How art breathed life into a deserted mansion

She stood near a painting of Victor El Boustani, saying “take a photo of me near Papa.”
by Zeina Nasser English Zeina_w_Nasser

16 December 2017 | 13:56

Source: by Annahar

"Arts house light box" painting by Tom Young appears in the “Barouquetta” style mansion. (Photo by Mohamad Kleit)

BEIRUT: A beautiful deserted mansion, situated between pubs, restaurants, and other heritage buildings in Mar Mikhael, Beirut, was turned into an artistic hub on December 13, featuring a harmonious collaboration of four artists.

The exhibition is taking place until December 19, and painter Tom young, who tries to shed light on heritage buildings, is now collaborating with artists Noor Haydar, Karim Sakr, and Nadine Sures.

While attendees were focusing on paintings, photographs, and sculptures that strike their senses most, a lady walking gracefully stood near a photograph, reminiscing on years gone by. “Wow! Time has really passed,” she said, adding “I was a bride more than 40 years ago."

Then she stood near a painting of Victor El Boustani, asking for her picture to be taken "near Papa.”

That lady was Claude Kabbouche, daughter of pharmacist Victor and granddaughter of Salim Boustani, who built the house in 1873.

Claude Kabbouche, standing near a painting by Tom Young of her father Victor El Boustani. Boustani's alchemy materials are also preserved in the house. (Photo by Karim Sakr)

The “Barouquetta” style mansion, a hybrid Lebanese-Italianate style, was the latest target of artist Tom Young, who is well-known for his transformation of heritage mansions Villa Paradiso in Gemmayzeh and the Rose House in Manara.

In spring 2016, he worked on the Boustani’s house, with the project halted as a result of a "difference of opinion" with the previous owners. Without the participation of Young, an exhibition was held in June 2016, titled '7 Rooms 7 Artists.’ The house has remained empty ever since.

However, after Nabil and Zoe Debs bought the house in 2017 and transformed it into a second version of Beirut Arts Club; Young was invited back to hold an exhibition that showcases the building’s new life.

His art residency on the ground floor, along with artist Noor Haydar, was all about giving workshops for disadvantaged children (through UNHCR and Makhzoumi Foundation). The workshops were filmed by the BBC on December 4th, as part of their ‘Art Lover’s Guide’ to Beirut, to be broadcast next year.

In a cozy and eccentric setting, Young exhibits 30 paintings featuring the house, its adjoining garden, and the rapidly developing city which surrounds it; Haydar creates site-specific sculptural installations focusing on the themes of displacement and self-containment; Sakr produces a series of ‘superimposed’ photographs touching on the memory of the building’s former residents; and Sures gives an improvised performance based on archival imagery of events that took place in the house in 1963.

A percentage of the profits will go to the children who have come to the house.


In an interview with Annahar, Young talks about the difference between “In Residence” and all the other exhibitions he has done before. “The collaboration with other artists became a vital part of the process of making the exhibition,” he says, adding “I have often collaborated with other artists, or provided space for artists to make work and perform at my exhibitions, like at the Rose House and Villa Paradiso, but this time they were involved at a much earlier stage.”

“What makes this exhibition different is that he was invited back to the house by the new owners, Nabil and Zoe Debs, and given full freedom to explore the memory of the house; knowing that the owners genuinely care for the building, and wish to restore it,” he says.

This, he adds, has not always been the case with previous projects, where the future of the building is in doubt, urgent renovations are not carried out as they should be and sometimes attempts are made to erase the human memory of the building.

When he started working in the house in February 2016, Young discovered that the former owners had a plan to demolish most of the residence and build a road through it in order to reach two huge towers they intended to construct in the garden, so he left the project.

He explains how the exhibition of ‘foreign only’ artists went ahead in June 2016. It was called ‘7 Artists, 7 Rooms,’ but he took no part.

“They made lots of good repairs to the building, such as fixing window frames and installing some lighting. The house has remained empty ever since,” he says.

After learning that the new owners wished to preserve the house and its garden, Young was inspired by their vision, and they invited him back to the house to complete “unfinished business.”

“It’s a case of something unresolved suddenly becoming positive,” he expresses.

Painting La ville en Rose by Tom Young


When the painter meets the previous owners of the house, and they see his paintings of them, “it is an emotional process for us all,” he says.

Young, who seems to have his own way of storytelling, narrates the relationship between him, the old owners, and his paintings of them, “I thinks it means a lot to the previous owners, the descendants of Salim Habib Boustani who built the house in 1873, to have their history and memories honored in the exhibition.”

He then adds that “too much history is being erased in Beirut. This is traumatic and unhealthy. Even if the family doesn’t live in the house or own it anymore, their memories are important. Their lives and stories are part of the soul of Beirut.”

The Boustani family, however, has been very generous in showing Young old photos and film footage of the house over the years, particularly of Boustani’s granddaughter Claude Kabbouche, who grew up in the house, in addition to her wedding day preparations at the house in 1963. “They are such evocative images,” he mentions.

The Boustani house as it appears nowadays. (Photo by Tom Young)

“I painted a portrait of her on her wedding day in a house which used to stand in the garden; it was illegally demolished in 2010. I gave this portrait to her son Victor, because I feel it is personal and not for public display,” he mentions.

Victor has helped Young a lot with the history of the house. Furthermore, the British painter has re-painted a section of the wedding picture for the exhibition, which is just the lovely soft light coming through the window in the background on her wedding day, but he “omitted Claude herself because that part is private.”

