Ashkal Alwan show bids on the future

BEIRUT: “Ironically, most of these works are meant to be hung,” Ashkal Alwan’s Mohammed Abdallah smiles briefly. “Ironic because [Ashkal Alwan’s] space doesn’t really have walls.”

Ashkal Alwan Home Workspace has turned over its central hall to an exhibition by 39 artists - all of them variously close to the association who donated pieces to help mark its 25th anniversary.

The show’s up until Tuesday.

Wednesday evening the work goes under the hammer.

This will be Ashkal Alwan’s first benefit auction, the proceeds of which will be devoted to financing its future programs.

This brief exhibition celebrates the success of a grass-roots arts organization founded (and thriving) in a hostile environment.

Ashkal Alwan was founded in 1993 by a force of nature named Christine Tohme. A couple of years later, AA (not to be confused with Alcoholics Anonymous, or the Automobile Association) staged its first public art intervention in Sanayeh Garden.

In 2002, it launched Home Works. This “forum on cultural practices” drew on regional and international contemporary artists, curators and other professionals to gather in Beirut to discuss their work and exchange ideas in parallel with a varied exhibition and performance program.

As it tends to be staged every other year, Home Works effectively became Lebanon’s first art biennial a tag that AA’s founder has abjured with a chuckle since it was first suggested.

By 2011 the number of art exhibition spaces in Beirut had proliferated, in response to the burgeoning regional art market.

AA, whose only permanent space had been a suite of offices in a block of flats in Ain al-Mreisseh, responded by launching its Home Workspace - a postgraduate art school and incubator for young artists from Lebanon, the region and beyond.

By Tohme’s reckoning, over 350 emerging artists have participated in the Home Workspace program since then.

Though AA has staged open studio shows at the end of each year, this 25th anniversary show marks the first time the central hall has hosted a free-standing exhibition.

Abdallah says the space’s wall-less layout posed a challenge. “[Architect] Maroun Lahoud was invited to design the show,” he says. “His task was to create 70 meters of surface area in a space without walls.”

The parameters of his brief were to design a show that doesn’t obstruct the “transparency” of the central hall, which receives natural light from three walls of windows (and glass-walled artist ateliers). Lahoud’s solution was to erect cubes of white wire mesh about each of the hall’s several concrete pillars.

“We didn’t want him to build walls to hang the work from,” Abdallah notes. “It also had to be modular something that could be easily assembled and disassembled and reused, not something that had to be thrown away afterward.

“We also wanted this show to not look like the interior of a white cube,” he continues, gesturing to the display units. “This design is more reminiscent of art storage than conventional art exhibition.

“Using the space’s pillars is highly significant because the artists have always been the pillars of Ashkal Alwan,” he pauses. “It’s an egalitarian sort of hanging. None of the works is made to appear more important than any of the others.”

The roster of artists showing in this exhibition is a who’s who of successful contemporary artists.

Most have been associated with AA over the past quarter-century.

The exception is Etel Adnan, who’s donated two of her leporello books - an untitled work from 2017 and “Baalbak,” from 2015.

Many of the artists come from this country - from the so-called ’90s generation, who first gravitated to Tohme’s initiative, to those who may have been born in the ’90s while others are international figures who entered Tohme’s orbit during Homeworks or when she curated the 13th Sharjah Biennial, in 2017.

Anyone who associates contemporary art with opaque aesthetics-free fabrications may be surprised by the variety of work on show here. One of Lahoud’s mesh cages is hung with paintings by several artists. Among the most beautiful, and subtly challenging, may be Daniele Genadry’s 2010 screen-print-on-paper “In Time (Between Saida and Sur).” Another is Tamara al-Samerraei’s acrylic-on-canvas “Bed,” 2016, from her recent series of still-life studies of empty rooms.

Between them - and quite independently of one another - Saba Innab and Lamia Joreige have made some loveliest representations of coastline to be shown in this town. This show includes a piece from Innab’s pen-and-ink series “How to Build Without a Land” as well as Joreige’s 2017 inkjet print “Ouzai, Cartography of a Transformation 1.”

Elsewhere in the show, cartography fans will find Tony Chakar’s “All that is Solid Melts into Air,” 2000, his monumental acrylic-on-canvas reproduction of Ottoman Sultan Abdul-Hamid II’s map of Beirut.

The works on show include pieces that have been seen before like the seven photos abstracted from Stephanie Saade’s “Moongold” series, most recently shown during the “Cycles of Collapsing Progress” exhibition at Tripoli’s Rashid Karami International Fair.

Abdallah says the most recent works like Rabih Mroueh’s paper collage “Notebook #7,” 2018, and Walid Raad’s reworking of his 2012 inkjet print on paper piece “Walkthrough: Pension Art Arts in Dubai” - were created for this exhibition.

“The oldest piece on show here is Walid Sadek’s,” Abdallah says, gesturing to “Gentlemen, half-a-man wriggles in our clothes,” comprising text and images upon a cardboard backing. “It’s a new work, actually, but the piece it incorporates was originally created for Ashkal Alwan’s first public art intervention, in Sanayeh Garden in 1995.”

“I hope that Ashkal Alwan will carry through for another 25 years,” Tohme writes in her introduction to this exhibition, “but only under the condition that it doesn’t slip into resignation and nostalgia. Having witnessed the recent closure of many regional institutions, I do not wish for Ashkal Alwan to be the last remaining safe space around.”

Ashkal Alwan’s 25th anniversary exhibition is up at Home Workspace through Dec. 18. A live auction of the works will follow.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on December 18, 2018, on page 12.




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