Paper remembers, like skin. I have a scar on my right arm. It used to be between my hand and the inside of my wrist. When I was two years old, I broke a family heirloom vase that belonged to my mother. With time, the scar expanded and travelled up to the middle of my forearm. I am currently based in a city that suffered a recent explosion, and I read about the collective and individual memories and reflect on our local situation. We still see obvious remnants from current and past violence all across the city of Beirut. When I look at the scarred buildings, I can hear the muffled sounds of what had caused this. Most of us living here are startled by any loud sound nearby, like a thud or a passing aeroplane. When I work, I look at paper tears and cannot help but see them as scars. Tears holding memory. By definition, tears are separations in a flexible material. (Just like my scar…) They can also be maps through which the objects tell their stories. Synonyms for the active verb to tear include to rip up – pull apart – shred – split – cut – slash – slit… Sometimes these processes can be satisfying, while in other force majeure cases – they are not.
‘Just after 6 p.m. local time (15.00 UTC) on August 4, 2020, more than 2,750 tons worth of unsafely stored ammonium nitrate exploded in Lebanon’s port city of Beirut, killing around 200 people, making more than 300,000 temporarily homeless, and leaving a 140-metre-diameter crater in its wake. The blast is considered one of the most powerful non-nuclear, human-made explosions in human history.’Science Daily
Paper and glass shrapnel
After the explosion, torn pieces of artwork were found in the midst of the rubble in the ravaged home of a dear friend in Beirut. Back when I lived in Japan (2005–2012) and made washi, or local handmade paper, I could never have imagined that one day I would be using some of my own handmade sheets in restoration work, to heal punctured and totally devastated paper. I had lived in Japan for seven years, four of which I spent in a village where papermaking had been transmitted through generations. My paper studies started in the land where mulberry trees are planted and harvested, while I was also learning the language and exploring the shapes of Japanese calligraphy. I applied them to paper in layers using printmaking methods.1 My background was in graphic design, and I considered handmade paper an active element in the artwork I was creating rather than just a blank support. This is also why I delved into watermarking techniques and mixed some of the modern printmaking methods with traditional papermaking techniques to create tailormade watermarking. For the following three years, I studied in Tokyo, researching a local resin called Japan or Urushi, which is also used in the restoration of broken ceramics. After I received my PhD from the Tokyo University of Arts, I came back to Lebanon. Over the last ten years, until February 2022, I taught both papermaking and printmaking courses to design and architecture students at three universities – all three simultaneously.
The whole process of making paper from the tree in Japan took a long time to learn, as the actual process is very close to nature. Papermaking incorporates the four seasons into its process. The planted tree saplings are thinned (mabiki) and nipped (mekaki) from a young age. From the tree trunk , you nip out what is growing sideways and the many buds preparing to grow out. The idea is to try to reduce the branching by leaving the buds that are likely to grow into strong and firm branches. This also ensures that the trimmed sapling shrub will grow straighter and eventually become a thicker tree.
Kozo-gami or mulberry paper is made of three main elements: the kozo fibre (which is peeled off the inner bark of a species of mulberry tree); neri (which is derived from the roots of a plant and, among other things, makes for a thicker and more homogenous fibre mixture within the vat); and water. Without these three elements and their inherent characteristics, one of the sturdiest and longest-lasting types of paper cannot be made in the traditional way. Washi is proven to last for more than 2,000 years when stored under the right conditions. This process leaves zero waste material behind. The paper is pressed under piles of snow both to detoxify and to make sure the sheets are ready to be dried on boards. The fibres are also snow-bleached, allowing the whitening process to happen naturally without the use of any additional chemicals. Each papermaking workshop has its own way of adapting to its natural environment… So in places where it does not snow but there are rivers, the bleaching happens along the river water instead.
Neri, the juice of the plant tororo-aoi, is an invaluable asset to the process of making washi paper. It actually is the ‘secret’ behind the entire papermaking process. The extracted neri is perishable, so papermaking is done in winter, when the temperature is low. My fingers froze, as I am used to warmer temperatures – but the rhythm of making paper kept me going while superimposing sheets of wet fibre one on top of the other. Neri is also the reason why the superimposed sheets do not stick to each other.
The papermaking process requires an intense amount of effort, and this is why this type of handmade paper is expensive and valuable. Each step is closely tied to the previous one. Meticulous attention to detail makes washi one of the most effective and durable types of paper currently available for restoration work.
Using handmade paper
When tragedy hit Beirut, there was a communal response of people wanting to help each other. Local galleries eventually reached out to me with paper-based artwork that had been damaged by broken glass penetrating into the surface of the artwork. Other works also started showing up with mould and acidity, which were not necessarily damaged in the explosion, but which were also in dire need of conservation treatment. There were multiple types of damage, some of them challenging.
