Beirut is abuzz with new art, new collectors and some exciting new exhibition platforms to bring them all together, says Zain Alatas
AT THE MENTION of the international art scene in the Middle East, most think immediately of the Gulf. In particular the UAE has made a great effort — along with head-spinning investments — to make itself an international cultural hub. But on the other side of the Arabian peninsula, in Beirut, the future is brighter. Stimulated by the rise in the interest in Middle Eastern art, the contemporary scene has begun to buzz with renewed vigour.
This is set to be a landmark year. Last year saw the first edition of a new fair, Menasart, focusing solely on work from the Menasa area (Middle East, North Africa and South Asia). The fair is set to double in size this year. Art adviser HSH Prince Charles-Henri von Lobkowicz, who has a long family connection with Lebanon, explains the upsurge: ‘Until now, important Lebanese collectors were collecting abroad. What’s more, because there was not enough going on in Lebanon, people who wanted to collect were afraid, because not enough was going on in their country, and they were not able to get an eye and develop.’
Von Lobkowicz founded his London-based firm, LAB Art, with curator Francesca Amfitheatrof and Milanese gallery owner Emanuele Bonomi last year. Their first Lebanese show, in October, was of Marc Quinn’s Siren and a selection of Flower Paintings, held in the Platinum Tower, ‘the new Trump Tower of Beirut’, as he calls it.
The show was a great success: ‘Marc Quinn was a perfect choice for a first show: he is immensely collected and in every museum; his art is also very generous and happy, full of life.’ In keeping with this theme, their next move is a show of Harland Miller’s large paintings of Penguin book dust jackets with witty yet reflective titles such as The Me I Never Knew and Who Cares, Wins, which will run in the same location from 11 May. Amfitheatrov, who conceived the show, says: ‘It is interesting to do Harland in Lebanon because there is such a great history of literature there. These paintings are like gigantic books that you step into. And they are great fun.’
It is clear that one needs to be aware of certain cultural sensitivities when dealing with clients who have been through decades of civil war: ‘I certainly do not envisage bringing difficult artists, artists who complain about how difficult it is to live, to Beirut where people have lived through 25 years of war,’ says von Lobkowicz.
Ayman Baalbaki, whose paintings of the destruction, demolition and reconstruction of Beirut’s skyline have been exhibited in Paris and the UK as well as all over the Middle East, described to Lebanon’s Daily Star newspaper how the war has permeated an entire generation of the Lebanese people: ‘The Lebanese don’t want to address the issue of the war, but at the same time it’s everywhere. I am part of a generation of artists and writers who lived twenty years of it and don’t have anything to say but about the war.’
Von Lobkowicz himself has the arts in his blood. One ancestor was the patron of Haydn and Beethoven and a dedicatee of some of their works (including Beethoven’s Eroica). His mother was Princess Françoise of Bourbon-Parma, whose line includes both donors and subjects of paintings now residing in major European galleries.
Moving into art, which he calls ‘my love, my activity and my passion’, made perfect sense. ‘People have really started to appreciate that they need an adviser whose speciality it is to know exactly what is going on in the world, to go to fairs, to organise studio visits, to have special relationships with the artists, to look after the interests of the collectors and to help them build meaningful collections.
‘The great thing about working with Lebanese clients,’ he explains, ‘is that they are obsessed with information. When they came to see the show, everyone was prepared — the questions asked showed everyone had done their homework. And since then, people who came have been calling me up constantly, asking about the fairs and wanting to know what we are going to do next.’
LAB Art is not the first to try to set up in Lebanon. Major auction houses have tried to have sales and do shows, but there have always been difficulties. Until recently there were not enough available spaces to hold a proper show, and import and export duties remain a problem when bringing works in and out. As always in this part of the world, only someone on the inside can make things run smoothly.
Von Lobkowicz has visited Lebanon several times a year since childhood and understands the pivotal role that the city can play in the future of the Middle Eastern art market. ‘Lebanon is like a lighthouse,’ he says. ‘I was in Kuwait recently, and the people there look to Lebanon as the epitome of refinement, rather like Europe looked to France in the 18th century. It is also a crossroads, a mix of cultures and religions, and it is a place where many people have the freedom to do things that are forbidden in their own countries.’
‘The Sniper’ by prominent Lebanese artist Ayman Baalbaki
PETER CURRIE, WHO left a career in New York to run Sfeir-Semler, a German Lebanese gallery with a branch in Hamburg, says: ‘Beirut has always been a city of artists. It would be wrong to suggest that we are going through a cultural boom. It is simply that more people and more galleries have started to take notice of what is going on.’ Artists represented by Sfeir-Semler include Walid Raad, perhaps the most prominent Contemporary artist from the Middle East, whose hypertextual, documentary pieces have been shown at Frieze and the Whitechapel Gallery.
Beirut is a deeply patriotic city. For galleries, pride in one’s work goes hand in hand with pride in one’s country. Saleh Barakat is director of Agial Gallery, which was established in 1990 immediately after the civil war and has launched the careers of some of the Middle East’s leading artists, including Ayman Baalbaki.
‘We are not commercial,’ he says. ‘Our mission statement is twofold: first, to preserve the modernist heritage of Beirut and the Arab world; second, to keep on nurturing artists from the Middle East and to launch them into the world. But we have been here for twenty-plus years because we believe in what we do.’
Many of the Gulf’s art problems could be traced back to a lack of authenticity — the fairs and über-museums will be built by royal decree and will stand there waiting to be filled. In Lebanon there is a wealth of history, culture and knowledge just waiting to be accommodated.