Today, contemporary Arabic art is slightly less “trendy” than is African art. Indeed, there is a vast array of expositions dedicated to Africa, the new continent of art, the new Eldorado. Such exhibits, housed in the two powerhouses of the Jaques-Chirac museum (the Quai Branly Museum and the Cartier foundation), bring artistic and economic promises. However, the popularity of African art disregards the significant overlap between the Arab and African worlds (the Magrheb), and that Islam is in fact the dominant religion in continental Africa. This shift in perspectives, which must have been quite nuanced over the long term, is also reflected in the various upheavals in the contemporary Arabic world—specifically, in the rather naïve euphoria of the Western world after the succession of the Islamic State and its terror politics (which also affected culture) during the Arab Spring.
For that reason, visiting Beirut’s contemporary art fair is a must. The event has been organized for the past eight years with great insight and scrutiny by Laure d’Hauteville. With the creation of this event in partnership with competitive Lebanese endorsements, the BAF (“Beirut Art Fair”) became an inevitable reference and showcase for the variety of artistic talents of the Arab world. How could one not acknowledge the political, economic, and artistic performance of a country which thought to preserve its diversity and balance of different communities (Christian, Sunnite, Shiite, and Druze) after 25 years of civil war? Certain French cultural institutions, public (French Institute) or private (galleries) also had a role in the organization of this artistic demonstration.
At the Fair, there is a pavilion dedicated specifically to Arab artists. “Ourouba,” that is, what it means to be Arabic, allows the artistic expression of young artists to be valorized and explored. The space entitled “Ourouba” is an homage to Arab artists and was particularly successful in its treatment of the quadrilateral “Eye of Lebanon,” for which a panorama was set up showing the past 15 years of Arab artistic creation. Created under the direction of Rose Issa, whose work is contrasted by that of Georges Corm, a geopolitical specialist on the Arab world, Ourouba reflects not only the convulsions experienced by the Arab world but also its vitality in celebrating contemporary Lebanese creations.
The exhibit’s point de depart is the portrait by Ayman Baalbaki of the face of Mahoud Obaidi set in the shoes of former US president George W. Bush with an ironic caption, “Farewell Kiss.” Baallbaki’s large paintings of ruins and their unmistakable signs of the civil war are striking, whether they’re depicting an airliner blighted by rockets at an international airport, or a façade of a building in Beirut, at the mercy of the wind, a kind of Yacoubian building that’s entirely on its own in the desert. The works’ compositions are incredibly colorful, almost pixelated as part of a neo-impressionist revival. The convergence of lively and happy colors with the war theme can only surprise the viewer.
Abdul Rahman Katanani (supported among others by the Magda Danysz Gallery), is a particularly charismatic and bright Palestinian artist who dazzles viewers by blending elements of sculpture and painting in his art made from iron barbed wire and rolled sheet metal. Having been awarded the Srusock prize, and revealed the FIAC 2012 in Paris, Katanani represents a condensed history of the Palestinian world. He lives in the refugee camp of Sabra and Chatile (the same place where, in 1982, a large number of people were massacred because of the civil war) where the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) is currently working with the Palistinian refugees. The artist’s themes are bathed in the sweetness and innocence of childhood with the picture of a young girl playing jump rope or hopping over the foam of a wave waiting for its surfer. However, these topics are all approached using humble materials found in the camp where Katanani lives, hence the iron barbed wire and rolled sheet metal which are thus like a slap in the face that reminds the viewer of the subject content while also expressing hope, joy, and resilience. Situated in the same square, among other exhibits, is a painting by Nadia Saffiedine, somber and elaborately worked with the distinctive thickness and material typically used by the artist.
Towards the end of the visit, one must take a detour through the Sursock Museum to exit. The building was erected by Nicolas Ibrahim Sursock, a merchant and business man who bequeathed his palace to the city of Beirut with the hopes of establishing within its walls a foundation that was dedicated to Lebanese arts and art forms. In this elegant palace, which was miraculously unspoiled by the civil war, a spectacular map of Beirut made of rubber is laid across the palace’s floor. Beirut, both the capital of Lebanon and the stage of incessant and repeated conflicts, is without a doubt the cornerstone of Marwan Rechmaoi’s latest works. Along the line of his various works, he reveals the extremely complex social and political geography of his city. Beirut Caoutchouc, an enormous map meticulously sculpted from black rubber, powerfully details the many roads crossing through the 60 neighborhoods of the city. Marwan Rechmaoui emphasizes in this map the socio-geographic distribution of Beirut and in doing so unveils his own story and its resulting schisms.
