Beirut’s contemporary art scene struggled through 2007

December 28th, 2007 | Posted in Beirut, Culture, Lebanon, Politics
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    By Kaelen Wilson-Goldie. Daily Star. Friday, December 28, 2007

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    Photo: Nadim Asfar, Beirut.

BEIRUT: For the contemporary art scene in Beirut, 2006 was a tough year, as it was for nearly every other sector in the country, creative industries and otherwise. Twelve months ago, few might have guessed that 2007 would be worse. But it was. The opposition protests in Downtown Beirut turned epic. Riots broke out on Black Tuesday. Explosions and assassinations continued. The fighting at Naher al-Bared and the displacement of thousands of refugee-camp residents made vibrant cultural life remote, irrelevant and impossible. The ongoing fiasco surrounding the failure of Lebanon’s political class to elect a president is at best bad theater.

All of this has enervated the art scene and depleted the will of its players. In 2007, the summer music festivals at Baalbek and Beiteddine were cancelled. The Beirut International Film Festival was quietly postponed. Ashkal Alwan (the Lebanese Association for Plastic Arts) rescheduled the fourth edition of the Home Works Forum from November 2007 to April 2008, in hopes (rapidly diminishing) of avoiding sharing the calendar with a vote for Lebanon’s top executive office.

Amal Traboulsi’s Galerie Epreuve d’Artiste is gone. So too is the short-lived V&A Gallery. Plans to develop an arts district in Saifi Village are all but dead, with efforts shifting from gallery-hopping to straightforward shopping (Galerie Piece Unique continues to mount exhibitions, and a few artists, such as Rafik Majzoub and Semaan Khawam, still wrangle vacant spaces out of Solidere to show their work). The Agial Art Gallery in Hamra has yet to revive its exhibition program, which ceased with the 2006 war. Galerie Janine Rubeiz in Raouche deserves credit for persevering and continuing to champion young artists like Roody Khalil, who put on an impressive exhibition of photographs in July. Galerie Sfeir-Semler also deserves respect for responding to tough times with excellent exhibitions of matchless quality and vigor.

Espace SD in Gemmayzeh, which had grown over the course of seven years into active all-purpose cultural center, closed its doors not due to an economy in freefall but rather to allow director Sandra Dagher to regroup her efforts.

And regroup she did. Over the summer, Dagher and Saleh Barakat of Agial organized Lebanon’s first-ever national pavilion at the Venice Biennale. In the worst of circumstances, the pair pulled together an elegant exhibition entitled “Foreword,” featuring works by Walid Sadek, Akram Zaatari, Fouad Elkoury, Lamia Joreige and Mounira al-Solh. Then, with gallerist Naila Kettaneh-Kunigk, Dagher organized a solo exhibition for Lamia Joreige, with whom Dagher is also collaborating to create the Beirut Art Center.

So it wasn’t all gloom and doom on the cultural front. But some of the best works created this year were shown abroad. Artists, especially young ones, are leaving the country in droves. While the Gulf soaks cultural initiatives in capital, Beirut is stuck if not backtracking. Its standing as the region’s most critical and intellectually sophisticated contemporary art scene is tenuous, if it still exists at all.

The following, highly subjective list details the best moments the art scene had to offer in 2007. It is significant that only two are gallery exhibitions. The rest were performative, itinerant, staged in derelict spaces or shown for festivals. There are nine rather than ten selections in recognition of a spare year.

Randa Mirza, “Abandoned Rooms”

Featured in the exhibition “Moving Walls” at Espace SD, Gemmayzeh, Beirut, February 8 through March 3

Randa Mirza’s series of beautiful, haunting photographs was shown for the first time in Lebanon during “Moving Walls,” a traveling exhibition of documentary photography sponsored by the Open Society Institute. “Abandoned Rooms” adds to the ample evidence that Mirza is an artist to watch.

