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: Raja Nehme Sertin opened her gallery some three years ago in Kfarhbab, on Ghazir main road. Located between two boutiques in a shopping mall, Raja Nehme Sertin Gallery displays works by renowned Lebanese and international painters, sculptors and ceramists. Nehme Sertin says the aim of her gallery is to provide easy access to art in a region where galleries are more scarce that in the capital.
Q: Which of the Lebanese artists do you represent?
A: I represent Raouf Rifai, Fulvio Codsi, Youssef Aoun, Gulene Der Boghossian, Charles Khoury and Samir Muller, who is a ceramist. I also represent Mohammad Abdullah and young artists not well known yet – such as Michel Ayoub and Rima Chahrour. And I represent Zeina Badran who is a confirmed artist.
Q: Do you have any exhibitions planned for the coming year? Which artists are involved? Are these solo shows or group shows?
A: I participated last year to the Beirut Art Fair [nee MENASART]. I’m participating this year as well ... I am planning to join ArtDubai and Art Abu Dhabi in the coming year.
Q: Do you find you make more sales at the art fairs or at free-standing (solo and group) exhibitions?
A: We do more sales in the gallery, since it has its clientele. People always come to the gallery to see the works of the artists. They are always notified. And the clientele of the gallery is not that much interested in attending art fairs, since they already see the best of the works at the gallery.
Q: How has the market for Lebanese artists changed over the years?
A: The Lebanese art market has evolved a lot since Lebanese travel a lot. In Lebanon, the market is influenced by a fraction of people who have been artistically cultured. It wasn’t naturally done like in Europe with its museums. [Here in Lebanon,] people wanted to be educated in art. They are people who appreciate art and who traveled a lot. And [their interest] is the result of many exhibitions and art fairs.
Q: How do you decide which work by your Lebanese artists is worthy of international exhibition?
A: There are criteria. The more we [cultivate] our artistic eye, the more we educate ourselves artistically. The eye is education in art, and we become more demanding. We become connoisseurs through this [sampling of a variety of art]. As professionals, we already educated our artistic eye. We followed the progress of art and therefore we understood what will last over time.
Many elements have to be taken into consideration when it comes to art. It has to be aesthetically attractive, but the technique has to be mastered. There has to be equilibrium in composition, colors and lines. A work that is a piece of art has to be completely mastered by the artist. Nothing should escape his eye. An established artist knows what to do and where to go. In the artistic market, the artist needs to be serious.
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: Lebanese art – just like Lebanese artists – are on the edge of the East and the West. They have been influenced by everything that has been happening in the country. What makes Lebanese art different from Western – and even Middle Eastern – art is its society. It is how this society evolves and how these artists use their personal experiences. Lebanese artists are influenced by many trends. There never was a specifically “Lebanese” form of art in our country. But artists use a trend they want to follow, and project it in their works.
Q: Many galleries are said to be interested only in the commercial aspect of art and many gallerists are said to be indifferent to the aesthetics and practice of the artists whose work they sell. Do you agree?
A: I chose to open my gallery in Kfarhbab. Many persons advised me not to do so since it wasn’t a location where people are interested in art and where there is an art market. It wasn’t a random choice. It wasn’t [chosen with] commercial prospects [in mind].
Our children need to see art if they want to. They have to have access to it, at least. I believe that art and civilization go hand in hand. Art should be available to all. Maybe one day I’ll open a branch in Beirut. I exhibit works by artists that are not displayed in this region. I am here because I have a mission: if I can help my country [artistically] in some way, I am here to do it. If I had any commercial prospects, I wouldn’t have opened a gallery here.