It seems plenty of people were willing to brave traveling off the beaten track to reach the Potter’s Festival held at Bkerzay in the Chouf at the weekend. Gathering the crowd together, the man behind the project kept his message short and sweet. “Bkerzay welcomes you and hopefully it will be the start of a journey.”
In fact, the journey began back in 2008 when Ramzi Salman acquired land and started developing the concept of Bkerzay little by little, launching the name last year.
Nurturing craftsmen and women by providing them the opportunities to use and teach their skills is one of the stated goals of Bkerzay, but the organization also wants to preserve village traditions by promoting their crafts and produce.
“The idea is a preservation project, preserving not only nature but the people, the crafts … we promote them,” Salman said, listing the soap, zaatar, olive oil and honey – they have their own bees – that can already be found at Bkerzay. All are locally sourced and crafted.
Marianne Geadah, the organization’s manager, put together the weekend event with the aim of celebrating and reviving pottery – a dying art in Lebanon.
“[We have] such amazing artists and no one ever knows about them, so I decided to invite all of them to come exhibit,” she said, speaking of the 18 artists, mostly Lebanese, who had set up tables of their work in the Bkerzay atelier.
With stunning views of the Chouf and nearby Baaqlin, Bkerzay is “a little piece of paradise,” according to Geadah.
Moved indoors over weather concerns, the space itself was beautifully crafted. Wooden tables displayed the artists’ works – among them cups, bowls, puppets and figurines, all made of clay; some patterned, some plain, some a kaleidoscope of colors, others solid attractive shades – and were tended by the artists themselves.
The potters at the event either knew of Bkerzay prior to the event or had been tracked down and contacted by Geadah. Dana Barchini, standing beside her table filled with intricately cracked and colorful glazed pieces, told The Daily Star about the difficulties faced by artisans in the country.
“I got this [pottery] from my father, my father is a ceramist,” she said. “It’s not very easy. Our government doesn’t help craftsman, doesn’t promote them, doesn’t give them facilities.
“I have everything in my workshop, I have the clay, I do the glazing myself, I try to mix them, I try to do everything. But it’s not easy for potters in Lebanon.”
Nada Zeineh, better known for her jewelry, offered a similar viewpoint. “There is no support for anything, as a citizen there is no support for anything in any field, you just have to do it on your own.”
This, she said, is one of the reasons that Bkerzay is so special, a place where people can come together and show their work.
Standing beside her own pieces, glazed white with delicate blue floral patterns, Zeineh explained her own passion for creating pottery.
“I started working with pottery a long time ago,” she said.
I used to do my jewelry … in the beginning with clay, because I loved clay. I love working with this material, it’s a very voluptuous material, and it’s really something where you can forget yourself.
“It’s very sensual.”
One thing that is essential, Salman argues, is the artistic element. “We found out that in order to make the crafts live you need to marry them with art. For example pottery: by putting a craftsman with an artist you get a renewal.”
Michel al-Bacha, who first came across pottery in an American University of Beirut class back in 2004, spoke about the process of creating each unique piece.
“Sometimes you start making something then you switch to a different idea. You know it’s very important to see the small details; when you start seeing small details this is art,” he said.
Some of the most eye-catching work at the event was that of Maha Nasrallah, an architect who spends one day a week creating her collection and helping out at Bkerzay. In front of her were clay-headed puppets and grotesque figurines. Asked to explain her work she began in earnest:
“I wanted to do a whole set of toys with clay. I started with these puppets and for the others, it’s like partly wanting to get revenge on men, making them vulnerable, cutting their heads,” she said, before breaking into a peal of infectious laughter. “No I am someone who likes playing with the body, playing with clay.”
Maha is one of Bkerzay’s two potters. Their master potter and the artist behind the larger pieces lining the walls is Ahmad Deif, an Egyptian who learned the craft in his village back home and came to Lebanon to pursue it full time.
Bkerzay also runs a pottery school. The cost of lessons ranges from $16-25 an hour depending on whether you book a one-off session or a course.
While pottery was the focus of this event, Bkerzay has ambitions to expand its current scope.
The organization is also looking to build a small eco-village, which will include guest houses for artists and interested persons to come and stay, along with a concept store/restaurant in Beirut. Bkerzay already has guided hiking trails in place, and plans to build a permanent exhibition on the site.
The Potter’s Festival, held over Saturday and Sunday, was a welcome introduction to the skills and work of so many talented craftsmen.
If the enthusiasm of the crowd at the event is an indicator, then the renewal that Bkerzay hopes to nurture will be made that much easier by the strong market for traditional handcrafted items in Lebanon.
Source: The Daily Star - Lebanon