After a fruitful collaboration between the SMBA and KUNCI in Yogyakarta, which resulted in the exhibition and publication Made in Commons, part two in the Global Positions series will focus on the Beirut region. For this project SMBA invited curators Nat Muller and Angela Harutyunyan to develop an exhibition, publication and public program that will take place in both Amsterdam and Beirut. Global Positions II will be organised and hosted in collaboration with the Beirut artist run organisation 98 weeks. Leading up to the exhibition, which will open this Fall, Nat Muller shares her insights into the Beirut art scene.
Beirut – 12 July, 2006. First day of 2006 July war with Israel
I remember vividly the first time I travelled to Beirut for a curatorial research project. It was February 16th 2005, two days after Prime Minister Rafiq el Hariri was blown up in a massive car bomb. My plane was empty, as were the streets of Beirut upon arrival. The assassination of Hariri prompted a flurry of demonstrations that resulted in the withdrawal of the Syrian army from Lebanon after a 29-year presence. Over the course of three weeks I met most artists, curators and art practitioners during demonstrations and vigils. It was a crash course in Lebanese politics and to this day it reminds me how in Lebanon the production of art is intricately intertwined with the past and the present, political history, the wounds of the Civil War (1975-1990), individual and collective memory – or the lack thereof. The short-lived “Cedar Revolution” following Hariri’s death redefined the balance of power in Lebanon, but did not bring an end to its sectarian divisions. On the contrary, tensions between groups in Lebanon have only grown since then and persist until today. Nevertheless, the Syrian pullout did occasion a lot of investment from the Gulf and from the Lebanese diaspora, which led to a construction boom, inflated prices and the unfortunate sell-out of Beirut’s architectural heritage. Many of its beautiful Ottoman mansions were knocked down to make place for yet another eyesore of a skyscraper. For better or worse, Lebanon was back on the map.
Solo exhibitions by Lamia Joreige at Art Factum Gallery, and Walid Raad at Sfeir-Semler Gallery (both 2013)
In this uncertain climate, the small but vibrant Lebanese art scene thrived. Due to the political instability it developed primarily as an event-based culture. Lebanese artists, particularly those who came of age during the Civil War such as Walid Raad, Akram Zaatari, Joana Hadjithomas & Khalil Joreige, Lamia Joreige and Rabih Mroué, made furore in the international art world. Their work has largely been pre-occupied with a coming to terms with the aftermath of the Civil War and an interest in individual and collective history, memory and amnesia, the archival, and the politics of representation (after disaster). An interest in the archival is also a driving force for organisations such as the unique Arab Image Foundation, around since 1997, that studies and preserves the photographic heritage of the Middle East and North Africa, and Umam D&R, founded in 2004, a non-profit located in the Southern suburbs of Beirut, dedicated to the archiving and study of Lebanon’s national past and the memory of its Civil War.
Mounira al Solh, detail video installation Dinosaurs (2013)
Recently, a younger generation of artists, all in their early to mid-30s, have stepped in. Building on the thematics and visual language of their more senior colleagues, these artists bring humour, pop culture, and an understanding of the expectations and pressures of the local and international contemporary art world into the mix. Examples are Mounira al Solh, Raed Yassin, Ziad Antar, Ali Cherri, and the popular painter Ayman Baalbaki. Whereas the practices of the post-Civil War generation are primarily image-based (video, film, photography) artists such as Rayanne Tabet, Danielle Genadry and Stephanie Saadé’s work is material-driven in terms of concept and execution.
Art Institutions and Organisations
The leading arts organisation in Beirut is Ashkal Alwan, Lebanese Association of Plastic Arts co-founded 19 years ago and still headed by the indefatigable Christine Tohme. Its series of festivals and events, and its highly anticipated bi- to tri-annual event Home Works: A Forum for Cultural Practices not only highlight urgent artistic and socio-political topics, it also functions as a cultural and political thermometer of the region. In fact, Home Works, now in its 6th edition, has been the platform where over the years I have learned most about the Middle East and North African art world, not only because of its programming, but also because it is an excellent place to meet artists and art workers from the region. In 2011 Ashkal Alwan opened its Home Works Space, a 2000m² facility in Beirut dedicated to arts education and production.
