The Lebanese Basbous brothers, a family of prolific sculptors, paved the way for modern sculpture in Lebanon. Their outdoor sculpture park in Rachana reveals a deep connection to the nature of the region, and it’s one that’s been passed on to the next generation
Set in a luscious landscape of rolling hills, the winding country road to Rachana is marked by large sculptures that have become part of the landscape alongside almond and olive trees – organic forms made from stone, wood and metal. Set in the Batroun region, the village of Rachana is a kind of open-air art museum for the work of Michel, Alfred and Youssef Basbous, sculptors whose legacy remains deeply intertwined with the identity of the area.
Though the three Basbous brothers who brought fame to the sleepy village have long since passed away, their imprint on the identity of Rachana remains. But the village isn’t a sterile museum to the past; their sons have inherited that artistic heritage, along with a deep connection to the area, and continue to create sculptures from their studios in the village.
Nabil Basbous, the son of Youssef, appears from his studio with clay-covered hands and wild wiry grey hair. He’s in the process of sculpting molds for three religious icons, to be cast in bronze or marble. It’s no surprise his work is inspired by the landscape; his studio is located below a quirky stone house perched on the edge of a valley with an incredible view. The colorful interior of his home is filled with mini studies of his life-size sculptures, wooden trees and nature-inspired forms.
The Basbous family connection to the area can be traced back four generations, when three brothers, originating from the nearby village, Maad, moved across the hill, then the uninhabited Rachana. Sculptor Michel, Nabil’s uncle, was the first in the family whose work gained recognition, encouraged by then president’s wife Zelpha Chamoun. In 1958, during the cultural golden age of Beirut, he decided to return to Rachana with the dream of creating an art village. “There was a bad political situation before the civil war,” Nabil says. “He decided to come to Rachana and bring the people of Beirut to the village. Michel believed that art and Rachana was connected.”
Michel transformed the village creating open-air sculptures with a backdrop of the surrounding landscape, which his brothers continued to add to. “[The brothers] were inspired from the trees, the clouds, nature,” Nabil says. “They made art to integrate into the landscape.” Rachana became a hub of activity for the arts when Michel created the first modern theater in Lebanon, with the help of local villagers, where plays such as an adaptation of Kleist’s “Broken Jug” by Edouard Bustany debuted.
After Michel’s death in 1981, cultural activities slowed for a few years until in 1994, the two brothers organized the Rachana International Symposium of Sculpture, inviting sculptors from around the world to exhibit in the village. Alfred led the exhibition for eleven successful years until 2004, passing away in 2006.
Nabil, his brother Samir, and cousin Anashar – his name an inversion of the village – all now work as fulltime artists, inheriting their parents’ deep connection with the nature of the region. “I can’t live without this area. It’s inspired me and I feel I have a responsibility to keep it going,” Nabil says. For him, the landscape is the perfect working environment for an artist. “Here we have the space for sculpture and light,” he adds.
Nabil heads outside passing through his garden and pausing at a tree. “These are my sculptures. I know every part of them, every leaf, every branch,” he says. “It’s a very beautiful landscape. I go everywhere in the world but something always attracts me back to here.” Stones protrude from every grassy bank, natural sculptures that seem in harmony with the artworks dotted across the land.
The road to Michel’s old house is lined with Basbous sculptures, including Michel’s impressive sculpture of a ship is dedicated to Lebanese Emigrants, an abstract ship with five large rusted prongs that point towards the continents. Anashar’s sculptures are notably contemporary; works such as a rusted steel half sphere exposing hundreds of delicate prongs like the tentacles of anemone. The house of Michel, once a workshop for the three brothers, has since become a museum to their work. A nearby sculpture house, with curved roof and walls, is a living art piece, and the home of Michel’s wife, which looks out over the garden of sculptures.
“I lived with the three brothers and saw how they worked. They created the story, the myth, now there is the challenge to keep their spirit alive.” For Nabil, Rachana’s future rests on its return to being an active center for the arts and there are hopes to open an extended museum to house and re-launch a regular sculpture exhibition in the near future. “Now we are all working in our workshops which is also important but we want to invite other artists to exhibit too,” he says.
Hidden behind the main road, through a small passageway, the back entrance to the Basbous Museum is marked by a small sign from the ‘60s carved with the words “Galerie Basbous.” It’s an area Nabil calls “the hidden face of Rachana.” A canopy of overgrown grapevines and fig trees by the roadside shades a tall, slim concrete sculpture of an anonymous man. The overgrown orchard, intertwined with grape-filled vines and plants, mostly hides it and as nature reclaims it, it’s perhaps the most powerful symbol for the Basbous story – art that reflects the landscape and then becomes a part of it.
HOW TO GET THERE
A 51km drive from Beirut, take the highway north towards Batroun. Just before Madfoon army checkpoint exit the highway on the right and take the mountain road climbing upwards. Follow signs for Saint Rafqa. After around 3km you’ll see signs to Rachana, situated on the left.
WHERE TO EAT
The nearby Ixsir Winery (71 631613) has won awards both for its exceptional wine and its green-orientated design. Their recently opened restaurant serves up Lebanese cuisine looking out over a vineyard. If you’re looking for a quick snack with a view stop by L’Olivier (03 828242) a small mini-market in Rachana that makes delicious manoushe, which can be enjoyed on their terrace overlooking the valley.
WHAT TO SEE
Nearby Maad is full of historical religious riches including the Saint Rafqa shrine, the 1788 AD Mar Abda Monastery (09 750132) and Saint Charbel Church in Byzantine style with medieval frescos. While in the area, see traditional Lebanese houses with frescos (Naouma Hajj, 09 750063, 09 750001) and the residence of famous Lebanese singer Tony Hanna (03 630150) featuring a snail farm and gardens.