art in lebanon
Beirut’s art scene saw a true comeback during the holiday season of December 2020, with many art galleries opening exhibitions and launching new art shows by local artists. While some of these shows are still ongoing, Lebanon is currently under lockdown amidst a surge of coronavirus cases. Since the aforementioned art shows are on hold, this article reflects on the exhibitions of the recent past and anticipates the re-openings scheduled for February 2021.
Pop Up Art Gallery, Lebanon Street, Beirut December 2020. Photo by Maie El-Hage

On a Thursday evening, during December 2020, I had a classic Beiruti experience, one of those that characterizes our beloved city. I was walking up Lebanon Street, Achrafieh, making my way to a charming destination; the Louma Rabah Art Studio, door-to-door adjacent to the Pop Up Art Gallery. The lights were warm and inviting, the surrounding architecture quaint, and the excitement palpable. As I approached the socially-distancing crowd, I felt the collective yearning for normalcy. Donning masks, people were still trying to connect, to converse, to coalesce on some level. I was joyful for the next few hours as I met familiar and new faces; artists, art connoisseurs, clients, neighbors, and critics. I felt our Lebanese love for life bubble up to the surface of our current, weary existence. I was reminded why we never give up on our city.

Louma Rabah Art Studio, Lebanon Street, Beirut December 2020. Photo provided by Louma Rabah.

The Pop Up Art Gallery art show on Lebanon Street was launched by Zalfa Halabi and Lynn Modalal on December 17, 2020 and included Lebanese, Armenian and Syrian artists. Artist featured included Louma Rabah, Mohamad Khayata, Semaan Khawam, Ghylan Safadi, Shawki Youssef, Rola Abu Darwish, Fadi El Chamaa, Annie Kurkdjian, Mansour El Habre, Aya Kazoun, Petram Chalach, Sara Chaar, Noura Bakkar, Dima Tannir, Jamal Saleh, Atef Khodr, Yasmina Salameh, Lynn Atmeh, Hania Raad, Salwa Eid, Celine Layous, Andrew Hraiz, Toufic Dagher, and Layla Basma. The artworks exhibited included paintings, photography, illustration work, and sculptures. Louma’s Art Studio next door is very dynamic and offers a fresh breath of creativity to the neighborhood. Louma loves being on the main Lebanon street because of the interactions the location allows with visitors and neighbors. In her own words, “[following the August 4 blast, once the studio was restored] people came inside and said ‘thank you so much, you are bringing joy to the neighborhood, you are giving us hope’”.

“Thank you so much, you are bringing joy to the neighborhood, you are giving us hope”.

Louma Rabah in her studio. Beirut. Photo provided by Louma Rabah.

This door-to-door vibe of creativity and artistic collaborations is not exclusive to Achrafieh in Beirut. In the Clemenceau neighborhood, just two weeks earlier on December 4, 2020, I was at the Hiba Kalache exhibition at Saleh Barakat Gallery. “Our Dreams are a Second Life” is a truly immersive art show. The unstretched canvases, combined with the installation, framed drawings, and surreal quotes, hang on the white cube gallery’s walls and floor in true narrative fashion. I examined each artwork, one by one, and reveled over titles like, “I sat in the center of my own disorder”, and “I know that very well, one cannot ask for a life, or two lives”. As I moved between the artworks and the narration, I felt levitated, in a dream-like state.

Hiba Kalache “Our Dreams are a Second Life”, Saleh Barakat Gallery. Photos by Maie El-Hage.

The paintings are quite unusual; in a way, lines replace form, and smudges replace patches of paint. The scarcity of the gesture, coupled with the prevalence of the negative space (the beige of the unstretched canvas), create a sense of play of power, with the artist carefully balancing the different and rare elements that make up the artwork. To add to this dynamic, each painting seemed to balance out the adjacent one. The experience was like walking through a sub-reality, or a sur-reality.

Hiba Kalache “Our Dreams are a Second Life”, Saleh Barakat Gallery. Photo by Maie El-Hage.

Hiba Kalache is an interdisciplinary artist with an MFA from California College of the Arts (CCA) in San Francisco. Her show “Our Dreams are a Second Life” curated by Natasha Gasparian and exhibited at Saleh Barakat Gallery, will reopen and continue early February 2021 once lockdown is lifted, and it is a visit not to be missed.

Further down the roads of Hamra street, Hala Ezzeddine’s “In Search of Light” hangs on the walls of Agial Art Gallery, which I last visited on December 16, 2020. The subject matter of Hala’s paintings in this show are mostly portraits of Syrian refugees in her hometown of Arsal, near the Syrian border, in addition to a few cityscapes. Hala uses dramatic colors, often departing from reality, and yet keeping the subjects recognizable. I find that she paints as if she is sculpting, not by taking away but by adding. The layering of the brushstrokes construct recognizable figures, with the colors provoking emotions and a sense of empathy with the subjects. Hala’s work on this collection was violently interrupted by the August 4 blast, and like Louma Rabah and her contemporaries, Hala experienced a state of flux in that in-between moment; before the blast and after the blast. The challenge to continue working was a shared, collective experience that I believe we all felt and encountered.

Hala Ezzeddine, “Before and After 4 August” 2020. Photo courtesy Agial Art Gallery.

In one of the areas most affected by the blast, Gemmayze Beirut, Art on 56th Gallery worked tirelessly for months to be able to reopen with the exhibition “Comeback 2020” on December 11, 2020. It is a collective show, including the artists: Semaan Khawam, Dyala Khodary, Ghylan Safadi, Wissam Melhem, Flavio Aguilera, Zeina Kamareddine Badran, Bettina Khoury Badr, Ahmad Al Bahrani, Georges Bassil, Wissam Beydoun, Tarek Butayhi, Sara Chaar, Zouhair Dabbagh, Quentin Derouet, Naim Doumit, Mansour El Habre, Mahmoud Hamadani, Nazir Ismail, Louna Maalouf, Edgar Mazigi, Rafic Majzoub, Elias Moubarak, Mohamad Omran, Edward Shaahda, Alaa Abou Shaheen, Baris Saribas, and Yigit Yazigi.

“Comeback 2020” Group show, Art on 56th Gallery. Copyright Art on 56th.

Noha Wadi Moharram, owner and founder of Art on 56th Gallery, addresses the importance of rebuilding and reopening her gallery. “Art is a first draft of history and a voice of humanity,” she shares. “Our doors will reopen again to welcome creativity, passion, and most importantly healing and recovery. Because Art spreads a very powerful energy.

“We worked four months day and night to rebuild the gallery again from scratch, and the most important thing to us was to preserve our heritage.

“We are able to work and to create and to continue our efforts from beginning to end for the sake of Beirut, and we hope that Lebanon rises again. We want to refresh the cultural scene in Beirut, mainly in Gemmayze, to illuminate the path of recovery to inspire an opportunity for revival.”

“Comeback 2020” will reopen at Art on 56th Gallery after lockdown is lifted, and continue until February 27, 2021.

“Comeback 2020” Invitation. The exhibition is running until February 27, 2021. Art on 56th Gallery.

The art scene is well and alive in our tired Beirut. In spite of economic uncertainty, political stagnation, the pandemic and the external and internal pressures, Beirut Art Galleries are pushing forward. Gallerists and artists feel the need to keep moving, and to keep making and sharing Art.

We don’t give up on our city, and like the phoenix, Beirut will rise again. I encourage residents and visitors in Beirut to see these art shows once lockdown is lifted, and to embrace the beacon of hope that our artists are sharing with us.

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