Abed El Kadiri’s work revisits masterpieces in graphism of the arabo-muslim world, such as the illustrated manuscript of the Maqamat of al-Hamadhani (18th century) now held at the National Library. With Kalila wa-Dimna, even those who aren’t familiar with the work’s origins are able to remember the iconography used to illustrate middle school history books on Islam. The Maqamats (“sessions”) are the picaresque stories of a vagabond whose adventures faithfully represent the Abbasid of his time. The artist, Abed El Kadiri, pulled his inspiration from the manuscripts kept at the BNF (the French National Library). The illustrations’ visual and pictorial richness are the spitting image of the originals, this time large oil and charcoal paintings. However, the work’s contemporary topicality exerts a sort of fascination and morbid infectiousness to the painting that is mixed with the cultural defilement of Daesh going on in the background. The artist thus revisits the concepts of iconoclasm and aniconism through his escapee perspective of the destruction left by the Islamic State—this theme appears in charcoal, in a color which highlights the regressive and repressive aspect of the subject. Abed El Kadiri lives and works in Beirut.
The originality of the BAF is found in its mixing geographical areas to more effectively highlight its openness and diversity. No longer is uniformity or Euro-Centricism favored, but instead a desire to broaden perspectives and further examine certain topics. Thus, the Esther Woerdehoff Gallery presented the rare work of René Groebli, a Swiss photographer who was discovered and presented by the curator of the MOMA exhibit “The Family of Man” (1955), Alfred Steichen. Groebli’s rare shots sublimate and celebrate his wife’s body in a sensual photographical journey, “The Eye of Love,” a wink to and by the photographer. Some photos can’t help but make one think of the fine, and subtle, work of painters such as Ingres’ l’Odalisque, or Degas. Groebli, in an almost Bressonian style, uncovers sensuality and a eulogy of love addressed to his wife through the interplay between black and white. This photographic poem constitutes the artist’s finest homage to love and to his wife.
The gallery La Maison de la Plage displays Othmane Taleb’s works. “Funny name” for a gallery, wouldn’t you say? That’s because it wants to be anything but a gallery, without a doubt its goal is to detach itself from the classic canons of the art market. The gallery’s source of inspiration and initiation, Hajer Hazzouz, displays Othmane Taleb’s graphite series, black and white in the style of Pietà and the reiteration of urban scenes New York City. “Misericordiam III” seems to be ironic with its depictions of the backs of lounging and weeping odalisques where Delacroix and the end of Sardanaple filter through. The drawing is incredibly well done and appears as a parable addressed to the viewer who is stunned and lost in the perplexity of the philosophical choice between “Heaven” or “Exit.”
It’s hard not to close by mentioning the beautiful calligraphy of Rachid Koraïchi, an Algerian artist, who illustrated Khalil Gibran’s The Prophet. His drawings are a subtle union between calligrams like those done by Guillaume Apollinaire and traditional Arabic calligraphy. The book is, today, one of the most read books in the world, after the Bible. In France alone, no fewer than five translations are available, and tens of millions of copies have been sold throughout the world. Gibran’s philosophy is simple, timeless, and universal: what man has most divine in him is “the wonder he has before life.” The exhibit, for which Pascal Odille is the commissioner, creates a dialogue between Khalil Gibran’s drawings for his work’s first edition (in English) of The Prophet (1923) and Rachid Koraïchi’s drawings which address, through calligraphy, the questions and reactions to the book.
In that respect, the Beirut Art Fair illustrates creative and political freedom present in Lebanon today, one of the few democracies in the Arabic world with its kaleidoscope of communities and denominations. The freedom that reigns in the streets of Beirut today is what is most striking. Furthermore, the political openness enjoyed by Lebanon thus resonates with artistic creation, where the Lebanese capital attracts, like a magnet, young artists of the region who demand the freedom to be able to create. For those who missed the Fair this year, another chance will arise for the Arab World Institute’s (IMA) 30-year anniversary. The 2018 edition of the BAF will be well worth the wait for one will be able to admire the working moucharabies of Jean Nouvel and savor a few mezzes from Noura on the roof of the IMA after having seen the new expo, “Christians of the Orient.”
Translated by Brianna Reed
BA, Vassar College
PhD student in French, University of Pennsylvania