Beirut | A safe haven for artists from the Middle East
Sixteen years after the end of the civil war, Lebanon is still scarred by the conflict that ravaged the country between 1975 and 1991. In spite of this, its capital Beirut has become both the country’s artistic hub and a shelter of sorts for artists fleeing the neighboring countries, torn by the war and the economic crisis and where creativity is very much subjected to censorship.
Beirut Art Fair, which closed last week-end, is the only contemporary art fair of the region, bringing together each year artists and collectors animating a dynamic but little known market. Founded and directed by Laure d’Hauteville, Beirut Art Fair is now in its eighth edition. This year, Pascal Odille, artistic director of the fair and responsible for its programming alongside Laure d'Hauteville, has imagined a program of “rediscovery” together with three of Lebanon’s major art collectors: Basel Dalloul, Abraham Karabajakian and Tarek Nahas. Thus, Beirut Art Fair has welcomed 51 galleries — including 29 newcomers, chosen by a committee comprising the three aforementioned collectors — from 23 countries, 230 artists and 1,400 art works. In Beirut, there’s no space for censorship, as curator Rose Issa tells us during a visit to the exhibition “Ourouba – The Eye of Lebanon”. Ourouba means “arabicity”, and the show calls into question the notion of arab identity, also exploring the relationship that exists between artists from the Middle East region.
Despite the country’s burgeoning art scene, institutions such as La Maison Jaune (Beit Beirut) stand as witnesses to the long-lasting impact of the civil war. During the war, the building was located on the green line dividing Beirut’s Muslim and Christian parts, and served as a sniper’s nest. Today, the historical landmark is open to the public and it welcomes the work of artist Zeina El Khalil, who has taken over La Maison Jaune with “Sacred Catastroph: Healing Lebanon” a project that aims to “exorcise” the space, charged with emotions and history. For her part, Rose Issa chose for “Ourouba” a work by Ayman Baalbaki titled Barakat Building, representing the Maison Jaune.
Ayman Baalbaki, Barakat Building (2015-2016). Private Collection. Courtesy of Agial Gallery, Beirut
Conflict and war are themes that are at the heart of the works presented at Beirut Art Fair, for example those of Abdul Rahman Katanani, who lives in Beirut’s Sabra and Shatila camp, theatre of the 1982 massacre. Today, the area is a true no-man’s land, hardly accessible for Palestinians. In his work, Katanani employs tin roof sheets and barbed wire to create anything from waves (Wave), destroying everything with their passage, to silhouettes of children skipping rope to fleeing families, bearing witness to the everyday reality of certain Middle East countries.
Abdul Rahman Katanani, Wave (2016). El-Nimer Collection
Analix Forever (Geneva) presented photographs by Mounir Fatmi and Debi Cornwall. The latter’s series Welcome to Camp America offers an inside look at life in Guantanamo, where 149 people are still detained today.
Debi Cornwall, Prayer Rug with arrow to Mecca, Camp Echo. Courtesy Analix Forever, Switzerland
Over at Albareh Art Gallery (Bahrain), the work of Abed Al Kadiri was an absolute must-see. The Lebanese artist, born in 1984, presented the series Al Maqama. Begun in 2014, the series revolved initially around the life and work of the Baghdadian calligrapher and painter Yahya ibn Mahmud Al Wasiti. (13th century) Today, Al Maqama also bears witness to the destruction perpetrated by ISIS across Iraqi museums and archaeological site.
Abed Al Kadiri, Destroyed by ISIS in Museum (2015). Courtesy Albareh Art Gallery, Kingdom of Bahrein
Tanit gallery (Beirut) presented works from the series "El Zohra was not born in a day" by Randa Mirza, looking to the myths and narrative of the Pre-Islamic period. The photograph, Issaf and Naila, mounted on a lightbox, shows the gods worshipped in Mecca before the arrival of Islamic monotheism. The black crowd hold above their head white statues representing the two deities. Hajer Azzouz | La Maison de la plage (Tunis) had a booth of works by Othmane Taleb and Sophia Baraket, whereas Nathalie Obadia (Paris, Brussels) gave a solo show to artist Sarkis.
Last year, the fair welcomed 23,000 visitors. This year, 8,500 people attended its opening, for a total of 28,250 total visitors (according to Beirut Art Fair). If these numbers seem somewhat low compared to Beirut Art Fair’s international counterparts, they are impressive for Lebanon. Beirut Design Fair represents a welcome addition to the city’s artistic landscape. Over at the Sursock Museum, Marwan Rechmaoui signed copies of his book Metropolis. The Lebanese artist, who was also on show in the Unlimited section of Art Basel, explores urban geography and the social and demographic issues that it entails. His work Beirut Caoutchouc, (2004-2008) on show in the museum’s courtyard, is a rubber map of Beirut and its different neighbors.
In a country where museums are mostly the work of art patrons and private collectors, Beirut Art Fair is a platform to discover a burgeoning, dynamic scene and its issues: the impact of past and present conflicts, the coexistence of different religions and ethnicities, the precarious political situation of the Middle East, the taboos of sexuality and homosexuality and the place of women within society — these are the common threads linking artists from the region, issues that are in turn intertwined with the notion of “Ourouba”.
Beirut Art Fair, September 21-24
Beit Beirut, “Sacred Catastroph : Healing Lebanon” until October 27
Marwan Rechmaoui, Metropolis, Kaph Books