How can urban art transform a neighborhood and its population?
The Ouzville project in a southern suburb of Beirut explores this question, inviting local and international artists to paint the walls of an area whose maintenance had been overlooked by the city. The suburb Ouzaï, known in the 1930s as a seaside resort, was later built up in DIY fashion by refugees fleeing from the south of Lebanon.
Before founder Ayad Nasser started the Ouzville mural project in 2017, it was hard for most Lebanese to imagine that poverty-stricken Ouzaï could be revived as a tourist destination. Born in Ouzaï, Nasser moved with his mother as a child from Lebanon to France. On returning to his birth city years later, he saw the coastal neighborhood’s potential.
“It’s the poster for Beirut. When airplanes arrive, the façades of Ouzaï are the first thing they see,” Nasser told ArchiExpo e-Magazine during a dinner in Beirut.
Two years ago, with his wife, curator Victoria Latysheva, they began inviting international artists to paint murals in the deteriorating suburb.
“They started working with foreign artists because at first, local artists were afraid to be associated with the prejudice of Ouzaï as a dangerous area, or the Hezbollah political party that is strongly present there,” said Ouzville collaborator Pia Abboud on a tour of the neighborhood.
The time artists like Peruvian Sef.01 and Brazilian Claudio Ethos have spent in Ouzaï as they complete their works has given them the opportunity to get to know the residents.
“My experience interacting with the inhabitants was built during the days I was working on the wall,” Ethos told ArchiExpo e-magazine in an interview. “People were very open to receiving us, but few spoke English. There was always one English speaker from the neighborhood translating people’s feedback. I painted all day surrounded by kids.”
Such interactions have so far revealed two artists from the neighborhood and involved them in the project. The presence of foreign artists paved the way for well-known Lebanese artists from outside the neighborhood as well, including Beirut local Ashekman.
In 2018, Abboud, CEO of the locally based tour company Discovery Beyond Borders became involved with Ouzville when she contacted Nasser about bringing tour groups there. She has since taken on the responsibility of working with neighborhood children to paint walls and clean up litter. According to Abboud, it was challenging to get the municipality to send in garbage trucks regularly, but the artwork made them pay attention to a neighborhood they had long neglected.
“The municipality has put in trash cans, and they pass with garbage trucks from time to time. That’s all. But it’s a start,” said Abboud. In the meantime, local non-profits Recycle Lebanon, Green Environment Movement (GEM) and Makhzoumi Foundation help with trash pickup.
While not all of the neighborhood’s residents embrace the project, most view the change as positive. Some have even begun inviting visitors into their houses for a drink or a home-cooked meal. The attraction created by the murals has even made way for a hip-looking burger joint Ouz Burger, locally owned and operated.
There are still many needed improvements to infrastructure and building maintenance, but the artwork by internationally renowned artists seems to mark a turning point.