Ayyam Gallery paints new space as experimental platform

Abdul-Karim Majdal al-Beik's "Exit to Light (Democracy)," 38 x 290 x 290cm, mixed media installation, 2014. (Photos courtesy of Ayyam Gallery)

BEIRUT: Lebanon’s cultural scene is in a constant state of ebb and flow. The reasons for this are legion, not least the lack of stable sources of funding for nonprofit institutions and the fluctuating economy’s impact on commercial ventures.

In the past few years, Beirut has gained a host of new galleries and art spaces, among them Art on 56th, ArtLab, Workshop Gallery, Art Factum and Jisr al-Wati’s STATION. Others, such as The Running Horse, Art Circle, SMO Gallery and Q Contemporary, have devolved to part-time status or quietly ceased to exist.

Ayyam Gallery has had its own share of ups and downs. Since opening Ayyam Gallery Damascus in 2006, the Syrian collector and gallerist Khaled Samawi has successfully spread to Dubai, Beirut and London.

We will encourage the type of work that might otherwise exist outside the gallery circuit

A branch in Cairo opened in October 2010, only to shut permanently in May 2011 due to political instability. Ayyam Jeddah, which launched in March 2012, is currently in the process of shutting after only a marginally longer lifespan. Ayyam Gallery Damascus technically remains open, but is not exhibiting due to the conflict.

The latest acquisition in Samawi’s stable is Ayyam Projects, a “sister space” to Ayyam’s Beirut branch. Set to open at the end of the month, the venue is located next door to the existing gallery in a large space overlooking Zaitunay Bay, formerly occupied by Syrian collector and gallerist Motaz Kabbani’s Q Contemporary.

The purpose of the new space, Samawi says, is to provide a platform for artists whose work is experimental or conceptually driven.

“While Ayyam Gallery represents some of the top experimental artists in the Middle East,” he declaimed in an email interview, “such as Tammam Azzam, Ammar Al Beik, Faisal Samra, Sama Alshaibi and Khaled Jarrar, our program has leaned more toward the leading painters in the Middle East.

“We wanted to create a space for artists who are more experimental in nature while expanding the parameters of our programming with an outlet that specifically engages conceptual art and the rapid development of media-based practices [sic].”

Samawi was vague about the selection criteria for artists wanting to exhibit in the new space. “The space will showcase a variety of artists based on a project-to-project basis,” he said, “including those not represented by Ayyam Gallery.

“Ayyam Projects will be more open as a platform to artists who are not necessarily represented by Ayyam but are contributing to the growth of contemporary art,” he clarified, “and will concentrate on conceptual art and photography rather than painting or sculpture.”

The new venue will function independently of the existing gallery, the gallerist said, adding that the spaces will have a “symbiotic relationship,” in the sense that the decision to dedicate Ayyam Projects to conceptual and experimental work allows for the narrowing of Ayyam Gallery’s focus to more traditional media, such as painting and sculpture.

Ayyam Projects aims to address conceptual artists’ lack of visibility in the region, Samawi said, focusing on the swath from West Asia to North Africa and artists from these regions working in the global diaspora.

“As an open platform, we will encourage the type of work that might otherwise exist outside the gallery circuit, given the narrow focus of the fine arts that prevails in the Middle East,” he said.

“In the absence of academic programs or institutions that should be supporting conceptual art and cutting-edge photography in the Arab world, Ayyam Projects will allow artists to produce their work without constraints while having access to local audiences through a respected venue.”

Samawi was reluctant to discuss whether the new space is a non-profit platform or a commercial gallery, like Ayyam’s existing branches.

“I do not see a difference between commercial and nonprofit designations,” he said, “as most galleries and nonprofit centers at this early stage of the Middle Eastern art scene have one passionate goal, which is to showcase the best art and culture from the Middle East, both locally and internationally.

“Some finance their mission through the sale of art while others finance their mission through grants and donations. In both cases, artists receive vital support, financially and otherwise, allowing them to execute and further their work.”

“Postponed Democracy,” the gallery’s inaugural show, will feature work by Syrian artist Abdul Karim Majdal Al-Beik, who exhibited a series of mixed media-on-canvas works at Ayyam Gallery Beirut in December 2012.

The launch of Ayyam Projects will coincide with the opening of an exhibition by Syrian painter Safwan Dahoul and Lebanese artist Nadim Karam next door at the Ayyam Gallery, to celebrate the venue’s fifth anniversary.

Samawi explained that he chose Beik for the debut exhibition due to the influence that Beirut has exerted over the evolution of his work.

“Over the past year, Abdul Karim has shifted his artistic practice to include assemblage and conceptual works,” he said. “Although he continues to produce new paintings and drawings, this offshoot developed in Beirut and much of its content addresses the regional political situation as it intersects with issues in Lebanon.

“It is a timely new body of work that should be debuted in the setting that inspired it. As an inaugural exhibition, Abdul Karim’s bold conceptualism and unconventional formalism represents the level of experimentation that will be highlighted in our programing.”

It remains to be seen what percentage of the artists to exhibit at Ayyam Projects will fall outside the gallery’s stable of artists. It will also be intriguing to observe whether in the long-term the venue will serve as the alternative artistic platform Samawi is envisaging or wind up an extension of the existing gallery.

Ayyam Projects will open Oct. 30 with “Postponed Democracy,” a solo show by Syrian artist Abdul Karim Majdal Al-Beik. For more information, please call 01-374-450.





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