.
This space now allows local and international artists to work in optimal conditions while remaining connected to the local community, with a focus on the village and the surrounding region.
The house has been in existence for seven years and hosts a vibrant artistic life, integrating creation, professional and amateur training, and an annual program, both locally and internationally.
©Collectif Kahraba - Hammana Artist House
The house occupies 1700 square meters, with a courtyard of 700 square meters that transforms into an equipped theatre in the summer, providing the opportunity to have a real theatre with a stage measuring 10 meters by 12 meters and seating for 320 people.
This infrastructure enables the hosting of large-scale productions.
However, the international situation complicates travel for artists, especially young Lebanese, Syrians, and Palestinians living in Lebanon.
Obtaining visas to work in Europe is becoming increasingly complex, especially for young single men.
To overcome these challenges, we have explored alternatives that allow these artists to remain engaged in their work and to gradually develop their skills.
Inviting international artists to our territory is part of this approach, strengthening our connections with loyal companies and artists.
This approach also fosters the development of relationships with artists from the Middle East.
The project has exceeded our initial expectations and, in the current complex economic context, may have even taken on unexpected dimensions.
However, it endures and maintains connections with other residency places internationally, not just in Europe.
Our network also includes partnerships with venues in India.
This southern dimension is crucial, offering a perspective that challenges our own methods of theatre creation and thinking, often influenced by Western approaches.
©Collectif Kahraba - Hammana Artist House
Collaborating with these networks provides us with the opportunity to rethink our artistic practices, our target audience, and how we conceive our performances.
It requires ongoing effort to avoid falling into certain traps, especially in a region like the Middle East, where we are often exposed to Western influence and where it can be tempting to cater to foreign expectations rather than reflecting local concerns.
The Hammana Artist House is a private enterprise that receives no institutional assistance or public funding in Lebanon.
Currently, Lebanon is grappling with the absence of a President of the Republic and renewed conflict with Israel, which leads to a complete lack of attention toward culture, especially alternative initiatives like ours.
Our commitment to this place is based on collaboration with Robert, who covers approximately 20% of the house's costs, contributing to covering some of the expenses and salaries of permanent staff.
The rest of the funding comes from ongoing efforts to seek institutional partners and foreign foundations, depending on the program of activities.
©Collectif Kahraba - Hammana Artist House
IN THE PERFORMANCE "GEOLOGY OF A FABLE," CREATED BY YOU AND AURÉLIEN ZOUKI, ANIMATED FORMS COME TO LIFE DIRECTLY FROM THE CLAY MOLDED ON STAGE. CAN YOU TELL US ABOUT HOW YOU CAME UP WITH THE IDEA TO CREATE THIS SHOW AND WHAT CLAY REPRESENTS TO YOU FROM AN EXPRESSIVE STANDPOINT?
"Geology of a Fable" holds a significant place in my life, as it is a show that has been in existence for eight years.
Before delving into the artistic content, it is essential to mention the economic conditions. We were fortunate to create something that we initially envisioned to be performed only in Lebanon.
However, the show resonated exceptionally well, enabling us to sustain ourselves and contribute to our long-term commitments in this territory.
"Geology" was created in 2015. Aurélien and I had a desire to work with clay as our primary material, a substance dear to both of us.
Personally, it is the material I use, as do many puppeteers, to craft objects.
We believed that this extraordinary material deserved to be at the heart of our work.
Our initial inspiration came from the world of fables.
We read various fables, particularly those of La Fontaine, who holds a prominent place in French history.
However, we felt a certain weariness due to the moralistic dimension present in these fables. We concluded that it was not sufficient for our artistic approach.
Continuing our research, we discovered that La Fontaine, and others after him, drew inspiration from the work of Marie de France, who, in turn, drew elements from the writings of Aesop.
Within Arab civilization, there is a significant text called "Kalila wa Dimna," which occupies a prominent place in oral and written heritage, especially in poetry.
These texts trace their origins to an early Persian translation, which, in turn, is believed to have drawn elements from texts of Indian origin.
This lineage of texts extends over several millennia, dating back to nearly 5000 years ago.
©Collectif Kahraba - Origin of a Tale
This deeply touched us, much more than the fables themselves.
We realized that the power of word transmission, persisting for millennia across various territories to reach us, was a profound inspiration.
From there, it became evident that clay, the very earth, and its transformation were the most fitting metaphor to narrate this transmission of words.
What particularly struck us about fables was the need to go through the relationship with animals to express something of our humanity.
Being individuals very close to nature, the animal world played a significant role in this show.
We decided to represent it in a very unrestricted manner.
"Geology" contains something that deeply resonates with people, especially the act of witnessing animals or landscapes being created and constructed instantly, only to be deconstructed just as rapidly.
This force of construction and deconstruction serves as a powerful symbol of life and our passage on this earth. It appears to touch something very organic within the audience.
This on-stage approach fosters a joyful connection with the audience.
We have had the privilege of performing "Geology" more than 350 times, in many places across Europe, in Lebanon, Egypt, other Arab countries, Colombia, Spain, and so on.
In each performance, we observed that this raw material, symbolizing our shared territory, makes the possibility of gathering and meeting evident.
It is an exceptional gift of life, and we are truly grateful to be able to share it so generously every time.
©Éric Deniaud - Fossils, November 2023
WHAT ARE YOUR FUTURE PROJECTS?
In the long term, the vision is to make this mountain-rooted place sustainable.
Simultaneously, the Company is currently working on a new phase focused on decentralization, with the idea of creating a mobile space, an architecture that sits between a circus tent and a mobile theater, in collaboration with circus professionals, over the next three to four years.
The goal is to establish a cultural space that can reach the eastern part of the country, near Syria, where there are currently no cultural facilities.
This initiative aims to provide a workspace and performance space for local and international artists, with a focus on the local community, while expanding access to culture in regions particularly vulnerable to forms of intellectual radicalism, strongly influenced, among other things, by Hezbollah.
Although it is not the only political party in place, it exerts predominant influence by imposing a single way of thinking.
We firmly believe that artistic practice plays an essential role in diversifying thought and intellectual development, especially among young audiences.
However, this requires facilities that allow for long-term residencies.
That's why we envision this itinerant space, which will enable performances and audience engagement in these regions under the best possible conditions.
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