BEIRUT: In the last 10 years, art fairs have overtaken biennials and other large-scale exhibitions as the primary drivers of the international art world.
Where once the summer schedule began with the Venice Biennale, it now kicks off with an up-and-coming art fair in Hong Kong (ART HK), stops over in Venice and then heads off to Art Basel, the mother of all art fairs (whose owners, incidentally, just bought a majority stake in ART HK).
In the Middle East, only Art Dubai and, to a lesser extent, Abu Dhabi Art, have muscled their way onto the global itinerary with fairs occurring in the spring and fall, respectively.
Despite the fact that most of the international art world habitually goes to sleep or takes a vacation during the months of July and August, Beirut is making a modest bid to extend the calendar just one more month with MENASART, a fair focusing on the Middle East, North Africa and Southeast Asia, which opens Wednesday in Hall 2 of the Beirut Exhibition and Leisure Center.
With just 24 participating galleries, MENASART doesn’t come close to the scale of ART HK and Art Basel, both of which host more than 250 galleries a year. But it is the first event of its kind to abbreviate its geographic focus into a brand.
The first edition of MENASART is in fact the fair’s second appearance in Beirut. Last year, the founding team of Laure d’Hauteville, Pascal Odille, Jean-Marc Decrop and Guillaume Taslé d’Héliand staged a “zero edition” under the patronage (and presence) of then-Prime Minister Saad Hariri.
The point of the two-day showcase was to acclimate the art world to the idea of the event, given Beirut’s status, the organizers wrote at the time, as “the summer destination of choice for wealthy collectors from the Gulf as well as returning overseas Lebanese and international jetsetters.”
Now, the fair is ready to chart its course for real. Although the number of participating galleries is down from 30, MENASART is introducing several new sections, including exhibitions, educational programming and talks.
One of the exhibitions features “monumental sculptures and installations” by artists Abdulrahman Katanani, Anita Toutikian, Samir Khaddaje and Mario Saba. All of the works consist of found materials, everyday objects and the detritus of consumer society, with or without an ironic nod to the context of hawking contemporary artworks as luxury goods.
“We asked the artists to work with junk because junk is very important now,” says Laure d’Hauteville, the fair’s manager, who previously worked on the ill-fated Abu Dhabi franchise of the French fair Art Paris.
Twelve Lebanese collectors have also selected a few of their favorite things for an exhibition that functions as a kind of imaginary museum, ranging from an important hard-edged abstraction by Saliba Douaihy and a stunning wooden sculpture by Saloua Raouda Choucair, both from the mid-1960s, to Fouad Elkoury’s famous black-and-white photograph of the Egyptian starlet Sherihan alone in a movie theater in 1987, and a diptych from Lamia Joreige’s stirring 2007 video Nights and Days.
A special section titled “Video Box” features 15 short films, videos and animations by artists from Morocco to China, including the Egyptian artist Khaled Hafez’s seemingly prescient Revolution: Liberty, Social Equity, Unity, from 2006, with three screens suggesting that the guiding principles of Arab nationalism have degenerated into military dictatorship, neoliberal capitalism and religious fundamentalism.
Citing Hafez’s work as a precursor to the Egyptian revolution and the Arab Spring at large, d’Hauteville says: “We can see that the artists knew a long time ago, but no one wanted to see.”
In her introduction to the MENASART catalogue, she elaborates the point. “The final months of 2010 and 2011 were enriched with so many events that touched our hearts and blew our minds,” she writes, “and this ‘spring’ continues to blossom! We sincerely hope it will bloom and bear fruit, and wish that no bitterness will make us regret our past.”
Art is universal, she argues, and the Internet has made it more so. Beyond that, chaos theory and the butterfly effect add up to art’s ability to change the world. “Could the stroke of a pen or paintbrush bring forth water and flowers in a desert on the other side of the world? The answer is yes,” she writes. “Do you doubt this?” At which point, she suggests, a walk through MENASART makes the point decisively enough. Artists have fanned the flames of democratic aspiration in the region.
That may be so, but presenting the fair as a paragon of the Arab Spring sits awkwardly with the decision to name Saudi Arabia the fair’s guest of honor, particularly if you are an artist who fanned the flames of democratic aspiration in Bahrain. Aside from providing a safe haven for deposed dictators, Saudi Arabia’s official position vis-à-vis revolution in the region hasn’t exactly been that of a benevolent patron, or even a lukewarm enabler.
Then again, independent initiatives such as Edge of Arabia have done an admirable job in recent years of assembling exhibitions that highlight both the creative and critical potential of Saudi Arabia’s nascent contemporary art scene. Two of Edge of Arabia’s founders, the artists Ahmed Mater and Abdulnasser Gharem, have largely pioneered that scene, and neither has shied away from art about politics, or even art as politics.
To mark Saudi Arabia’s country of honor status, MENASART has partnered up with two of Edge of Arabia’s artists, Reem al-Faisal and Lulwah al-Homoud (who also co-curated the group’s first outing in 2008), to create “Nabatt: A Sense of Being.” Faisal and Homoud, operating as the company Cube Arts, have assembled an exhibition of works by 15 artists, ranging from relatively traditional paintings and sculptures to photographs and mixed media collages that appear graphic and fresh.
While Homoud insists that art and politics are separate realms and should remain as such, Faisal argues that a show like “Nabatt” is important because it gives the world a vision of Saudi Arabian art that is both authentic and contemporary, neither imitating the west nor regurgitating “fake” Islamic culture.
Moreover, she adds, on the subjects of Bahrain and the Arab Spring, “Every country has contradictions. America supports democracy and kills Iraqis. There are contradictions everywhere. It doesn’t mean we are not part of the Arab world or that our artists are not part of contemporary Arab culture.”
MENASART runs July 13-16 at BIEL. For more information, please see www.menasart-fair.com.