Lebanese Designers Turn Post-Blast Wreckage and Emotions Into Art

Bokja Hoda and Maria Marie Claire 1

By Jessica Purkiss on December 17, 2020

The collections represent survival

On August 4, 2020, a massive explosion tore through Beirut, Lebanon, killing more than 200 people and injuring approximately 6,000. Additional casualties in this creative city included scores of businesses, from designers’ ateliers and art galleries, to bars, bookshops, and bakeries. Now four months after the blast—caused by tonnes of chemicals left to fester in the city’s port for years—life in Beirut is focused on rebuilding.

The local community of jewelry makers, couturiers, and home decor experts, in particular, are beginning to re-emerge. Many of these tastemakers are creating pieces that reflect the horrors and emotions they’ve experienced this year.

A few doors down from the L’atelier Nawbar, is the showroom of homeware brand Bokja, which recently reopened. I met up with the design duo behind the brand, Huda Baroudi and Maria Hibri, at their workshop half a mile away from the showroom to hear how they are rebuilding.

Their upcoming collection is not only about remembering Beirut as it was before the blast, but also capturing what it has become now. Because of Lebanon’s strict COVID-19 restrictions earlier this year, the women spent more time walking around Beirut and saw the city with fresh eyes.

“It was a time when we saw the city in all its glory…It was spring, the frangipani was in bloom, the bougainvillea were bursting everywhere,” Baroudi says. “When we saw the destruction, it was even more painful after this time.”

The duo have been working on a tapestry that functions as the mood board for their next collection of homeware and wearables. It depicts the beauty of Beirut as they re-discovered it under lockdown, but also the destruction it endured from the explosion.

Bokja Marie Caire Mendel

Alongside portrayals of Lebanese arched windows and the flowers they saw in bloom, the tapestry shows the shards of glass that littered the streets of Beirut after the blast. “It’s not about moving on as quickly as possible,” Baroudi says. “It’s mostly about registering what happened and staying in the anger and in the sorrow and in the pain of it all.”

After the explosion, Baroudi and Hibri turned their damaged showroom into a community center where people’s furniture, affected by the blast, could be repaired. Red stitches were used to fix any fabric, drawing parallels to the red stitches used by paramedics to sew up the wounds on faces, hands, and legs the night of the explosion.

For Baroudi, creating in the face of adversity has helped keep her sane during the difficult, unstable times in Lebanon recently. Before the blast, in October 2019, protests had erupted across the country, calling for political change. An economic crisis then followed, intensified by the COVID-19 pandemic. Thousands of businesses began shutting down while the number of people trapped in poverty has close to doubled in the last year.

“We always have things to say and Bokja is our language,” she explains. “These collections are archives of our heart.”

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