Prior to the opening of the Beirut Art Fair, Art Radar selects a few highlights not to be missed.
Now in its 7th edition, the Beirut Art Fair gathers galleries and artists from all over the globe during a week-long event that sees Beirut’s art scene alive with exhibitions and other programmes alongside the commercial platform of the fair.
Beirut Art Fair and the local art scene
Lebanon’s flourishing contemporary art scene is typically dated to 1991 when the still unresolved Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990) ceased and a number of collectives of artists began organising screenings, performance and exhibitions in appropriated spaces around the capital city.
The formalisation of these activities in the late 2000s is best demonstrated by the establishment of permanent institutional homes for once tiny not-for-profit organisations such as Ashkal Alwan (set up in 1994 by a group of artists) or The Arab Image Foundation (founded in 1997). The prodigal return of commercial gallery Sfeir-Semler to Beirut in 2005, after nearly 20 years of representing ME.NA.SA region’s most successful artists from a base in Hamburg, further confirms Beirut and its 80 or so galleries as a key centre of exchange for the art market.
Founded in 2011, the Beirut Art Fair (BAF) consolidates the city’s status as one of the most important centres for art in the Middle Eastern region. In 2015, BAF welcomed 21,000 visitors, with 51 exhibiting galleries from 19 countries and recording revenues of USD3.2 million (twice those of the inaugural edition). At the 2016 edition, 40 galleries from 18 countries (including Argentina, Egypt, Thailand, Algeria, Belgium, France, Bahrain, Jordan and Palestine) will meet in Beirut from 15 to 18 September.
Beirut Art Fair catering to regional needs
Now in its seventh edition (PDF download), BAF appears more than capable of catering to this growing interest in Beirut as a global capital of contemporary art as well as responding to the needs of local art histories still in the process of acquiring form. That the fair has not succeeded in attracting the most cutting edge of galleries (Sfeir-Semler Gallery has never participated) seems beside the point: the programme of projects and list of participating galleries reflect a set of regional objectives and interests that mark its independence from other larger fairs such as Art Dubai, Frieze or Art Basel.
This difference is characterised on the one hand by a commitment to nurturing the relationship between the Arab world and Asia who have been “paying more attention to each other in recent years”, as stated by the fair’s director Laure d’Hauteville in an interview with The Culture Trip. On the other hand, as Artistic Director Pascal Odille states in the press release, the BAF is committed to encouraging
the ‘rediscovery’ of artists who have been neglected by art history and the art market for various reasons: politics, censorship or even due to some collectors focusing primarily on Western art until the late 1990s.
Art Radar previews five highlights from amoung the 40 participating galleries and the fair’s 5 special projects.
1. “Lebanon Modern! Women Artists in Lebanon 1945 to 1975”
Loaned from various private and public collections worldwide, the works in the exhibition “Lebanon Modern! Women Artists in Lebanon 1945 to 1975” organised by BAF are by women artists of Lebanese descent who have rarely been incorporated into the nation’s narratives of modern art despite having contributed significantly to the Lebanese arts scene throughout the 19th and 20th century from within the country and as part of the diaspora. The list of 13 artists included in the exhibition begins chronologically in order of date of birth with Bibi Zogbé (1890-1973) and extends to a number of currently working painters such as Nadia Saikali (b.1936, Beirut) and Seta Manoukian (b.1945, Beirut).
The work of Sao Paulo-born Yvette Achkar (b.1928) and Laure Ghorayeb (b.1931, Der El Qamar) stands out for their long careers in painting, which they have deployed for civil war critique as well as more abstract explorations of spirituality. This exhibition joins other recent local and international curatorial endeavours (such as MACBA’s “Past Disquiet” that travelled globally throughout 2015-2016 exploring the traces of the exhibition “The International Art Exhibition for Palestine” held in Beirut in 1978) in which lesser known figures or events are revisited and revealed to be protagonists in the city’s art history.
