Rarely does an artist both excel at a medium and have her name synonymous with that medium, but such is the case for artist Haibat Balaa and her work in collage. With a career of more than four-decades in collage (as well as watercolor and oils), Mrs Haibat Balaa is an established artist in the medium in Lebanon and the Middle East. Both her work and the bar she has set have swayed fellow artists to promulgate her obvious influence, if they choose to work and exhibit in collage. Balaa’s oeuvre has explored collage’s historical, critical, artistic, cinematic and even architectural dimensions.
She is a pillar in the community, maintaining a full time position at the American University of Science and Technology, where she is also the Fine Arts Coordinator. Balaa graduated from the Lebanese American University in Beirut (which used to be Beirut University College), earning a B.A. in Fine Arts (painting and sculpture) in 1975. Balaa presented an assignment in collage, which her instructor Dr Adel Saghir immediately recognized as exceptional.
Haibat Balaa. At the Expo. 2017. Collage. Courtesy of the artist
The instructor encouraged her to explore the medium further, saying “you have something special in this media, and you have to proceed with it.” Her senior study would be in collage, prior to graduation. After that, she entered and won the first prize for painting at Makhoul Street Exhibition for two consecutive years - 1979 and 1980. Balaa would continue to exhibit, independently and collectively, throughout her career, both in Lebanon and abroad. She would also embark on teaching, including LAU and, until today, at AUST.
The artist's collages are mostly figurative, sometimes more realistic, and at other times more abstract. She has explored stories that are either familial or societal, for example, depicting a grandmother with her grandchildren, or young women as debutantes. Balaa has also explored subject matter that has social messages, like her intrigue for homeless people. She has displayed sensitivity in her approach of these different subjects and themes, feeling the responsibility of both, telling an important story and creating an enjoyable work of art.
Haibat Balaa. Bathers III. 2004. Collage. Courtest of the artist
The cinematic potential of collage emerges in Balaa's work, almost effortlessly. She exercises a level of control, evident in the realistic dimension of the collages; the accuracy of perspective, the believable scale and proportion of the figures, the qualities of space and depth and the level (or absence) of detail. This aspect of realism is coupled with the sensitive and yet powerful selection of colors, patterns and textures to achieve the fantastical. These opposing polar dimensions come together in the collages. Thus, the rigour in Balaa’s approach and technique gives her the freedom, as she says, to express herself best, “this is my medium and this is a medium in which I can express anything I like."
Collage, when explored sensitively and masterfully in this way, can even be melodic. Balaa’s Cutouts exhibition (2006) at Espace S.D. Beirut created what one visitor would call a “festive atmosphere”. This spectator said of her visit to the exhibition, “this time I saw something different in Balaa’s collages. [It was] as if they were all engaged in a very romantic, sensitive atmosphere.” Indeed, the escapist quality of the Cutouts collages were received warmly by the public. She continues, “it was very sensitive, very musical, I felt as if I was hearing sounds.”
Haibat Balaa. Debutante. 2017. Collage. Courtesy of the artist
Balaa almost fetishizes paper, and the other creative materials she works with. “What I love is paper, materials, textures,” she recounts. Balaa’s process of creating collage is time-consuming; she strives for perfection in what she is doing. “Sometimes, a piece of paper that I need to cut will take me one whole day before I find it.” This search for the perfect piece of paper illustrates how Balaa’s work process is much like a quest, an exploration. But as much as discovery and creativity are essential to the fine arts, a good composition is paramount to successful artwork. “I intend to compose a good structural design, and I take into consideration volume, color, color theory, matching colors next to each other, focal point and emphasis. All the design principles are to be studied.”
Balaa emphasizes the importance of composing a “well-structured painting or collage”. She is not the only professional who likens her work to structure. In 2010, Balaa exhibited her oil painting Clones of Collage at Galerie Alwane in Beirut. Balaa explains that, even in oil, her process is much like a building process. At the exhibition, an observer and architect, said to her, “You are building pieces to make one building structure, so it is a kind of architecture, what you are doing.”
Haibat Balaa. Candles in the wind. 2009. Oil on canvas. Courtesy of the artist
The status of collage as a fine art has not always been generally established in the Lebanese or Arab art community. Balaa is one of the few artists who has fought for the medium. Positive public reception and intrigue have helped elevate the status of collage, thanks to Balaa’s expertise and contribution. Indeed, in the span of her career, the artist has achieved several milestones including art production and prestige for her favorite medium, collage.
Haibat Balaa is currently working on a new series of collages which she aims to exhibit in 2020. She is the Fine Arts coordinator and teaching full time at the American University of Science and Technology.
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