Beautifying Beirut: Making art out of garbage

Beautifying Beirut: Making art out of garbage
Q&A: The once-neglected neighbourhood of Ouzai in Beirut has been transformed into a colourful artists' canvas by native Ayad Nasser, who hopes to inspire more grassroots projects in Lebanon.
6 min read
24 November, 2017
Beirut's colourful 'Ouzville' is the brainchild of entrepreneur and former resident Ayad Nasser [Jean-Claude Chinchere]

When you land at the Beirut airport, from the airplane window a view of colourful buildings stands out.

It's the neighbourhood of Ouzai, perched on the Beirut coastline. It has suffered neglect for years; the streets are dirty, the buildings are in ruin, and little had been done to try to promote its rehabilitation.

Until Ayad Nasser, self-made co-founder of Loft Investments who was brought up in Ouzai, returned to Lebanon and invested in the area by bringing artists to Ouzai to paint graffiti on the walls and create 'Ouzville'. Soon, the initiative caught-on and the streets became filled with colour.

In a country facing numerous challenges, this grassroots example aims to empower Lebanese citizens to start changing what they can themselves by beginning from their own streets and neighbourhoods.

The New Arab (TNA): Why did you chose to rehabilitate Ouzai, given that numerous areas in Beirut that are run-down, why there?

Ayad Naser (AN): I was not born with a silver spoon. I come from this area originally. For the past 40 years the government seems to have completely forgotten about it. I remember speaking to my son once and when he asked me what I did for a living, I realised I was not creating something with a lasting social impact.

Lebanon seemed like a child that has been abandoned by its parents with no one taking care of it. Perhaps in some ways it reflected how I had felt growing up during the war in Lebanon.

I wanted to launch a project for Lebanon, in a place where no one wanted to invest in or believed change could happen. I said to myself: "Why not fix this area?" I began in July 2016 to bring artists to paint the walls and draw graffiti. It was a way to relaunch the area and involve its residents in the process.

Lebanon's Ouzville  [Jean-Claude Chinchere] 

TNA: How was the initiative received in Ouzai, who supports it and who does not?

AN: While I consider the government ultimately responsible for the state of disarray of the area, I think the problem lies deeper. What is needed is change in the mentality of the people. Ouzville is a ground-up initiative, coming from the community.

The people who supported it understand that the aim is to beautify the area, an urban (area) neglected for years. I consider all the people who were involved to represent the real Lebanese citizens. It is true some have opposed it, either for their own greed or making untrue allegations that I am doing it to make a profit later as I also work in real estate.

TNA: Which artists have visited and painted in Ouzville so far? What do they say about the project?

AN: Many both local and international artists have visited and painted in Ouzville. Retna from the US, Ethos from Brazil, Nootk from Russia, Kamil Adra from France, Andrew Shouts from the US. From Lebanon we had Dima Boulad, Marie-Jo Ayoub and EPS among others. Retna had originally come to paint in another area of Beirut but when he saw Ouzai he insisted to paint here.

You can see and feel the change from on the ground on people's faces and attitudes. The initiative has given hope and the community is giving back by becoming proactive.

TNA: Where do you see Ouzville going in the future, can it truly change the mentality, fostering community-led change in the country?

AN: I believe it is already having an impact. You can see and feel the change from on the ground on people's faces and attitudes. The initiative has given hope and the community is giving back by becoming proactive. The local community in Ouzai is giving back by becoming more involved themselves in the upkeep of the graffiti and their neighbourhood.

They launched initiatives to clean-up both the areas around the shore and the streets. We can see the impact is spreading to other areas such as Dahiati, Barja and others.

I've founded a grassroots organisation called Lebnenewhich is aimed at all citizens, engaging them to bring about real change, working to become part of a new government that is lead by its involved citizens, decreasing corruption and self-interest.

Ayad Nasser [Jean-Claude Chinchere] 

TNA: What are the types of activities that take place in Ouzai that you have supported and how are they organised? Do you have anything planned for now?

AN: We have launched a beach clean-up since last year that takes place every two weeks that has proved very successful. What made it positive is that the young people from Ouzai participated, starting to care for their own streets, cleaning the way from plastic and garbage.

We have ran several graffiti painting days where artists from abroad and locally come to Ouzville and continue painting and decorating the walls with colourful images.

TNA: You have stated that you "love to break stereotypes", what makes this project different from others?

AN: My life has been difficult. But I was also extremely lucky and I realised early on that I could provide for myself and survive. With this awareness came my perspective on religion, while I am Shia by birth I simply consider myself a human being.

Here in Lebanon, where confessional ties are very important, I saw myself as not belonging to any one of them. I think it is this perspective that has shaped the initial phases of the Ouzville initiative and made it different, at least here in Lebanon.

Lebanese graffiti artist Batoul in Ouzville [Jean-Claude Chinchere]

TNA: What type of support do you receive from the local municipality for the project, are they content that you have launched 'Ouzville'?

AN: We led by example and this has resulted in the local municipality come to our support. The idea to pave the streets in Ouzai. We were thrilled to see that we were able to spread the positive change not only in Ouzai but in other areas in Lebanon. For example in Ras Beirut, a citizen-led initiative began to beautify neglected buildings that were located between modern and deluxe skyscrapers.

TNA: Right now, what is the most needed change you feel is needed both for the country and for the people and do you believe it will take place?

AN: Everyone is concerned now for the case of Hariri and the resulting instability of the country. I believe that at present we need a complete change: in our schools, universities, at home. A reform that will involve and engage religious figures of the different confessions to help unify the country.

Our motto should be for Lebanon to become the priority. This is why I launched Lebnene, only once we'll be able to do this, will we be able to achieve lasting and real change.

Ayad Nasser was speaking to Gaja Pellegrini-Bettoli for The New Arab.

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