A towering sculpture greets visitors at the entrance of Rachana, a small village overlooking the Mediterranean in northern Lebanon’s Batroun district. As visitors move inside, tens of stone sculptures of different sizes line the walkways and others decorate gardens and the church yard.
The legacy of the Basbous brothers, the pioneers of Lebanese modern sculpture, is present everywhere, earning Rachana its fame as the country’s open-air art museum.
The Basbous brothers — Michel, Alfred and Youssef — turned their native village into a cultural hub through artworks robust enough to be displayed outdoors year-round. The works of Michel and Alfred Basbous are also displayed in indoor museums, properties of the Michel Basbous (1921-81) and Alfred Basbous (1924-2006) foundations, which are run by their sons, Anachar and Fadi, respectively.
“The idea of transforming Rachana into an open-air museum came after Michel had returned from Paris where he studied fine arts in 1954,” said Anachar, whose name is “Rachana” spelt backward. “He decided to settle in Rachana, not in Beirut, and thought: ‘I should transform this beautiful village into a sculpture museum’.”
“Rachana reached its climax in the 1960s as it was a hub for the Lebanese cultural renaissance. In fact, Michel Basbous placed Rachana in the heart of the cultural movement in Lebanon,” Anachar said.
Students and art lovers come to see the brothers’ sculptures in the place they created 60 years ago. The three brothers introduced a modern and abstract vision of sculpture at a time when Middle Eastern sculptures were mainly classical portraits.
More than 40 monumental marble and granite sculptures are exhibited in the garden of Michel Basbous’s home alongside his free-form house-atelier. The inner museum gathers smaller sculptures in granite, bronze and wood, along with a few charcoal drawings.
“The garden was his atelier for the big sculptures that are still standing in the same place where he had sculpted them. He has produced a lot. It is a big heritage that we are trying to preserve by personal effort without any support from the Ministry of Culture,” said Anachar, who is also a sculptor.
Michel Basbous’s artworks are displayed in many museums around the world, including the Musée d’Art Moderne de Paris, Hakone Open- Air Museum in Japan, where he has two sculptures sitting next to works by artists such as Henry Moore and Pablo Picasso. The British Museum lately acquired four Michel Basbous drawings in black and white and the Guggenheim Museum in New York is interested in acquiring some of his pieces.
Michel Basbous is credited for initiating his two younger brothers to the art of carving the stone, metal and wood, making the trio a reference in the sculptural world.
The nearby Alfred Basbous Foundation is filled with sculptures. Granite, marble, wood and bronze pieces are placed in a spacious well-lit, white room. Although some of his early sculptures depicted animals, Alfred Basbous was passionate in the forms of the human body, especially feminine curves.
“A lot of his sculptures portrayed the woman — the mother, the lover, the sensual and voluptuous. He represented the woman with minimum details. He was an avant-garde in minimalistic abstraction,” said Alfred Basbous’s son Fadi.
The monumental works of Alfred Basbous are in public areas in Beirut and many other Lebanese cities. When Michel Basbous died in 1981, Alfred Basbous collaborated with Youssef to promote Rachana and cultivate the family heritage. From 1994-2005, they organised the International Symposium of Sculpture during which famous sculptors from around the world were invited to create, sculpt and exhibit their works with those of the Basbous brothers at the sight of tourists and art lovers.
More than 70 well-known Arab and foreign sculptors participated in the Rachana symposium over 11 years. Their works are displayed permanently in the village’s International Park of Sculpture, which earned Rachana the UNESCO title of “Global Village of Outdoor Sculpture” in 1997.
“The artists used to spend three weeks in Rachana where they did their sculptures. Alfred wanted to gather the world’s artists in this small village… He wanted to place Rachana on the international art map,” Fadi said.
Both Anachar and Fadi said they hope to instil a new dynamism to boost the cultural movement created by their fathers in Rachana decades ago. While the latter is setting up a delineated outdoor space to exhibit the art works of his father and international artists, the former is organising a land art festival.
“From July 1-8, groups of students from several universities will be working on art projects and installations, using materials that exist on site,” Anachar said. “Each chose a spot in the village where they will implement their project. It could be in the valley, in the wood or on the hill.”
“It will be the first time that such a concept is implemented in the region. Here the plus to art will be nature and the ecology.”
Samar Kadi is the Arab Weekly society and travel section editor.