Navigating Beirut’s Fast-Expanding Art Landscape

Alexxa Gotthardt
Jul 27, 2015 9:36PM

Beirut is a city of captivating dichotomies. An impeccably maintained mosque sits next to a crumbling movie theater; a paradisical swimming club is bordered by a stunning slice of the Mediterranean Sea on one side, and a field of construction cranes on the other. The streets are studded with palms, the bars brim with beautiful young people who shift easily between several languages, and buildings still bear the marks of conflict—the Lebanese Civil War of 1975-1990, in particular. As the largest city in one of the smallest Middle Eastern countries—nestled along the Mediterranean coast between Israel, Palestine, and Syria—Beirut has seen a barrage of hardships that have been met by the creative community’s resilience and commitment to staying put.

Today, in a period of relative calm, Beiruti artists, curators, gallerists, and patrons are more active and present in the international art scene than ever. In a capital that until recently lacked any museums devoted to modern and contemporary art, two will open this year. The city’s cohort of artists is tight-knit and fast-growing, and many of those who extend their purview beyond the country’s borders (widely recognized artists like Walid Raad and Akram Zaatari, or architect Bernard Khoury) continue to make their hometown the subject of their work, and a place they often return to.

Lamia Joreige, courtesy the artist and Taymour Grahne Gallery, New York, photo by Scott Rudd; Taymour Grahne, courtesy the artist and Taymour Grahne Gallery, New York; Tony Salamé, courtesy Aïshti Foundation; Nicolas Bellavance-Lecompte and Pascale Wakim, courtesy Carwan Gallery, photo by Roger Moukarzel. 

Looking ahead to a Beirut fall filled with eagerly anticipated events—the Beirut Art Fair; the re-opening of the Sursock Museum; and the grand opening of the Aïshti Foundation, which promises to bring an injection of international artists, curators, and collectors to the city—Artsy spoke with five insiders deeply engaged with the Lebanese community and its expansion into the global contemporary art orbit. Here, Tony Salamé, patron and founder of the Aïshti Foundation; Lamia Joreige, artist and co-founder of the Beirut Art Center; Taymour Grahne, founder of Taymour Grahne Gallery; and Pascale Wakim and Nicolas Bellavance-Lecompte, owners of Carwan Gallery, lead us through Beirut’s art and culture must-sees, organized by neighborhood.

Mar Mikhaël and Karantina

Bernard Khoury- Derailing Beirut A2, 2010
Carwan Gallery

The neighborhood of Mar Mikhaël, located just east of downtown Beirut—with narrow streets packed with artist studios, coffee shops, and bars—has become a hotbed for the city’s art and design output. Here, artists gather—and galleries and nonprofit spaces have followed suit. “Mar Mikhaël is a great place to spot under-the-radar galleries,” says Taymour Grahne, a New York-based gallerist who spent his formative years in Beirut and represents several Lebanese artists. “It’s the type of place where, when you do a studio visit with one artist, they want to take you to their friend’s studio a block down, which then leads you to another friend. Before you know it, you’ve visited 15 studios.” 

Tessera – Lounge Chair, 2012
Carwan Gallery
Carving Time - Slightly Carved, 2014
Carwan Gallery
The Fragmented Clock, 2012
Carwan Gallery

Follow Mikhaël’s central artery, Armenia Street, and find some of the city’s most dynamic exhibition spaces (and watering holes). Galerie Tanit, which represents primarily Lebanese artists, sits several blocks from Carwan Gallery, a bastion of cutting-edge design that presents the work of Lebanese and international designers, from Marc Baroud to Bernard Khoury to Nada Debs. As architect and co-owner Pascale Wakim points out, it also caters to a newly passionate band of Beiruti design collectors. “The collectible design scene was barely existent when we opened a few years ago,” says Wakim. “Now there is a blooming market with three galleries dealing contemporary design.” Note that Carwan will be moving into a new, larger space in the neighborhood this fall. 

Sama'/Ma'as (Bahr), 2014
Preface to the third edition acknowledgements, Coupe II, 2014

Take a short stroll north to the industrial, seaside neighborhood of Quarantine, more affectionately known as Karantina, where you’ll find three of the city’s most established galleries. SMO Gallery and Art Factum show a strong mix of design and art. The latter’s recent show of Tanya Traboulsi’s photographs showed lushly saturated Lebanese and Austrian landscapes, two environments she calls home. Down the road, Sfeir-Semler, perhaps Beirut’s biggest and best-known commercial gallery, is hosting a group exhibition celebrating the space’s 10-year anniversary. The show’s run has seen a performance from Tarek Atoui and Charbel Haber, a symposium delving into “contemporary Arab art” from the past 10 years, and works by Etel Adnan, Mounira Al Solh, Yto Barrada, Walid Raad, Rayyane Tabet, and more. This fall, don’t miss Wael Shawky’s “Cabaret Crusades,” opening August 26th. 

Tanya Traboulsi, Lara, Lebanon (2014) and No Illusions (2014). Courtesy the artist and Art Factum Gallery. 

After a good gallery hop, swing by Tawlet for lunch. The bright, airy restaurant’s tagline “Shou tabkha el mama lyom?” translates to “What’s cooking, Mom?” and announces the farm-fresh meals, often crafted by locals (not trained chefs), which have garnered a cult following.

