How to Tell a Fortune: Rebecca Wakim, MFA '22
Born in the United States but growing up in the village of Edde El Batroun in Lebanon, Rebecca Wakim, MFA ’22, threw herself into painting, but never considered seriously pursuing the visual arts. “I always convinced myself that art should be a hobby—because that's what everyone tells you in many parts of the Middle East where it’s regarded as more of a craft than a field,” she explained. It was only after she was accepted to The American University of Beirut for undergraduate studies and awarded a scholarship in Studio Arts, that Rebecca took the “leap of faith” and began to seriously build an interdisciplinary practice. On the advice of a mentor, she applied to the MFA program at SMFA at Tufts University sight unseen, was accepted and relocated to Boston— 5,000 miles away from home.
While she eagerly acclimated to the collaborative SMFA community, Rebecca’s first SMFA semester in 2019 didn’t go at all as she imagined. “As soon as I got settled in at grad school things erupted in Lebanon and The October Revolution began. I was devastated. I wanted to be there [in Lebanon]. Everyone was protesting and I was in my studio in Boston,” she recalled. But SMFA faculty offered Rebecca the support needed to process and create. “Ultimately, Ethan Murrow and Jeannie Simms helped me look at it from a different perspective and made me realize that making art is a form of relief,” she said.
Since then, Rebecca’s practice has unwaveringly probed, “the unjust political system in Lebanon and the repercussions it has had on its people.” During her time in the MFA program, she has made work to draw attention to the situation at home—conscious of the context of the United States, where far too little is known about the Middle East beyond conflict-charged newspaper headlines.
Everyday’s Fortune, an ongoing body of work, began with the coffee cup, a symbol of hospitality found in every home and shop throughout Lebanon and habitually filled with strong Arabic coffee and two heaping teaspoons of sugar mixed in for the taste. After the coffee is drained, the grounds that remain are sometimes used to ritually foretell the future. Optimistic fortunes portend to financial success, marriage, or fertility. In the SMFA ceramics studio, Rebecca created a mold, fired, and glazed 20 of her own porcelain cups. Reflecting on a month spent in Lebanon in the aftermath of the Revolution as the Lebanese Pound rapidly devaluated, she hand painted the cups with hopeless fortunes gleaned from conversations with family and friends:
You know how it is now—it’s downhill
There are no commissions—I haven’t been paid in months
I’d die to get paid in dollars now.
She reflected, “With the Revolution, for the first time in history, people in Lebanon no longer cared about religious sects and political parties. They just wanted things to get better. In the same way that we read the grinds at the bottom of the cup and expect a good fortune, we looked at this revolution and expected. But it didn't turn out that way.”
Rebecca’s second year was marked by the pandemic and the Beirut Port Blast in August, 2020—an ammonium nitrate explosion that killed 207 people and left more than 300,000 homeless, which many blamed on government negligence. Pour It All Out, a subsequent iteration of cups is illustrated to follow the journey of a deceptively naïve tulip and reflects the government’s failure to clean up the mess of wreckage and human debris that tore Beirut apart. Photographs taken by Rebecca at political protests at Martyr’s Square in Beirut accompany the series.
Transparency, a sculpture glued together from glass found near the explosion site came next. “I started to think about certain words and their meanings: manipulation, control, transparency as I arranged these pieces together,” she explained. Selected works were shown in OFF-GRID, a 2021 group exhibition organized and curated by MFA students and Tufts University Art Galleries.
The fourth semester Graduate Critique course taught by Danielle Abrams has influenced Rebecca the most during her MFA. Students were instructed to approach peers’ work as a question rather than a statement, an approach that has permanently shifted the way Rebecca engages with art.
This Fall, she is interning at the Jordan National Gallery of Fine Arts in Amman, Jordan collaborating with SMFA alumnus Khaldoun Hijazin, MFA ’14, who was recently named executive director and is committed to incubating the next generation of MFA graduates. In her final year, Rebecca hopes to ground her practice in a broadening knowledge of the contemporary Middle Eastern art scene.
Lead image: Everyday's Fortune, porcelain, glaze, decals, 5x5 cm, 2020