By Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi
In an Al-Monitor article in 2013, I suggested that partly because of the civil strife, traditional core cities in the Arab world such as Damascus, Cairo and Baghdad are facing, as well as increased cultural investments by Gulf states, the center of gravity for art and culture in the Arab world was shifting eastward to Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Doha. The article created controversy both within the Gulf states and the wider Arab world.
Sadly, these “core” Arab cities have only faced more setbacks since 2013. Terror attacks have escalated and museums have been looted. But there is reason to celebrate. For instance, prompted by the grotesque destruction of the Mosul Museum by the Islamic State thugs, Baghdad brought forward the opening of its national museum 12 years after it closed; Egypt finally reopened the National Museum of Modern Art in Cairo as well as the Mahmoud Said Museum in Alexandria, which also houses the Wanly brothers collection. Elsewhere in the Arab world, Morocco inaugurated a brand-new museum dedicated to art in Rabat, Amman’s Darat Al Funun continues to present a world-class series of exhibitions and Algeria is celebrating the naming of the northeastern city of Constantine as “capital city of Arabic culture in 2015” by UNESCO as part of its mega investments in cultural projects.
However, some of the most interesting developments in culture anywhere in the Middle East have been quietly taking place in Lebanon’s capital, Beirut. The once culturally buzzing city, whose name became synonymous with civil war, terror attacks and assassinations over the last four decades, seems to be steadily reclaiming the crown of Arab culture. But what is more impressive is the organic growth of the cultural scene in Beirut that is flourishing despite the dysfunctional Lebanese government, or perhaps because of it.
Unlike in its sister cities in the Gulf, very little of this cultural blossoming is driven by the state whose efforts concentrated on preserving and reopening the war-damaged National Museum of Beirut. An exception would be the partly government-backed Sursock Museum, which is slated to reopen in the coming weeks after a $13 million renovation that lasted several years and an expansion of its exhibition space to 8,500 square meters (2.10 acres). The funds were raised through various donations as well as government municipal taxes. Across Lebanon, a number of other museums continue to operate including one dedicated to the renowned poet and artist Khalil Gibran (1883-1931) in the picturesque mountainous town of Bcharre that includes 440 paintings.
Plans are also being developed for private museums to house the collections of major art patrons such as Palestinian Ramzi Dalloul, who has amassed what is probably the largest collection of modern and contemporary Arab art in private hands with over 3,300 works (in comparison, Qatar’s Mathaf has a collection of 8,000 mostly Arab artworks that also includes art from Turkish, Iranian and “other regions connected to the Arab world”). Retail entrepreneur Tony Salame has commissioned architect Zaha Hadid to design a $50 million flagship department store that will also include an art space of 3,000 square meters (0.74 acres) to display his collection of 1,000 artworks. Fondation Saradar, established in 2000, aims at building a private museum to house its collection of Lebanese works. Recently, an auction was held in Lebanon for yet another art museum called Beirut Contemporary, which is scheduled to open its doors in 2020. The auction raised almost twice the estimate initial amount at close to $1 million.
Lebanese institutions are also playing an important role in this cultural renaissance. In 2013, the American University of Beirut (AUB) inaugurated the AUB Byblos Bank Art Gallery a year after it received a donation of 60 paintings of Lebanese modern art pioneers. Financier and founder of Audi Bank Raymond Audi is said to have the largest collection of art in Lebanon. Audi began collecting art in the 1980s and has divided his collection into two parts: Old European master works are housed in the bank’s headquarters in Geneva, while the vault and offices of the branches in Lebanon hold predominantly modern and contemporary European and Lebanese art.
While the art market in some Middle Eastern states is dependent on a few buyers, the list of Lebanese art collectors is exhaustive. The Mokbel Art Collection, for instance, boasts a number of masterpieces by renowned artists such as Paul Guiragossian (1926-93). In its September 2014 issue, le Commerce du Levant profiled other major collections including Souheid (50 works), Maktabi (70 works), Buchakjian (50 works), Saade (140 works), Karabajakian (600 works), Jabre (200 works), Nahas (undisclosed) and Ramzi Saidi (600 works). These collectors are no doubt aided by a growing number of commercial art galleries that have sprouted in Beirut over the past decade.
