Not just another suspicious celebration

BEIRUT: “Who goes to see art here?” asks Marie Tomb. “It’s people who are well educated, and people who are not starving, to say the least. When you go to museums and exhibitions in Europe or the United States or anywhere in the West, the public is much more diverse.”

Tomb is the sharp, young curator and art historian who helped organize “Rebirth,” a show of contemporary art from Lebanon that opened at the Beirut Exhibition Center last week.

Class isn’t the only point of contrast between Beirut’s art public and that of elsewhere. While tourists “go to Paris specifically to see art … tourists here come to eat, drink and party.” She adds that there is “no culture of bringing your kids to exhibitions here, of making people appreciate art from a young age.”

Tuesday night will see Tomb moderate a roundtable discussion on who constitutes the public for art in Lebanon, and how. Five speakers are lined up to participate in the conversation.

From the commercial gallery system, there’s Naïla Kettaneh Kunigk of Munich’s Galerie Tanit and Beirut’s Espace Kettaneh Kunigk. Nayla Tamraz of Université Saint Joseph and Leila Badr, director of the American University of Beirut’s Archaeology Museum, will attend, as will Anne-Marie Afeiche, a conservator with the National Museum. From the world of non-profits straddling contemporary art, civil society and community development, there’s Amanda Abi Khalil of Haret Hreik’s UMAM Documentation and Research.

The idea of bringing these people together for a debate that’s free, open to the public and unfolding after work hours is one sign among many that “Rebirth” is a more complex project than it initially appears.

On first glance, it looks like another suspiciously celebratory show about national identity, mythology and cultural vitality. It also looks like an upgrade of the Sursock Museum’s annual Salon d’Automne – Salon 2.0, if you like – which took place in this self same venue, with many of the exact same artists, six months ago.

“It’s true. We have sixteen artists who overlap. I counted them. But for one thing,” Tomb says, “the Sursock Salon doesn’t have a theme. This show does.

“For the Sursock Salon artists present whatever work they’ve done recently. Here, we asked them to produce new works in response to the theme.

“The Sursock Salon had 130 artists. We only have 50. Here it’s more selective, if that’s not too much to say. And the Sursock Salon has a jury that gives out prizes, but here it’s just an exhibition. It’s not a competition.”

The story of “Rebirth” began in early 2010, when the “Contemparabia” caravan of curators, collectors and museum personnel were planning a whirlwind tour of Beirut and Damascus en route to the Art Dubai art fair.

Many of the travelers were keen to see as much contemporary art in Lebanon as they could in just three days. Janine Maamari, the curator of “Rebirth” and a veteran collector, thought this both exciting and absurd.

“All these people were coming from abroad,” Maamari recalls. “They were very interested in seeing Lebanese art. But with just three days, and the traffic in Beirut, and the galleries are small, what were they going to see? I said I would try to organize something for them.”

“I asked Solidere to give me a space. This space was meant to be finished, but it wasn’t, so they gave me the Dome. But it was just picking around for what I could find at the time. We had two months to organize everything. We couldn’t even do a catalogue. The show was up for three days. But it was a great success.”

Solidere asked Maamari to assemble a show for the BEC when it was finished. That show is called “Rebirth.”

It is a coincidence that “Rebirth” opened a few days after the formation of a new government and the name doesn’t mark out a moment in time at all. The show doesn’t try to suggest that Lebanon has finally found a renaissance or entered an era of progress. It simply taps the vein of resilience among artists who have some connection to the place.

The 49 participating artists lend myriad interpretations to the notion of “Rebirth,” ranging from memory and metamorphosis to the passage of time, sex and death.

Roy Samaha’s installation “Missing Originals” (2008-2010), carves out an intimate domestic interior in a corner of the hangar-sized exhibition space. Vernacular photographs are placed claustrophobically close to a table draped in dusty velvet and topped with an archaic television set. Family history becomes a curious process of attachment to and detachment from things.

Mazen Kerbaj’s “Ten Years” (2011), consists of a glass vitrine holding 24 notebooks, representing a decade of diaristic drawing. In one of the most impressive presentations of his work to date, the vitrine stands before a large panel divided into 24 screens projecting different pages from the notebooks in random combinations, scrambling their meaning and juggling the sequence of events to which they respond.

Photographer Rania Matar looks in on teenage girls hovering between adolescence and adulthood; Zena al-Khalil adds Rayes Bek, Ziad Rahbani and Wael Ghonim to her cast of characters; and Lamia Ziade makes gorgeous collages from a critique of Lebanese society’s obsession with superficial markers of status.

Marwan Sahmarani has contributed a collection of eight portraits of mustachioed, red fez-wearing men, who are posited to be unknown painters living in the Ottoman Levant. It’s a playful inversion of the idea that Lebanese artists’ personal narratives have more often been the stuff of local art history than their actual work. In Sahmarani’s piece, painting is restored as the vessel best equipped to carry meaning, and leave traces.

“What I’m interested in,” says Tomb, “is bringing artists from different worlds and points of view together, and kind of breaking down all the differences and the little cliques.”

With luck, she will use Tuesday’s talk to tackle the role criticism and art historical scholarship play in creating a public for art.

“Lebanese art is young,” she notes. It’s 150 years old at most … To establish a real critical tradition, you need more than that. I mean, real art criticism in Europe, I would date it back to the late Renaissance, and people had already been painting for forever. Maybe we don’t have enough material yet.”

“The Public of Art in Lebanon: an Assessment” takes place Tuesday night at 6 p.m. in the Beirut Exhibition Center. “Rebirth: Lebanon XXIst Century Contemporary Art” remains on view at the BEC until July 24.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on June 28, 2011, on page 16.




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