King of Tyre’s quest for Europa retold along Corniche
Artist will illustrate legend of the alphabet on 76 benches
Special to The Daily Star
As she speaks, she switches from metaphysics to geology effortlessly. One moment, she is naming off every icon of the Christian hierarchy. The next, she is breaking down the etymological root of Greek-derived terms and describing the methodological difference between fresco and fresco secco. Lena Kelekian’s passionate commitment to icon and mural paintings has manifested itself in churches, permanent displays and outdoor projects around the world over the past 12 years. Her latest endeavor, under the patronage of the Municipality of Beirut, is along the Corniche in Ain al-Mreisseh. Kelekian speaks with contagious enthusiasm about the project as she sits by the sea on the first installment of her project – the uniquely decoratedbench on the Corniche across the Hard Rock Cafe covered in colorful cut-ceramic pieces. It represents the legendary King Agenor of Tyre. A year ago, Kelekian proposed – and gained approval from the Municipality of Beirut – for the Ain al-Mreisseh Corniche Waterfront-Avenue de Paris bench project. Municipal council members Mohammed Kheir al-Kadi,Attorney Rachid Jalkh, Hajj Amin Sherny and Roulla W. al-Ajouz Sidani make up the steering committee for the Corniche project. Since then, "the project of embellishing the Corniche … has become the focus of everybody’s attention," says Beirut Mayor Abdul Monaem al-Aris. While the 2.5 kilometer project – which extends from the Phoenicia Inter-Continental Hotel area to the Bain Militaire – is an ambitious one, it only adds to Kelekian’s accomplishments, which range from honorary degrees to La Toile d’Or in France and the Sixteen Rayed Star of Macedonia in Greece. "What we need is color.We need to give life to this city," she says. "There is now only cement everywhere. "With this project, I want to put Beirut on the map the way Gaudi put Barcelona on the map," she says, referring to the famous Catalan architect Antoni Gaudi, whose environmental designs and use of cut ceramics inspired Kelekian’s design for the project.
Kelekian’s degrees in Geology and Theology aside, there is an almost ethereal dimension to her level of artistic passion. Her boisterous personality is imbued with a joie de vivre. Kelekian’s passion for color seems to be driven by a strong spiritual conviction. "I take the colors from the earth that God has created and I give them back to Him in His image," she says. The beautification of the Corniche will see the transformation of every one of the old cement benches – 76 in all. Collectively, they will tell the story of the legend of Cadmos and Europa. There are different versions of the fable, Kelekian’s – approved by the Municipality of Beirut – is based on the Phoenician version. In the legend, King Agenor of Tyre sends Cadmos to bring back his captured daughter, Europa, from Crete, where Zeus held her imprisoned by a dragon. In the process of saving his sister, Cadmos propagates the Phoenician alphabet to the rest of the world. "Cadmos and Europa is, after all, the legend of our land," Kelekian asserts.The story will be told in color, reminding visitors that Beirut is the "faithful guardian of Arab culture," wrote Roula al-Ajouz, project coordinator and Beirut municipal council member. "This is the only place where people can come and walk," Kelekian says. "I wanted an outlet that’s beautiful for all people. The underprivileged don’t have chalets … they have no place to breath but here, it is for everybody. "I want to make Ain al- Mreisseh an attraction for people to come and get away from their monotonous life." The project is both entertaining and educational. Each bench includes didactic details, such as the incorporation of the alphabet into the designs. The letters represent four of the languages – Phoenician, Greek, Latin and Arabic – that have passed through the area. The benches will also include chess and backgammon boards, adding to the outdoor cafe feel. Finally, the story of Cadmos and Europa will be narrated in its entirety in both English and Arabic along the AUB beach front wall.While the municipality happily takes the project under its wings, the cost of materials for the project must be donated. With their names baked onto the ceramic design of the sponsored bench, Kelekian hopes that interested families or corporate sponsors will be willing to pay the $5,000 sponsoring fee per small bench, and $10,000 for a big bench. The project is expected to be launched at a gala next month, where Kelekian and the council hope to raise the needed funds. Once the $420,000 funding is raised, the project is expected to be completed within two years. On a Sunday evening, many of the Corniche regulars are already gathered around Kelekian’s completed bench, enjoying time with their families and smoking nargilehs. A man approaches and listens patiently, then states his opinion about the embellishment project. "If I could, I would sponsor all the benches,but I can’t afford even my own living," says Mohammed Sirhan, who supports his seven children selling coffee on the Corniche every evening. Another passerby agrees: "I would gladly pay that and more to have the names of my children placed on the bench, but I just don’t have that kind of budget," she says, there with her husband and seven children. Meanwhile, plans abound with great hopes of realizing the project in the near future. A huge chessboard – 12 by 12 meters wide – painted flush at the widest section of the Corniche, near that same bench, is also intended to be included as part of the project. While not intending to sponsor one of the benches herself, 22-year-old Lebanese University student Samar Ghattis says Kelekian’s bench is where she meets her friend for coffee every Saturday. "It’s my favorite place to sit because of the view," she says. "The cost is not expensive. It’s well worth it if it means beautifying the city."