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Beirut
11.30.11

Left: Architect Youssef Tohme and Ashkal Alwan director Christine Tohme. Right: Arab Image Foundation director Zeina Arida. (All photos: Kaelen Wilson-Goldie)


FOR MUCH OF THE PAST THREE DECADES, Beirut has seemed like a bonkers place to be for anyone without a compelling reason to call it home. Lebanon’s civil war may have ended twenty years ago, but life in the capital has since been routinely blindsided by assassinations, explosions, occupations, and more wars, to say nothing of the humdrum horror of dealing with corruption, chaos, the slowest Internet connection on earth, and three-hour power outages every single day. No surprise, then, that the city’s feisty young arts organizations, who basically willed Beirut’s contemporary art scene into being in the mid-1990s, are now famous for their ability to improvise around whatever new disaster gets in their way.

The past year has been rather unnerving for resident artists and their ilk. Beirut has long been the region’s quintessential basket case. Now, with revolutions all around, and what looks more and more like a civil war next door in Syria, the city has quickly become the one thing no one ever expected it to be—an oasis of calm. Of course, no one imagines this situation will last—if Syria well and truly explodes, then Lebanon is all but guaranteed to follow. Perhaps for that very reason, nearly every contemporary art outfit in town crammed the last days of November with events.

The festivities began last Monday, with an open house at the Arab Image Foundation, a nonprofit with an idiosyncratic collection of more than three hundred thousand photographs from the Middle East, North Africa, and the Arab Diaspora. The foundation doubles as a creative hothouse for its members, and since 1997, it has generated a slew of groundbreaking art projects, from the once indefatigable exhibition “Mapping Sitting,” by Akram Zaatari and Walid Raad, to a forthcoming book on the Egyptian-Armenian studio photographer Van Leo, by Bidoun’s Negar Azimi and the graphic designer Karl Bassil. For the past ten years, the foundation has been holed up on the top floor of a modernist office block in downtown Beirut, surrounded by construction cranes, with depressing government bureaucracies on the floors below. It finally moved to an earthier, friendlier space in the Gemmayzeh neighborhood over the summer. The event on Monday marked the inauguration of the foundation’s new home, replete with a library, a reading room, and a promise to share its work more often with the public.

Left: Artist and Home Workspace visiting professor Alfredo Jaar with curator Rasha Salti. Right: Artist and Home Workspace resident professor Emily Jacir.


I ran into the artists Emily Jacir and Lara Baladi in the library, where Zaatari was cracking open the first copy of his new book, The Uneasy Subject, on the threads of homoeroticism and desire running through his work. Baladi, who lives in Cairo, said the revolution in Egypt—as tragically uncertain and incomplete as it may be—had taken over every aspect of her life, including her art, in the last year. It was strange, she said, to be back in Beirut, with little to no agitation in the air.

“I’ve been in Jordan, Palestine, the US, and Italy,” added Jacir, “and the place where I feel farthest from everything that’s happening is here. It’s really weird.”

That sense of disconnection proved an enduring theme for the week, nowhere more so than on Thursday night, at Bank Audi Plaza, the headquarters of Lebanon’s oldest bank (est. 1830), where a new organization called Art Beirut staged the first in a yearlong series of talks geared toward educating young collectors about the ins and outs of contemporary art.

“There is something highly perverse about an Irishman from London coming to do a talk for an audience in Beirut about contemporary Middle Eastern art,” said Anthony Downey, a program director for the Sotheby’s Institute and editor of the new, Middle East–themed online publishing platform Ibraaz. In fact, Downey was tasked with two talks, the first running through a breakneck history of the global sweep of contemporary art since the ’90s, the second skipping around some of the most famous artists from the Arab world and Iran. Who knew the Iraqi painter Ahmed Alsoudani, whose works are now selling for obscene prices at auction, was heavily influenced by de Kooning? And then came the questions from the audience:

“Where is the art in all of this? Where is the beauty? Tell me, where is the beauty in contemporary art?” a silver-haired gentlemen demanded of Downey.

