This is the latest in a series of interviews with Beirut-area gallerists about the shifting challenges and opportunities in representing Lebanese and other Arab artists in the international art market.
BEIRUT: Situated off Hamra Street, Agial Art Gallery is one of the city’s art institutions. Founder Saleh Barakat opened the space in 1990 with a strong mission statement: to encourage artists from Lebanon and the region. Barakat views his role as a gallerist to be anchored in the country’s artistic development.
Q: What Lebanese artists do you represent?
A: Now I’m working with an artist living between Beirut, London and New York. Her work is about Lebanon and that is essential for me ... One of my artists, Abdelrahman Katanani, has just won a [three month] residency in France, at the end of which he will be exhibiting in Paris.
Q: Do you have any exhibitions planned for the coming year? Which artists are involved? Are these solo shows or group shows?
A: We are participating at [‘Art is the Answer!’ an exhibition of Lebanese art now up at the Bogossian Foundation’s] Villa Empain [in Brussels] with five artists. [We are joining] the 20th anniversary of Paris’ Institut du Monde Arabe in October 2012 with two artists. We have Saloua Raouda Choucair’s retrospective at the Tate Modern next year. We’re cooperating with [the Janine Rubeiz Gallery’s] Nadine Begdache on the [BEC’s] retrospective of Shafik Abboud ...
It’s an ongoing process ... I attend some art fairs. Not a lot. Going to art fairs means somehow directing your interest more toward the international market. We are very much invested here, and we have very much to do in this part of the world ...
We do at least six-to-eight exhibitions a year in Lebanon. Plus, we have to participate to some art fairs that we believe are essential to promote our artists, such as ArtDubai or Abu Dhabi Art. In ... Abu Dhabi we are always flirting with the upcoming museums. Dubai is a platform where we can meet international curators, those particularly who are reluctant to come to Beirut.
Many people would think that not being present on the international market is somehow a kind of weakness or failure. In my case ... it is a very conscious decision ... It doesn’t mean that I’m not interested in the international market, but not at the expense of the market here.
Q: Do you find you make more sales at art fairs or at free-standing (solo and group) exhibitions?
A: ... When I go to art fairs I don’t take what I have [in order] to sell it. In fact, I’m pretty successful here. I don’t have much to export. But if we go outside it’s mostly to promote. So usually we go with an image, trying to show the best of what you can find in Lebanon and if somebody is interested I find it more appealing if the person comes to Beirut because what we can show him in Beirut is better that the [small sample] that we can show in an art fair abroad.
My future expansion will be in Lebanon. It could have been easy to open a branch in Dubai, Paris or London, but that is against my mission statement ... The first priority is to have local artists supported by local collectors and defended by a strong local market.
I have the highest respect for galleries ... with the main aim of promoting Lebanese artists abroad ... We are proud to be part of this urban context and we would like to empower and develop it, so that one day it becomes globally connected.
Q: How has the market for Lebanese artists changed over the years?
A: The Lebanese art market has always been powerful. It has always been present. Today there is more publicity and international interest in it. That’s why people think it has changed. Before the war it was pretty powerful. During the war it became more localized, because of the situation, but it remained very strong. It was a prosperous period.
Now ... the international market is getting more interested in what’s happening on the local scene. The local art scene is becoming more global, which is natural. Now, there are more spaces available to attract more international audience and curators. But it’s not that these things didn’t happen before.
Q: How do you decide which work is worthy of international exhibition?
A: Each gallery will develop somehow its own preferences and it will develop a sort of clientele with preferences. We have an interest in nurturing young emerging artists and Middle Eastern contemporary art. Nowadays, art is divided between practice and theory and the theoretical part of art is more fashionable than the practice itself – to the extent that some people believe that if you have good theory, you don’t need practice.
I really appreciate artists with a conceptual background. I do insist that they have a strong art practice as well ... This is what we would like to defend. My inclinations are, from one side, to defend the modernist period, and, from the other side, to nurture an emerging young generation, which is combining a strong conceptual underpinning of their art with practice.
Q: Do you consider your artists to be Arab/Lebanese artists first, or artists first?
A: My ultimate vision is to be able to carry an artist who is today labeled ‘Lebanese,’ and to pull him out of this to become a global artist or simply an artist. This is what ... we dream of doing – being able to get the Lebanese artist out of this label. We’re not in the position to decide. We work with what we have. If the only way to access the London market is to go under the umbrella of ‘Middle Eastern art,’ then we use it. But our ambition is for people to appreciate art as art and not as Lebanese art. We use this in order to enter the door, but not that I believe art has frontiers.
Q: Is it possible to generalize about the characteristics “Lebanese” or “Arab” art that makes it distinct from work being made elsewhere in the world nowadays?
A: ... Frontiers should not exist. There is good art and mediocre art. An artist coming from Lebanon carries a certain background, heritage that will show up in his work, consciously or unconsciously. It will make his work different from an artist coming from Argentina. If we focus on Lebanese art, it’s because we are in Lebanon and we have easier access to Lebanese artists.
French, English or American artists already have a lot of institutions and galleries working to promote them. I would like to situate myself in the position where I’m not only a commercial gallery that has good artwork to sell, but that has also a mission to defend ... I would like to concentrate on art that is coming from this area because I think it has affinity with the audience of this region and because it tackles the same issues.
Q: Many gallerists are said to be more interested in the commercial aspect of art than the aesthetics and practice of the artists whose work they sell. Do you agree?
A: It’s a choice. I respect this. Each one has its own vision and its own beliefs. We have chosen to promote this kind of work for some reason. Some others have other priorities. In the newspaper industry, we also have newspapers that only sell advertisement and those who really pursue a belief in ... journalism.
I have nothing against the commercial gallery because it will cater to a client who is looking for this kind of art. I am catering to another clientele. I want my client to be well-informed, knowledgeable and passionate, like me, and to defend the same passion for art. It goes beyond the idea of artwork being a decorative item on a wall. It goes into the question of identity, image, culture ... If other people have other ideas, I’m fine with it, as long as people don’t attack each other ... I’m much more moved by an artist or a cedar tree than by beautiful scenery in Arizona by an American artist. I appreciate it, but it doesn’t move me.