Tarek Zaki, “Time Machine: Remembering Tomorrow”

Basim Magdi, “Untitled, 2002-2006″

Featured in the exhibition “Out of Place” at Galerie Sfeir-Semler, Karantina, Beirut, March 30 through June 30

William Wells of the Townhouse Gallery of Contemporary Art in Cairo put together a terrific group show for Galerie Sfeir-Semler, featuring particularly strong installations by Tarek Zaki (playing time-traveling archaeologist) and Basim Magdy (playing too-cool-for-school prankster with drawings that grow thoughtful and profound over time).

Ali Cherri, “Slippage”

Nadim Asfar, “Print (1)”

Featured in the festival Video Avril at Masrah al-Madina, Hamra, Beirut, April 12 through April 15

Ashkal Alwan organized the first-ever Video Avril festival this year, featuring nearly 30 new works by emerging and established video artists. Most of the pieces were disappointing, but Ali Cherri’s “Slippage” and Nadim Asfar’s “Print (1)” were astonishing. Ziad Antar, Maher Abi Samra, Ghassan Salhab and Lamia Joreige also turned out strong, thought-provoking pieces.

Lina Saneh, “Appendice” and “Body Parts”

Performance at Galerie Sfeir-Semler, Karantina, Beirut, April 21 and April 22

Ongoing project HERE

Lina Saneh’s performance and ongoing project, for which she endeavors to circumvent the laws that ban her from being cremated as she wishes when she dies, is a ruthlessly creative inquiry into individualism, agency and the possibility of a community built on shared rather than feudal interests.

Various artists, “Sweet Eye”

Group exhibition at the Association for Young Palestinian Refugees, Ain al-Hilweh, Sidon, September 1

Artist Ziad Antar led a five-day workshop for 10 local teenagers from Ain al-Hilweh in August. The result was an exuberant one-day exhibition of photographs, including poetic series by Ramzi Hachicho and Antar himself.

Rabih Mroue, “How Nancy Wished That Everything Was an April Fool’s Joke”

Performance at Masrah al-Madina, Hamra, Beirut, August 30

After the hysteria surrounding the bureaucratic foolishness that saw Rabih Mroue’s latest performance piece banned and unbanned by Lebanon’s censor, “How Nancy Wished That Everything Was an April Fool’s Joke” made its Beirut premiere with two shows in a single night in August. The piece strives less than Mroue’s earlier work “Who’s Afraid of Representation” to get out of the labyrinthine psychic space that is local politics, but its narrative structure and visual play with militia posters made “Nancy” the must-see work of the year, all the more so when Mroue reprised it for a 10-night run at Masrah al-Madina this month.

Various artists, “Be-Sides”

Group exhibition at the Hangar, Umam D&R, Haret Hreik, October 19 through November 4

This exhibition grew out of workshop organized by the Goethe Institute and led by German photographer Frauke Eigen. Eleven young photographers responded to a brief about capturing their lives by creating fiercely independent bodies of work that were among the best shown in Lebanon this year.

Wael Shawky, “Al-Aqsa Park”

Featured in the festival Meeting Points 5 at the Estral Center, Hamra, Beirut, November 13 through November 25

The rollicking contemporary arts festival organized by Cairo’s Young Arab Theater Fund hit nine cities across the Arab world in November. It was much fun and a complete mess and in Beirut, it tucked Wael Shawky’s mesmerizing video installation “Al-Aqsa Park,” in which the mosque ominously spins and lifts off like an amusement park ride, into a gutted corner of the Estral Center.

“Hashem El Madani: Itinerary”

Exhibition of 41 photographs in 33 locations throughout the old city of Sidon, November 3 through the present

The most innovative exhibition of the year saw Hashem El Madani’s old photographs of shopkeepers in Sidon re-instated at businesses, boutiques and cafes, making the entire old city like a sprawling museum. Akram Zaatari’s ongoing work on the Madani archive, with the Arab Image Foundation, is arguably the most interesting, unusual and ambitious art projects to come down the pike in Lebanon in years.

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