Lebanon also boasts an incredible array of nonprofit art spaces. In 2009, the 1,486-square-meter Beirut Art Center (BAC) became the country’s “first major nonprofit art space." In addition to hosting some of the Middle East’s most cutting-edge contemporary group art exhibitions, the BAC has hosted the first Middle East’s solo exhibit of the renowned London-based Beirut-born Palestinian artist Mona Hatoum along with Berlin-based Algerian artist Kader Attia. Recently, Beirut’s so-called Rose House, built in 1882, was recommissioned and is currently hosting temporary art exhibitions but will be turned into a museum. Also in central Beirut, the Mansion, a once abandoned 1930s villa reopened in 2012 as an artistic space offering residencies, screenings and exhibitions while the MACAM art museum, housed in a large, converted factory, has become famous for its displays of sculptures.
Architects Makram El Kadi and Ziad Jamaleddine from L.E.F.T. were commissioned to reimagine a former exhibition center and turn it into the 1,200-square-meter Beirut Exhibition Center that has hosted solo exhibitions by Syria’s Marwan and Palestine’s Samia Halaby, as well as group shows such as "Art in Iraq Today" and "Bridge to Palestine." The Lebanese Association for Plastic Arts, also known as Ashkal Alwan was established as early as 1993 with a mandate to facilitate artistic production. In 2011, it inaugurated Home Workspace, a new 200-square-meter facility in the Jisr el Wati area. In fact, art centers seem to be sprouting like mushrooms in Lebanon including in Dahiye, the stronghold of Hezbollah, which in 2005 witnessed the opening of the Hangar where cutting-edge art projects are realized.
Perhaps because of the relative ease in obtaining nonprofit and foundation licenses, pan-Arab cultural institutions have also found a home in Beirut. The Arab Image Foundation, a nonprofit, was established in 1997 and aims to collect and preserve photographs from the Middle East and the Arab diaspora. Its 600,000-image collection has recently grown to include photographs from Latin America and Africa. Lebanon is also home to the Arab Fund for Arts and Culture, which was established in 2007 to fund individuals who work in various fields from visual and performing arts to cinema and literature.
One may even wonder whether all this is happening perhaps a little too fast and with little oversight and coordination. For instance, Beirut is now the site of what seems to be two unrelated museums tackling civilization and archaeology, one designed by Italian architect Renzo Piano that has apparently secured funding to the tune of $30 million from Kuwait and another by GM Architects.
Despite the upswing in sentiment, however, obstacles remain to Beirut’s cultural ambitions. The country had a “care-taker government” throughout much of 2013, while it has been without a president since May 2014. Lebanon’s infrastructure including its electricity and telephone services are in a dismal condition. Moreover, there is an unshakable cloud of political uncertainty that looms over Beirut. In 2006, Israeli jets targeted Lebanon’s only airport shutting it down for weeks and forcing people to flee using the seaports and the Syrian border, an option that is no longer available. Recently, a major art dealer in North Africa told Al-Monitor of his apprehensions regarding selling important artworks to a major collector in Lebanon. “You never know what would happen there, I don’t want to lose the history of my country,” the art dealer said.
Sadly, the risk of losing artworks is not entirely far-fetched. In the 1970s, 200 artists from all over the world contributed in solidarity artworks for a Palestine museum in exile including Iraq’s Dia Azzawi and Kadhim Haidar, Morocco’s Mohamed Chebaa and Mohamed Kacimi, among others. The works were exhibited in the 1978 International Art Exhibition for Palestine in Lebanon, but were destroyed during the Israeli siege of Beirut in 1982 (an exhibition that tackles this event is currently running at Barcelona’s MACBA).
Despite the uncertainties, the Lebanese remain a resilient people who have weathered past turmoil and who benefit from an unrivaled network of successful Lebanese immigrants across the world. Beirut also remains the only city in the Arab world where artworks tackling taboo issues such as nudity, homosexuality, drug abuse, prostitution as well as candid political depictions can be displayed in public without fear of reprisal. In a region that is witnessing numerous raging fires from a crackdown on freedom of expression to bloodshed and human rights abuses, Beirut’s openness is indeed a breath of fresh air.