“It’s 1975, Lebanon is in flames and I am fifteen. For my birthday, I receive the empty sleeve of a mortar shell.”
Every Lebanese of a certain generation knows the sound a mortar being fired. The launch: a blast. The approach: a whistle. Explosion upon impact. The aftermath: silence, sickening silence, then human and ambulance shrieks. And when all is over, the shell lies on the rubble, making no noise. It does not need to. It has fulfilled its murderous destiny; mortars are built for men to make war.
Katya Traboulsi’s macabre birthday present was placed on a shelf in her bedroom, as though it were a trophy for a school project. It would haunt the young girl for decades. By the time the Lebanese civil war had ended, Katya was thirty years old. She prayed never to have to hear that sound again, and that her children would never know it.
But the bombs just fell elsewhere, and other children heard them. They never stop, she realized. Is this human nature then? Will we always make war? Can identities never change?
Katya could not accept that statement. She was a humanist and an artist; she believed in life and beauty and hope, and that the world could change for the better.
Identities are not set in stone, or steel, and she decided to prove it. She took that hollow mortar shell that had only ever served death, and transformed it into an intricate, ornate vessel: now it would be a work of art.
Katya would transform forty-six bombshells in all, clothing them with patterns, beads, and colours, building sculptural forms and symbols to represent the world’s different cultures.
One mortar reflects Afghanistan, the other Yemen. Portugal, the Philippines. Ethiopia, China, Brazil, Australia, Sierra Leone, the United States. Spain, Peru, Syria, Thailand, Vietnam… forty-six countries in all, each with an iconography that portrays one of infinite identities. All supremely beautiful, each unique.
“The shell becomes ‘Book’, an inventory of myths, of traditions of embodied know-how, and invites the discovery of the other. Its deadly one-way trajectory becomes an exchange.”
Katya’s installation, ‘Perpetual Identities’, is now on display and invites the viewer to reflect on what defines identity: nationality, religion, geography, perception shaped by history, education, and bias.
The visually painful tension between the shape of these horrific objects and the art created on them drives the message home even more poignantly:
If a mortar no longer sows death and destruction, is it still a mortar then?
Katya says it is not, and that war is not inevitable unless we choose it to be. We can decide what sounds we want our children to hear and what world we want them to see. Katya Traboulsi is a woman is building peace and beauty in the world.
Katya’s work exhibited at the Saleh Barakat Gallery in Lebanon but you can explore her brilliant work ‘Perpetual Identities’ work by following her on social media:
Do you like this story? Read this and more in WS’ special edition, ArtScapes | Vol. 01