Art and activism go hand in hand for Tom Young

For years, British artist Tom Young has lived and worked in Lebanon, exploring the country’s rich history in his works. The painter has recently turned to capture the multiple crises Lebanon has experienced, from scenes of the October 2019 protests to the aftermath of the 2020 port explosion.

A recent anti-corruption campaign led by the Lebanese Transparency Association (LTA) saw her order artwork from Young, including six fake Lollar notes printed from a personalized ATM. In painstaking detail, each painting depicts a different form of corruption by the Lebanese government.

“This project was a way to engage artistically, with a desire for change and a desire to hold these people accountable,” Young told Al Arabiya English. “It’s definitely a change from my more romantic work. It has a tougher side to it.

“These coins are dramatic moments in contemporary history that you won’t find on any other banknote,” he continued. “National banks use their banknotes to show [their] national pride [but these Lollars] are classic Lebanese humor – dark, satirical and ridiculous.

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A Lollar – a term coined by economist Dan Azzi to refer to a “Lebanese dollar” – is an arbitrary exchange rate used by the Central Bank for dollar currency circulating domestically. It currently equates to LL8,000 per dollar, although the parallel market reached almost LL39,000 per dollar last week.

The artwork behind the campaign goes beyond highlighting the devalued lira and reminds viewers of the intertwining shortcomings of the state, which have led to poverty, financial collapse and a country which barely works.

Lollar’s only bill features Young’s painting of a decaying old railway steam train at the abandoned Tripoli-Mina station, rusty and overgrown with wildflowers. The image evokes Young’s previous exhibition in 2019 of the abandoned Bekaa Railway Factory in Rayak, once the largest such factory in the Middle East, left abandoned after the civil war.

Garbage street is on the 10 lollar note. (Provided: Tom Young)

“That one was pretty clear, and maybe the most quaint or the most nostalgic, but it highlights what’s missing,” Young said. “It’s just shameful, the ruin of the rail network and the sellout of rail land, and all the taxes people are still paying for a rail network that doesn’t exist.

What is interesting about all the paintings is that they are all interconnected,” he added. “If there was a modern transport network now, there would be less traffic on the roads and we would be less dependent on gasoline.”

Lebanon’s fuel crisis is at the center of Lollar’s five-note painting, inspired by dramatic scenes of people and cars queuing – sometimes for hours or even days – to buy petrol and diesel. The illustration shows a seemingly endless line at a gas station in Jiyeh, the hazy brushstrokes evoking the scorching heat of July 2021 – when severe shortages crippled the country.

While some in Lebanon have been shielded from other aspects of the economic crisis by foreign exchange reserves, none can escape the country’s fuel shortages. Violent clashes have erupted over limited supplies, exacerbated by massive price increases and accusations of fuel tampering.

“It was important to me that the paintings come from direct experience,” Young explained. “Living in Lebanon, I also experience these problems. I wanted to show people getting out of their cars, shouting and laughing at each other, and people also in a state of melancholy defeat.

Waste management is another endemic problem in Lebanon. In 2015, the Lebanese government failed to implement a replacement plan following the closure of landfills, which led to the accumulation of waste in the streets.

A Lebanese activist displays fake banknotes called 'Lollars', in front of a fake ATM, during a stunt to denounce the high level of corruption that has destroyed the country, in the capital Beirut on May 13, 2022. (Photo archive: AFP)

A Lebanese activist displays fake banknotes called ‘Lollars’, in front of a fake ATM, during a stunt to denounce the high level of corruption that has destroyed the country, in the capital Beirut on May 13, 2022. (Photo archive: AFP)

This still-ongoing issue is reflected in the 10 Lollar note, which depicts a car and the distinctive triple arches of an Ottoman-era building drowned in a sea of ​​rubbish. This reflects state inaction and broader neglect of Lebanese cultural heritage.

“We still have heaps of rubbish, but I don’t think people have the energy to protest anymore. There are so many crises. He overwhelmed them,” Young said. “I saw a car covered in trash in 2015, which seemed like a pretty symbolic picture of a trip, but stuck that was going nowhere.

“I could see these piles of rubbish next to what was a beautiful old 19th century Ottoman house in Gemmayzeh, which was badly destroyed by the explosion,” he added. “This painting is kind of a combination of several issues affecting Lebanon, all having a ripple effect on each other.”

The 20-note Lollar painting shows the 2019 Lebanon wildfires, which devastated large areas in the Mount Lebanon region. There was no functional firefighting equipment to fight the fires. The image shows umbrella pines – which Young often depicted in serene pastel landscapes – engulfed in a bright orange and yellow blaze.

Similarly, 50 Lollar’s painting contrasts the Zouk power station and the dark Beirut cityscape behind it with the desperate, hopeful illumination of a single candle. The facility recently stopped working due to aging machinery and lack of fuel, which contributed to widespread power outages.

The most dramatic symbol of Lebanon’s suffering is reserved for the 100 Lollar note. Young’s artwork shows the huge, rust-colored plume from the August 2020 explosion that erupted above grain silos in the port, contrasting against the blue summer sky and peaceful town below.

Tom Young's Explosion painting is depicted on the 100 Lollar note.  (Provided: Tom Young)

Tom Young’s Explosion painting is depicted on the 100 Lollar note. (Provided: Tom Young)

“It was really hard to go through and relive that moment in detail,” Young admitted. “I had done paintings of the aftermath, but I had never really studied the explosion itself until this painting, and it was something I would never have chosen to do.

“It was quite therapeutic and cathartic to do it,” he continued. “While I was painting it, it was almost like an act of prayer and meditation. It was a way of going deep into the moment of pain, trying to turn it into something healing.

The response to The Currency of Corruption campaign has been widespread, with inquiries pouring in from people asking where they can buy or get the Lollars printed. The phenomenon raises a compelling point about their perceived value as an unlost work of art for Young.

As part of the campaign, people were encouraged to try using fake Lollars as legal tender for purchases. Young was surprised to see stores accepting the invoices as payment because they wanted them as works of art, which he signed for them.

Black Out <a class=City is on the 50 Lollar banknote. (Provided: Tom Young)”/>

Black Out City is on the 50 Lollar banknote. (Provided: Tom Young)

“Paper money was only invented because gold was too heavy to carry in people’s pockets,” Young said. “These are promissory notes. These notes are beautifully produced, limited edition works of art from defining moments in Lebanese history, so they have intrinsic value.

“Imagine if those Lollars became valuable; it could be an amazing way to give people back their rights and their savings. It’s very fancy, but it’s an interesting idea.

Young’s artistic practice has always had a social or political benefit, engaging activism through art. The positive reaction to the campaign highlights a desperate desire for change in Lebanon – a desire Young echoes in his paintings.

“Part of being an artist is just getting out of your own way, opening up and being a channel for what’s going on around you, listening to the sadness, trauma and anger of others; channel that into work,” Young said.

“I think artists have a responsibility to respond to what is happening at the time and to reflect, to society, the truth of what is happening. You can’t just keep your head in the sand.

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