At that stage, drawing on my previous knowledge and using all I knew to help preserve local heritage was all that made sense to me. And this brings me to how I was introduced to Rachel Barker and Melissa Lewis who work in London at Rachel Barker Associates (RBA).
How we met
I first met Carla Salem in August of 2020. Our company, Rachel Barker Associates, wanted to reach out to conservators in Beirut to assist them with the devastation left by the port explosion. The area affected was the old port, which is also the art district, where many of the museums are concentrated. We knew there would be ramifications for cultural heritage.
Over the years, Rachel Barker has worked closely with Saloua Raouda Choucair (1916–2017), one of the most prominent artists in the Middle East, and is still in touch with her daughter Hala. Hala, in turn, introduced us to Carla. When Hala was holding an exhibition in 2016, Carla helped design one of her books; she is trained in archival papermaking and in areas of bookmaking. Carla is also an artist working on paper. For Carla, the need to restore is strong, and it was a natural step to begin repairing paper artwork. This impulse is particularly understandable given that Carla lives in Beirut, an environment in continuous flux of unsettlement, destruction, and change.
Creating opportunities for conservation training
There are no institutions that provide formal conservation training in Beirut. Some small museum departments are fortunate enough to have staff trained abroad, and skills are passed down from person to person.
Conservators in Beirut were struggling with the aftermath of the explosion and clearly needed outside help. We wanted to offer support, but we were also keen to help conservators help themselves. We wanted to arm them with information so they could do the work themselves and build their own skills. At the time, we were limited to collaborating online, as travel wasn’t possible and Covid was very prevalent in the UK and the Lebanon. We collaborated with BeMA (Beirut Museum of Modern Art), introducing an online programme. They have now developed these beginnings into something more substantial. The focus was on paintings, and paper has been somewhat overshadowed.
In general, I have found that paper conservation is a less acknowledged skill than paintings conservation in countries that do not have a large community of conservators. I have seen this, for example, during projects carried out in Afghanistan and India. The desire to preserve and conserve can be marked in such environments, but absence of resources can often mean that artworks on paper aren’t seen as a separate area of specialism. This gaping hole can result in framers taking on the repair of works on paper. We discussed this with Carla, as she has experienced the same in the Lebanon. I began to wonder how I could best help her, considering our constraints. I run a busy studio and don’t have the money or time to visit Beirut in person on a regular basis. So, for me, the most practical way to help was to be a mentor, staying in regular contact by video or by phone. I have been very fortunate to train in private studios with very experienced conservators, study at Camberwell, meet many colleagues, be part of organisations and groups, and spend a long time working in a major museum with colleagues at the height of their careers. I have always had someone to consult if I needed advice or wanted to air my conservation treatment ideas. I wanted to help Carla in the same way as my mentors had helped me.
Beirut struggles to provide the basic utilities that we in the UK consider normal. The electricity grid does not work all hours of the day; everyone uses generators. There are often water shortages and, of course, internet blackouts. I would like to create a more sustainable and regenerative practice for the future, and I see my motives justified by what is happening in the Lebanon today. For example, mass migration, power outages and relying on generators, and huge financial disparities. These challenges are immediate and day-to-day and have a long-term impact on the safety of artworks.
Carla, who has studied papermaking for seven years in Japan, is also researching getting local papermakers to produce archival paper. Because she has this rare insight and in-depth knowledge, she is also looking at local plants to replace the ones used in Japanese paper manufacturing. We are making connections in the UK and Australia to Oddy-test the paper and discuss the papermaking process.
Development of a practice and unique challenges
We have now worked together for over a year. Carla has built herself a conservation studio, we have discussed equipment and materials, and she has received work from galleries in desperate need of care and repair. We have discussed conservation and works on paper on many levels and have debated the state of conservation in the Lebanon and Europe.
We try to speak weekly – sometimes more often, sometimes less. We discuss real objects. First we talk about the damage, and then we consider suitable treatment processes. We discuss everything, from the artist’s intention and the materials they used to procedures like cleaning, backing removal, repair, lining and much more. Artist and repair materials alike can be varied and are often country-specific, so there is a large array of skills to learn. Carla is brave, confident, dextrous, sensitive and thoughtful – all qualities that allow her to work and learn in this way. This mentorship approach takes a lot of self-motivation and probably wouldn’t work for everyone, but I feel that it allows a conservator to ask questions as they come up and change their strategy when needed, rather than forming bad habits that stick for a long time.
Many people are leaving Beirut out of necessity; many are frustrated after suffering through successive governments. Carla is trying to find strength in the power of silence – strength that builds slowly at the centre of a metaphorical cyclone. I admire her resolve and determination and believe that working with your hands can be therapeutic. I hope that in our small way we can both make a difference to save the future.
- Hokkaido University (2021), The blast shook the ionosphere, Science Daily, Japan (March 17 2021) https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2021/03/210317102122.htm