Before he could answer, a coiffed woman seated a few chairs over clucked and shouted, “There is none!”

Downey handled this with aplomb, but by the time it ended, he must have been fairly shattered, uttering just three words as artists Marwa Arsanios and Dalia Khamissy ushered him out of the building: “Bar. Whiskey. Please.”

Left: Artist and Beirut Art Center codirector Lamia Joreige with novelist and journalist Hassan Daoud. Right: Anthony Downey of Ibraaz and the Sotheby's Institute.


Just as surprising but thankfully less taxing was Galerie Sfeir-Semler’s opening on Friday for Marwan Rechmaoui, who hasn’t had a solo show anywhere since he was making paintings with tar, sand, and concrete in 1998. For the past thirteen years, Rechmaoui has been producing sculptures at an agonizingly slow rate, sometimes researching a project for two or three years to create a single piece, such as his imposing concrete models of local architectural landmarks. It was a bit of a shock, then, to walk into the gallery and find the cavernous, postindustrial space filled with, if not paintings proper, then four related series of decidedly flat and painterly works. One series deals with the psychogeography of Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon; another explores the eerily seductive forms of cluster bombs, mines, and other unexploded ordnance.

After the opening, gallery owner Andrée Sfeir-Semler hosted a raucous dinner for Rechmaoui, who had turned forty-seven the day before. A cake with a sparkler the size of a blowtorch arrived early in the meal, and then disappeared for several hours, just to make sure no one drank too much arak and forgot the occasion.

That day was Rechmaoui’s, but the week belonged to the twelve students who constitute the first class in Ashkal Alwan’s Home Workspace Program. Perhaps the single most effective engine firing Beirut’s contemporary art scene, Ashkal Alwan began in 1994 as the producer of a series of unprecedented public space projects. In 2002, the organization’s director, Christine Tohme, initiated the Home Works Forum, which has become the closest thing (but better) that Beirut has to an international biennial. In five editions, it has stomped through all the ups and downs inevitable to the form. Two years ago, Tohme decided to expand the here-today-gone-tomorrow structure of the event to create an independent, tuition-free, workshop-driven, incubator-style art school. A local donor gave her an enormous floor of a former factory building—free for the first five years. The architect Youssef Tohme (no relation) spent the last eighteen months overhauling the space, with every detail (modular partitions, a hidden stage) worked out to expand the possibilities of what could happen there.

Left: Thomas Dane's Martine d'Anglejan-Chatillon. Right: Art Beirut's Tarek Sadi, Hala Fadel, and Maya Karanouh.


The students began quietly in September, with Emily Jacir as their resident professor, and a roster of visiting artists, architects, curators, theorists, and scholars rotating in and out of the curriculum (key words: insurrection, revolution, trauma, trickster, and troubadour). On Tuesday, the Home Workspace held its first public lecture, with Alfredo Jaar (Sophie Calle, Rabih Mroué, and Willie Doherty are giving talks next week). Tohme’s voice was shaking as she welcomed the crowd and introduced the program. “This is a miraculous institution,” Jaar began, as if to ease her mind. Not for nothing does this project have more permanence than anything Ashkal Alwan has ever done—or tried—before.

All that nervous energy had dissipated by Saturday afternoon, when the official public opening for the program began. People packed in slowly, a critical mass of artists, then architects, filmmakers, musicians, designers, gallery owners, patrons, restaurant mavericks, bankers, philanthropists, and everyone who had attended any of the events earlier in the week. The talks were brief and piercing. There was a full-on dance party underway by midnight. It felt like an auspicious start. “It’s amazing that this has survived,” said Rechmaoui, who was one of Ashkal Alwan’s founders back in the day. As for the political situation in the city, the country, the region, he said he was sure the whole thing was about to explode. Yet somehow it seems certain that the school will be fine, and ever flexible.

Kaelen Wilson-Goldie

Left: Artist Marwan Rechmaoui, dealer Andrée Sfeir-Semler, and artist Akram Zaatari. Right: Artists Marwa Arsanios and Dalia Khamissy.