Strokes of brilliance

The Lebanese art scene looks resilient as 2014 looms

Pedro Barbosa is a Brazilian art collector gaining a reputation as an aspiring trendsetter in the international art scene as he amasses pieces from young and trendy artists, primarily fraom Brazil. Last year, he decided to go global and started collecting from artists around the world, among them 29-year-old emerging Lebanese artist Rayyane Tabet.

More and more eyes, both at home and beyond, are turning to Lebanon’s local talent. Fueled by support from local galleries as well as a host of private institutions looking to replace the void left by the lack of public sector backing, Lebanese talent is increasingly gaining recognition this year.

Bringing politics to art

Represented by the Qarantina based Sfeir-Semler gallery, Tabet’s name popped onto the local scene in the spring of 2013 following his solo exhibition, “The Shortest Distance Between Two Points” which retraced Lebanon’s historic role in the transportation of oil through the story of the Trans-Arabian Pipeline Company. Also influenced by politics in his art is Akram Zaatari, who represented Lebanon this year at the Venice Biennial, a major contemporary art exhibition. Zaatari’s featured work was a video entitled “Letter to a Refusing Pilot” about an Israeli pilot who objected to bombing a school in his hometown of Saida in 1982.

Lebanese art on the international market

Beyond their cultural contribution to the local art scene, Lebanese artists continued this year to leave their aesthetic mark on the international art stage. Works by Hussein Madi, dubbed the “Picasso of the Orient”, and Zeina Assi featured in the Middle Eastern art collection of renowned British art collector Charles Saatchi. Perhaps the most significant breakthrough was made with the seven-month solo exhibition of painter and sculptor Saloua Raouda Choucair at London’s world-renowned Tate Modern. Supported by the Sukkar family’s Averda company, the exhibition, which overlapped with one by famous American pop artist Roy Lichtenstein, garnered rave reviews from local art critics.

Hussein Madi's artwork has a growing audience


Private sector support

That the country’s artists have made it this far on the international stage is an undeniable accomplishment, given the ongoing lack of support from the public sector. Artists have not relied solely on local galleries but have sought to establish exhibit spaces abroad in order to promote their work internationally. The Ayyam Gallery, owned by the Syrian Samawi brothers, opened a space in London’s elite New Bond Street in January with an inaugural exhibition by Lebanese artist Nadim Karam, best known for his elephant pieces. Lebanese artist Etel Adnan’s works adorned the Hamburg walls of Sfeir-Semler’s first exhibition of the year in Germany.

Also helping local talent are non-profit private institutions, such as the Beirut Exhibition Center (BEC), the Beirut Art Center (BAC) and the Lebanese Association for Plastic Arts, also known as Ashkal Alwan. In 2013 the downtown-based BEC again organized several exhibitions for the public, exhibiting work by well known Lebanese painters from Huguette Caland to Chaouki Chamoun to Jean Marc Nahas and the late Paul Guiragossian, Lebanon’s most celebrated painter during his lifetime. In November of this year BEC hosted the Syri-Arts exhibition and adorned its space with donated art pieces which were put up for auction, with the funds — around $1.1 million — going to Syrian refugees. For 2014, BEC has several exhibitions in the pipeline featuring the work of Lebanese artist Hussein Madi and sculptor Michel Basbouss as well as Iraq’s Jaber Alwan and a collective Palestinian exhibition.

The country’s access to art was further enriched this year by the establishment of the Modern and Contemporary Art Museum (MACAM) as well as the American University of Beirut’s galleries. Cesar Nammour established MACAM in a 4,000 square meter factory in Jbeil which currently features a permanent exhibition of sculptures from the 1920s until the present, as well as a space for installations for the younger generation of artists. Visiting the old factory in October, Nammour proudly walked me through the space, which he has so far entirely self-funded. Going forward, he aims to raise funds through private donations to sustain and promote this first-of-its-kind initiative.

Paul Guiragossian's Le Mariage


AUB’s on-campus gallery featured an exhibition from May to July exploring the relationship between art and labor. Another exhibition at a gallery close to campus presented videos of Lebanon’s largest collectors, from Bank Audi’s Raymond Audi to Agial’s Saleh Barakat to Aishti’s Tony Salame. Its next exhibition, ongoing until April 2014, features works by the late Lebanese painter, writer and cultural activist Georges Daoud Corm.

Reeling them in

The Beirut Art Center (BAC) in Qarantina focused on bringing international art to the local stage in 2013. Relying on donations from private benefactors and corporations, BAC has been affected by the country’s economic crisis but still managed to pull together four exhibitions this year. Among those was the Video Vintage 1963-1983, a display of videos by over 50 international artists selected by France’s Centre Pompidou. “The economic crisis could also be felt at specific moments through the audience as people come less,” says BAC co-founder and art curator Sandra Dagher. For the upcoming year, the center plans to host another four exhibitions to bring international talent to the local scene including Algeria’s Kater Atia and Italy’s Giuseppe Penone. With an annual budget of $460,000, BAC has been increasingly trying to generate its own sources of funds to counter a drop in donations — from revenues from its bookshop to sales of Lebanese art pieces. Its fundraising auction, held every two years, next takes place in 2014.

Struggling with funds

BAC is not the only institution struggling with funds. Several local galleries were skeptical about participating in the Beirut Art Fair’s fourth edition this year, after feeling the pinch. “There are years and months when we have to make sacrifices. Gallerists are a bit crazy like the artists. They have messages and we have messages too,” said owner of the Janine Rebeiz gallery, Nadine Begdache.

Fortunately the Art Fair, held in September at the Beirut International Exhibition and Leisure center, was a success. Up to 18,000 visitors attended and indulged their appetite for art from the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia regions ­— up from 11,000 last year. Sales from the 46 galleries also came in as a pleasant surprise, totaling $2.6 million — up from $2.15 million last year — according to the organizers. 

The most notable names in the local art market still have a say when it comes to prices and sales. Take Saleh Barakat for instance. Owner of the Agial Fine Art gallery, Barakat curated, along with Dagher, Lebanon’s first pavilion at the Venice Bienniale in 2007 and when he hosts an exhibition at his gallery, he claims it sells. Lebanese artist Mohammad Said Baalbaki’s “Belt” exhibition was 70 percent sold on opening night according to Barakat.

But not all galleries have been around for as long as Agial and, in these distressed economic times, exposing talent to the public becomes a costlier endeavor for galleries and private institutions. No matter the distress, artists continue producing. One tag that sums it up well is seen on the streets of Beirut’s Mar Mkhayel area: it features a cedar and the words “Keep Calm and Roo’oo Shway” [relax a little]”.


Maya Sioufi

Maya is a research consultant on Arab youth entrepreneurship and employment. She headed Executive's banking, finance and entrepreneurship sections from 2011 to 2013. Previously, she worked at JP Morgan in London in equity sales for three years. She holds an MSc in Accounting and Finance from the London School of Economics (LSE) and a BA in Economics from the American University of Beirut (AUB).