Regarding the work of photographer Karim Sakr, Young says that “he has superimposed original photos of her wedding taken at the house in 1963 over the place as it is today; so you see the memory and the contemporary reality today.”

Adding that the performance artist Nadine Sures interpreted stories of past residents from the house on the beautiful top floor of the house, which he filmed and Sures edited as a video installation piece, projected onto textured walls in the exhibition.

“In this case, I think photography and performance are sometimes more appropriate mediums through which to mediate delicate memories,” he says.

A double exposure photo by Karim Sakr. 


Young explains that he is preserving the heritage house through his art by transforming these places into living centers of culture and creativity, which is a way to give them new value while respecting the past.

“By showing how they can be used, owners of such properties may be inspired to keep them rather than demolish them for personal profit,” he says, adding that “these artistic events are a way to bring a sense of community and togetherness to society, instead of modern developments which are soulless private compounds for the elite.”

Young’s passion towards heritage houses drives him to participate in renovating certain walls with old mural designs, protecting them from damp, at certain times.

In The Rose House and in the Boustani house, his wife Noor discovered beautiful wall designs and colors underneath more modern layers. “So we peeled back the layers and restored the wall as they were,” he says.

Researching and preserving the human memories of such precious places is a way to bring them alive for people, and particularly for children, since “they can identify with stories more than stones, and we need to preserve this magic for the future.”


Young says that “it [collaboration] is a great way to share inspiration and provoke new ways of working which one doesn’t see when alone.”

He adds that “some emotions are better expressed through different mediums, and this gives the exhibition more depth and richness.”

Masculine and feminine approaches in the exhibition are also important in this regard.

“So we have two men and two women. It’s also interesting to have a cultural mix; we have two Lebanese artists, one British, and one Canadian.”


Young has many videos showing the process his art goes through. For him, this is a way to document the process and keep an objective view of what he’s doing. It’s also a great way to communicate the story and process through digital and social media, which in turn spreads the word about the project, awareness of the issues involved, and brings it alive for people who can’t attend the actual event.

“The process of making a film while collaborating with filmmakers Charles Kassatly and Tony El Khoury, sound recordist Jad Kas, and British composer Rupert Egerton-Smith is enjoyable and inspiring,” he says.


Karim Sakr, a photographer whose works at the exhibition stand out, tells Annahar that this is the first time he exhibits in a heritage house but he has done many other exhibitions before, in Beirut, Istanbul, Mexico, and France.

His exhibited photos are part of three different series he worked on for this specific project. The first two are wedding shots of the granddaughter of Boustani.

Exhibition viewers can see a black and white photo, fusing with a colored one; a bride and her father happily standing on stairs, and fig trees blooming out of the colored phone, that kind of photos, according to Sakr, is called “double exposure” photos.

In an attempt to highlight the differences between these two eras separated by a gap of approximately 50 years, he proposed that type of photography to Young.

You can imagine what Mar Mikhayel Street was like back then, or you can check out Sakr’s photographs.

The second photograph series, taken with Nadine Sures posing, highlights the house's situation of abandonment. “The third series is more abstract,” Sakr says.

A photograph from Sakr's second series featuring Nadine Sures

Sakr says that taking photographs in heritage houses “is really special,” adding that he constantly gets amazed when comparing these two totally different eras, customs, habits, and even photography trends.

What he liked the most, though, was the appreciation the bride showed when she came and saw herself in his photographs.

Here, he stresses, that all work with the featured people, their stories, and memories, was done after getting their approval.

The street photographer sees that his work and Young's are complementary.

“That's what I like about it. Mine is maybe a bit more factual compared to Young's,” he says, thanking Young for having the faith and trust to work together.


In a room, in one of the mansion’s angles, a huge chandelier with hair in resin globes might surprise you. This installation, along with other drawings featuring hair, was created by Young’s wife, Noor.

For her, hair symbolizes a physical part of the self that people lose and regain; much like parts of their identity.

“It’s like a diary documenting time and experiences; hair can tell you so much of the loose history,” she explains, adding that hair has been widely used in art, especially during the minimalist era in the 1970's, which is where I draw my inspiration from, during the times of female artists such as Pierette Bloch, Eva Hesse and a contemporary artist named Mona Hatoum.”

Artist Noor Haydar standing near her artworks. (Photo by Tom Young)

She explains that hair for many women is an extension of their femininity according to social meanings, “and losing it, at least personally, made me question my initial feeling of discomfort toward that.”

Having moved around so much as a child somehow created her obsession with collecting and trying to hold on to the bits of the physical self in a mobile upbringing, she mentions.

“Provoking a feeling of beauty and repulsion in the works, is my way to bring humor to an otherwise distressing issue,” she adds.

"Constellation" by artist Noor Haydar. (Photo by Mohamad Kleit)

She sees that the exhibition is a collective and individual response to the house and the cityscape surrounding it, and that the rapid change creates a sense of urgency for containing memories.

“The textured walls of the kitchen are already an art piece, which is why I have chosen to install artworks that complement the existing mood.” Another reason why she chose the kitchen is that “it is the most intimate space to hang out in at a house party.”

When a house is uninhabited by humans, it is certainly taken over by smaller creatures, hence the copper web in the corner, she says while referring to another mini-installation she made.

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