Beirut’s perennial claim to be the capital of art in the Arab world is facing competition. Qatar’s ‘Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art’, the Saadiyat Cultural District in Abu Dhabi planning for the inaugurations for local branches of the Louvre and Guggenheim in 2015 and 2017, respectively, and the art fairs of Abu Dhabi and Dubai, could be seen as a surge of aesthetic appreciation in the Gulf, where there is also the money to back it up.
However, “You cannot buy culture,” claims Laure D’Hauteville, the creator and organizer of the Beirut Art Fair (BAF), who believes Beirut will always be the Arab world’s art capital.
Having organized the Abu Dhabi art fair in 2005 and 2006, D’Hauteville says, “The majority of the attendees there were either Lebanese or foreign. The locals have the money indeed, but they do not have the education or background in art.” D’Hauteville said Abu Dhabi’s Louvre has been postponing its opening for two years now and that it was uncertain when and how it will open.
Only getting bigger
For the third consecutive year, the BAF, an international event highlighting art from the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia (MENASA) region will be held in Beirut International Exhibition and Leisure Centre from July 5 to 8. This year’s fair is larger in scope than its predecessors with an indoor/outdoor space of 5,000 square meters (sqm) compared to last year’s 3,000 sqm, and with 40 participating galleries, an increase from last year’s 25. The expected number of attendees this year, according to D’Hauteville is 12,000, while last year’s fair had 9,000 people pass through the gates.
This year’s fair will also be showing an Andy Warhol portrait of 1970s American starlet Barbara Molasky, from the Cordeiros Galeria — the piece’s first-ever exhibition in the MENASA region. Pascal Odille, the fair’s art director said “It is quite prestigious to have [the Warhol] in Beirut since it has never been seen before [in the MENASA]”. He added, however, that “All the artists in Beirut Art Fair are prestigious in their own right, and it is not the Warhol alone that will bring people to the fair.”
D’Hauteville envisions the fair as a hybrid event with the commercial galleries’ displays running alongside a planned program of conferences, talks and special exhibitions, which will draw on the political events in the region since 2011.
The fair will also feature for the first time a ‘Comics Corner’, with 30 original drawings. One of the comics featured will be that of Mohamad el-Sherkawi, the Egyptian artist “whose work was censored in Egypt, but we had no problem having it approved in Beirut,” according to D’Hauteville, who cites relatively minimal censorship here as another example of why Beirut has its advantages.
Street art and grafitti will be another new addition to this year’s fair. “From Street Art to VJing: the Urban Creation of Beirut” is aimed at attracting young art aficionados and to show how Beirut itself is a young city, according to D’Hauteville.
Again, she says that this aspect could not take place in the Gulf as, “the youth are not allowed to express themselves in that manner there.” This section will feature a live performance by street artists who will paint a wall to the music of Cesar Kahwaji, Vjay, and Lebanese rappers Eshekman.
Such fusion of art can also be found in “Correspondences”, a work curated by Catherine David, involving the letters of Abdel Rahman Munif, the Saudi author of “City of Salt” who was exiled from his country and Marwan Kassab Bachi (considered one of the Arab world’s greatest artists, according to the BAF program), who illustrated the letters. This will be the first time this work is displayed in an event such as this.
The business side
A cornerstone of the fair is its commercial aspect. This year, there are 29 galleries from the Middle East, seven from Europe and four from North Africa selling art at the fair.
It was stipulated that more than 80 percent of the work featured by the participating galleries should be by artists from the MENASA , to ensure the promotion of regional art. Thus, when a gallery from Armenia wanted to display works by Armenian artists only, the fair committee denied their request to participate.
“We have been receiving a lot of calls from Armenian people claiming that we are racist but we are not,” says D’Hauteville. “Armenia simply is not in the MENASA region according to the World Geography Division. We do have work by Armenian Lebanese artists such as Paul Gaggusian, and had the gallery met the condition, we would have gladly displayed the paintings.”
An additional feature to this year’s fair is the Art Collectors Committee, comprising a hundred art collectors, eighty of whom are Lebanese, who are supporting the fair through their presence and participation.
Still on top?
While Beirut is “the beating pulse of art in the region,” according to D’ Hauteville, Christine Thome, who heads Ashkal Alwan, the Lebanese Association for Plastic Arts, is reticent to call one city the ‘capital of art’.
Thome says she believes all cities collaborate together to benefit the civic society, which she sees as art’s ultimate aim.
Thome warns that the increased interest in Arab World art since 2011 is a double-edged sword. The West tends to lump all artists from the region into one glorified category called “Arab Art,” which Tome sees as a dangerous generalization. “Such attention comes with responsibility on the artist, and one must not sacrifice the quality of the work for the label,” she says.
In line with Thome’s opinion is that of Saleh Barakat of Agial Gallery, a three-time participant in the fair, who discourages the use of such “superlatives”. He sees that Beirut is indeed a dynamic city with a rich culture and history that is doing its part in the art world but adds, “If you compare it to the art fairs in Dubai and Abu Dhabi that make around $4 million in profit, Beirut Art Fair makes around $1 million.”
In addition to the money, Barakat says, the United Arab Emirates has the stability and the contacts to attract the best foreign artists, something again that Beirut is unable to offer.
Thus, while there is still much ammunition for either side in the debate over whether Beirut is the ‘art capital of the Arab world’ or not, perhaps those participating in the discussion would do well to step back and appreciate for a minute the picture they are trying to paint.
Uncultured egos that value competition over aesthetic are but the leaches of culture, while history always records true art for its time and place.