Work by Raed Yassin, Beirut Art Space (2009)
White cube arts spaces and exhibition venues are a rarity and also a novelty in Beirut. The Beirut Art Center (BAC), run by artist Lamia Joreige and the director of the now obsolete semi-commercial art and design space Espace SD Sandra Dagher, opened its doors in 2009. It offers an elaborate public program, solo exhibitions by internationally established regional artists such as Mona Hatoum, Wael Shawky and international figureheads such as Gerhard Richter and Harun Farocki. The BAC also hosts the annual Exposure exhibition that showcases emerging talent in and from Lebanon. The importance of a physical space for contemporary art in Beirut should not be underestimated. Being subjected to an unstable and unpredicatable environment has made Lebanese artists and curators experts in dealing with ad hoc situations and in creating alternative organisational and presentation models that can accommodate disruption and dislocation. However, the resulting event-oriented art scene does enhance fragmentation in an already fragmented city. By giving contemporary art bricks-and-mortar homes, different practices are placed in a wider perspective and a larger art-historical context.
Work by Marwan Rechmaoui at the not yet renovated Home Works Space, panel discussion at HomeWorks 5 (2010)
A completely different force in the Lebanese and regional art scene is the Sfeir-Semler Gallery that inaugurated its Beirut branch in addition to its Hamburg gallery in 2005. Located in Beirut’s industrial Karantina area, the site of multiple massacres during Lebanon’s Civil War and now home to the Sukleen garbage disposal facility and the city’s slaughterhouse, the 1400m2 industrial pristine white-walled space resembles more a Kunsthalle than a commercial art space, despite the occasional whafts of waste and decaying meat outside its walls. In fact, until the opening of the BAC, Sfeir-Semler was the only sizeable artspace in Beirut showing contemporary art. Its owner Andrée Sfeir-Semler has a keen eye for emerging and established talent and boasts some of the best contemporary artists from the Arab world in her roster.
In 2010, the Hariri-owned Solidere Company, oft maligned by intellectuals and much criticised for the controversial reconstruction of post-Civil War Downtown Beirut, opened its own space, the Beirut Exhibition Center on the seaside. The curatorial mission of BEC is obscure and eclectic to say the least, and the quality of the shows is not exactly consistent. Still, even if regarded with suspicion by many in the Lebanese art scene, BEC deserves credit for expanding the scope of exhibition-making and for re-introducing the work of Lebanese modernists such as Saloua Raouda Choucair, who had a solo at Tate Modern this spring, Shaffic Abboud, and Paul Guiragossian. In a place where there’s little appetite to engage with contemporary history because wounds still run too deep, there can be a tendency to overlook artistic predecessors. Here art expert and owner of Agial Gallery, Saleh Barakat has tried to right the balance and over the years has been a vocal advocate for modern Arab painting. In addition, the brand new galleries of the American University in Beirut one located off campus focusing on the university’s modernist collection, and one on campus dedicated to contemporary art, also will contribute to filling in the many art historical gaps.
Exhibition Profiles: Collecting Art in Lebanon, AUB Gallery (off campus), (2013)
Lebanon’s ministry of culture, like many other governmental institutions in the country, is completely dysfunctional. This leaves artists and organisations dependent on private foundations, patronage and foreign funding to keep their operations afloat. Dwindling funding from the West because of the economic crisis, and the pitiful condition of the Lebanese economy due to the war in Syria leave Lebanese art organisations precarious and vulnerable. Nevertheless, with limited means some inventive programming is achieved. For example, the public events programs by the artistic research collective 98 weeks, founded by cousins Marwa and Mirene Arsanios, and the annual experimental music festival Irtijal are a case in point. On the surface Beirut feels cosmopolitan and dynamic with its many art offerings, trendy bars and terrific nightlife. Yet there is an undercurrent of continual threat that percolates up from the country’s deep sectarian divisions, its institutional paralysis and the regional instability. The war in Syria is putting a lot of pressure on tiny Lebanon not only in terms of refugees but also in terms of violence spilling over. Lebanese artists and art practitioners have acquired a resilience to cope with instability, again and again. If anything, this stubborn will to continue and do work, deserves recognition.
*: The title “Beirut Again and Again” is borrowed from the 2010 solo exhibition by painter Ayman Baalbaki that focused on the turmoil of living in a scarred city like Beirut.
Nat Muller is an independent curator and critic based in Rotterdam. Her main interests include media art and contemporary art in and from the Middle East. She is a regular contributor to Springerin and MetropolisM, and has published in Bidoun, ArtAsiaPacific and Harper’s Bazaar Arabia. She curated video and film screenings for projects and festivals internationally, including the IFFR, and exhibitions including Spectral Imprints for the Abraaj Group Capital Art Prize 2012 in Dubai.
All photographs by Nat Muller