2. Galerie Janine Rubeiz – Christine Kettaneh
Galerie Janine Rubeiz, whose late founder was responsible for the establishment of Lebanon’s first cultural center in 1967, represents both the aforementioned painters Yvette Achkar and Laure Ghorayeb. The gallery opened in its current guise in 1993 in Beirut and represents both emerging and established artists. Represented artist Christine Kettaneh’s (b.1982, Beirut) work seeks the contradictions and crossovers between economics, poetry and art practice (she holds an MA in Finance and Economics from the London School of Economics and an MFA from Central Saint Martins London). In the work Soap Coins (2014), a ritualistic action made in collaboration with British performer Clare Whistler in Seaford (UK), Kettaneh explained the basics of economic theories before an audience using words such as ‘maximising’, ‘equilibrium’, ‘volatility’, ‘invisible hand’ while her collaborator responded with a series of gestures. The audience was then invited to follow Whistler and Kettaneh to the seaside where they received Kettaneh’s work: a series of coin shaped soaps engraved with the same key words.
The public were asked to place the soap in the water and watch and feel the words foam and disappear at the ocean’s edge. Many of Kettaneh’s projects result in the exploration of one semantic system by collapsing it into another: she irreverently mixes performance and economic theory, domestic objects and poetry. Speaking to Art Radar, Kettaneh explained that she will be making work as a participant in the “Revealing Section” at the fair, which is one of BAF’s special projects dedicated to showcasing artists whose careers are just beginning. Galerie Janine Rubeiz will also be showing the work of composer and artist Zad Moultaka (b.1967, Beirut) at BAF, who was recently selected to represent Lebanon at the 57th International Biennale of Contemporary Art in Venice.
3. Agial Art Gallery – Oussama Baalbaki
Agial Art Gallery settled in the Hamra neighbourhood of Beirut in 1990 with the aim of promoting contemporary Arab art. At BAF they will be showing the work of Oussama Baalbaki (b.1978, Beirut), a painter whose subject matter and style echoes Expressionism’s existentialism: his works are predominantly self-portraits, landscapes and bleak urban scenes. Despite his traditional techniques and subject matter the artist’s concerns are decidedly contemporary. His questioning of modernity’s projects of progress, exploration of the conflicts between subject and object in representational practices and demonstration of the tensions between utopias and dystopias are usually given away by some anomalous section of the image or object portrayed.
In Untitled (2016) a picturesque Van Gogh-esque landscape is dealt awry with the depiction of the backend of a billboard and motorway electric light fixtures that occupy most of the foreground. The Beirut-born artist graduated from Lebanese University School of Fine Art in 2002 and has exhibited widely in Lebanon.
4. Wadi Finan Art Gallery – Fatima Mortada
Wadi Finan Art Gallery was established with funding from the Mayor of Amman in Jordan’s capital city in 2008. Since then it has developed a public education programme encouraging local interaction with the gallery’s artists as well as supporting various young and established artists from the ME.NA.SA region. At BAF they will be showing the work of Lebanese artist Fatima Mortada (b.1980, Beirut) who studied Fine Art and Textiles at Winchester School of Art in the United Kingdom before winning a scholarship for a three year PhD programme at the same university.
Her work is rooted in investigating the materiality of the body through a series of practices historically associated with women’s work: sewing, textile design and printmaking. Speaking to Art Radar about her recent work, she explains:
From my point of view, the body is not just a concrete fact. But it is a whole system that is imbued with endless elements. History is the main factor that shapes these elements. It is, as though, our bodies are overgrown with events, gestures, fantasies, functions and strategies.
Her explorations of the body and gender as a political and not necessarily biological phenomenon are thus often performed through the prism of mythic narratives, appropriated from contemporary tales as well as ancient narrations, from the Old Testament Bible to Native American Navajo stories.
5. Albareh Art Gallery Bahrain – Semaan Khawam
Founded in 1998 in the Adliya neighbourhood in Manama, Albareh Art Gallery is one of the leading galleries in Bahrain (and affiliated with the establishment of aforementioned Wadi Finan Art Gallery in Amman). Playing a significant role in the cultural landscape of the country, the gallery has dedicated itself to showing works of established as well as emerging artists from the ME.NA.SA region and its diaspora.
At BAF they are showing the work of the Damascus-born self-taught graffiti painter, sculptor and poet Semaan Khawam (b.1973), whose paintings draw as much from his Syrian identity as his adolescent years in Beirut, filled with acts of minor civil disobedience and an intense creativity that he applied to developing various modes and means of earning an income (he has worked as a set designer and actor amoung other roles). Speaking to Art Radar about his current projects he explained: “I am now working on a series of sculptures using waste from my workshop. […] the sculpture’s are containers where I put the waste.” His paintings and sculptures are as dejected and freely abandoned as his poetry, which has been published internationally.
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