When foreign journalists flock to Beirut it can be cause for alarm, but an increasingly compelling annual art tradition is attracting more and more press to Lebanon for all the right reasons. Over 20 international journalists, as well as artists, gallerists, collectors, experts and others in the industry flew in from around the world for the 7th edition of the Beirut Art Fair, to discover Lebanon’s rich artistic heritage, quickly-expanding art scene and its growing potential as an international destination for art – much to the delight of local hotels, several of which were reportedly at capacity during the busy week.
Held this year from September 15 – 18 at Beirut International Exhibition & Leisure Center (BIEL), BAF features a total of 1,500 artworks by 300 artists of 30 nationalities, with a special focus on renowned Lebanese women artists of the modernist period, a new platform dedicated to emerging talent, as well annual staples like the Bank Byblos Award for Photography. The fair’s VIP program also includes visits to local museums, galleries, exhibitions and private collections.
BAF is a must-see for the international community, but for the Lebanese who have witnessed the cultural boom over roughly the last decade, it should also be a source of pride. “BAF is not our pride [as organizers], it should be the pride of the Lebanese,” says fair founder and director Laure d’Hauteville, adding, “Look at the wealth of your country; Lebanon has always been ahead of its time in the region and even in the West, and you should be proud of your rich heritage.”
That heritage was on display in what is probably this year’s most exceptional feature: Lebanon Modern!, sponsored by Bankmed. An homage to 13 progressive Lebanese women artists from 1945-1975, the exhibit brings together pieces offered by private collectors and the Ministry of Culture in Lebanon, showcasing artworks by well-known artists like Saloua Raouda Choucair and Helen Khal; Etel Adnan, who is also known for her literary pursuits; as well as lesser-known talents from earlier years, like Bibi Zogbé.
These women pioneered styles, techniques and controversial subjects, and some were pioneers just for being artists at all. Huguette Caland, the daughter of President Bechara El Khoury and Cici Sursock of the famous clan came from families that often didn’t condone women getting their hands dirty with paint. Juliana Séraphim depicted erotic taboos, Marie Haddad’s subjects were bedouins and farmers, while Nadia Saïkali began making art out of plexiglass as the material was just becoming popular with Western artists.
The selection is not only a display of beautiful works by prominent artists, but also “a move towards the broader public recognition of creations by women,” according BAF Artistic Director Pascal Odille, who emphatically praised the work of these strong, forward-thinking women that marked Lebanon’s art scene with their creative energy, but some of whom are still little-known to the general public.
According to d’Hauteville it’s also a tribute to the Lebanese woman – strong, soft, creative and free – something rare in the region and even in the West, she says. “These women were very important to modernism,” she says, adding, “To know ourselves, it’s important for us to know our history. It will help us in the present and to advance into the future.”
The 5th annual Byblos Bank Award for Photography takes up a corner space, displaying the work of photographers that took part in their workshops as well as the selected entries by Lebanese photographers for this year’s prize, with the winner announced on the final day.
Another large section of the fair is dedicated to Revealing, supported by SGBL, a space for discovering emerging talent. Galleries and artists from Lebanon and other countries as varied as Iran, Cuba, Poland and Sudan, showcase remarkable work that spans painting, sculpture, embroidery and mixed media.
There are 19 exhibitors from Lebanon in the general exhibition space. One of the galleries taking part since the very first BAF is EmmaGoss Art Galerie belonging to the famed Guiragossian family of artists that have painted for generations. A striking painting of Baalbek by Paul Gossian, the grandson named after acclaimed Paul Guiragossian, hangs at the Mark Hachem Gallery space close by, which represents the young artist and his brother Marc.
Some of the 52 galleries at the fair are in Beirut for the first time. Galerie baudoin lebon, originally from France and with a second branch in South Korea, was approached by BAF to exhibit. Their representative explains, “we always want to try new markets.” Another newcomer testing the Lebanese market is Belarus’ A&V Art Gallery, featuring the impressive kaleidoscope-like work of Alexandr Nekrashevich.
Italy’s Galleria Pack, also participating for the first time in BAF, showcases four pieces by photographer Matteo Basile, whose work is currently on show at the Museum of Contemporary Art of Rome. Of their presence at BAF, gallery director Giampaolo Abbondio says, “In Italy it has become more about the art market, how you can make money from buying art and then selling it. What I’m seeing [in Lebanon] is a lot of genuine curiosity for the artwork itself, which is very gratifying for an art gallerist.”
In 2016 the BAF’s aim is to strengthen its positioning as a leading showcase and to promote artistic creation in the region. The goal for exhibitors, of course, is to make money. Abbonido’s total cost for shipping and displaying his pieces here adds up to around 12,000 euro, while the pieces in his stand sell for between 8,500 and 17,500 euro. He says he’d be happy and consider coming back next year if he sells at least enough to covers his costs. Whatever the costs involved to participate, the fair has a good track record of sales. The BAF’s revenue has tripled since 2010, and in 2015 a total of $3.2 million in artwork was sold.
As the average Lebanese use this time to soak up talent that has conveniently gathered under one roof, the industry is abuzz with business in an exciting emerging market. Abbondio admits his other goal in Beirut is to network with others in the industry and possibly find other markets for his art. “It’s incredible to see that all these artists [and galleries] are meeting here for the Beirut Art Fair,” echoes d’Hauteville of the networking opportunities.
Whether you go for enjoyment or investment, visiting the BAF and witnessing first-hand the caliber of art, artists, galleries and art lovers Lebanon has managed to attract should instil a sense of pride. The Lebanese have a tendency to ogle the grass on the other side of the fence when the grass on this side is greener than they realize. If it takes a surge of foreign press and a hall full of artworks to teach us patriotism then so be it, but it’s indeed time to be proud of Lebanon – starting with its flourishing art scene and another impressive edition of the Beirut Art Fair.