Circle back to Armenia Street for a visit to 98Weeks, a cultural research project that manifests in exhibitions, workshops, and screenings. In July, a seminar titled “Labour. Capital. Institution: A Forum on Feminisms” brought together over 15 artists, writers, curators, and sociologists. Just around the corner, stop for a strong coffee and a good read at Paper Cup, a bright coffee-cum-bookshop lined floor to ceiling with art, architecture, and design tomes. End your day with a craft beer at Internazionale, or head to Anise for a sampling of local arak, a traditional Lebanese anise-flavored sipping liquor.

Galerie Tanit is located at East Village Building, Armenia Street, Mar Mikhaël; Carwan Gallery is located at 5545 Mar Mikhaël; SMO Gallery is located at 77 Senegal Street, Quarantine; Art Factum is located at Bldg 13, Rehban Street, Quarantine; Sfeir-Semler is located at Tannous Building, Street 56, Quarantine; Tawlet is located at 12 Naher Street, Chalhoub Building # 22, Mar Mikhaël; 98Weeks is located at Armenia Street, Mar Mikhaël; Paper Cup is located at Agopian Building, Pharaon Street, Mar Mikhaël; Internazionale is located at Tiyyan Building, Alexander Fleming Street, Mar Mikhaël; Anise is located at Alexander Fleming Street, Mar Mikhaël.

Achrafieh and Gemmayze

The Sursock Museum façade. Courtesy the Sursock Museum. Photo by Jacques Aboukhaled.

Exterior and interior views of Metropolitan Art Society. Courtesy Metropolitan Art Society.

Just south and a nudge west, the neighborhoods of Gemmayze and Achrafieh offer some of Beirut’s most elegant art and culinary experiences. The Sursock Museum, housed in a luxe Lebanese palace built in 1912, will reopen this October after an seven-year renovation effort. With the boundary-pushing Zeina Arida (formerly director of the Arab Image Foundation) at the helm, the museum is planning a program of modern and contemporary exhibitions. Just across Charles Malek road is the Metropolitan Club, another stunning traditional mansion that houses the Metropolitan Art Society (MAS), a gallery conceived by Tony Salamé that features shows from a rotating cast of international galleries, from Balice Hertling to Massimo de Carlo. This October, MAS will host “Extreme Present,” an exhibition curated by former MOCA director Jeffrey Deitch. Head upstairs for a feast of refined Lebanese food, set in the lushly appointed restaurant, Liza. Then grab a post-dinner digestif at Hotel Albergo, where the rooftop bar boasts some of the best views of the city.

Not far off, look out for Beirut Art Residency's inaugural projects—with Syrian photographer Sara Naim and British-Iraqi painter Athier Mousawi—this September. The nonprofit is set to host six-month residencies aimed at expanding dialogue between Beiruti and international artists. 

The Hotel Albergo rooftop. Photo by Alexxa Gotthardt. 

The Sursock Museum is located at Rue Sursock, Achrafieh; the Metropolitan Club is located at Doumani Street, Trabaud, Achrafieh; Hotel Albergo is located at 137 Rue Abdel Wahab El Inglizi, Achrafieh; Beirut Art Residency is located at 373 Rue Pasteur, Gemmayze.

Minet Al Hosn, Hamra, and Manara

Still further west, in Beirut’s Waterfront District, you’ll find the Beirut Exhibition Center, a scintillating mirrored structure currently showing a retrospective of the 83-year-old Lebanese painter Wajih Nahlé’s work. Earlier this year, the museum hosted a Michelangelo Pistoletto retrospective. Just down the road is the Beirut International Exhibition & Leisure Center (BIEL), where the Beirut Art Fair will gather a group of international galleries in September.

View of the Beirut coastline. Photo by Alexxa Gotthardt. 

For a dose of the city’s cultural history and religious life (Beirut is one of the most religiously diverse cities in the Middle East, with Christian, Muslim, Jewish, and Druze communities), visit the Mohammad al-Amin mosque—perhaps the city’s most prominent structure, with minarets that reach high into the sky and shining domes that add bursts of blue to the mostly sand-colored cityscape. The mosque opened in 2008 and was financed by former Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri, whose assassination in 2005 brought Lebanon another political rough patch. Just south of the mosque, don’t miss the Basta neighborhood, scattered with souks and hole-in-the-wall antique shops. “A walk in Basta, the second-hand furniture bazaar mixing oriental and modern in a colorful way, is a must,” noted Wakim.

Due west is Agial, one of the city’s longest-standing galleries, opened by Saleh Barakat in 1990. “The gallery exhibits both modern and contemporary art, and I plan a visit on every trip to see what treasures I can find in Saleh’s lower level office and showroom,” says Salamé. “He deals with some of the finest Lebanese modernists, and each time I visit, I learn something new about Arab modernism.”

Rasha Kahil, "The Sporting Club" series (2011). Courtesy the artist. 

Travel even further west, to the sea, and wind down in Manara at the storied Sporting Club. Here, lounge under a yellow cabana, dip into the pool, watch the fishermen angle for their daily catch, and sip on a soda with a label that looks like it dates back to the ’60s—the club’s glory days.

Beirut Exhibition Center is located on BCD Road, Minet Al Hosn; Beirut International Exhibition & Leisure Center is located on BCD Road, Minet Al Hosn; Mohammad al-Amin mosque is located in Martyrs’ Square, Amir Bachir; Agial is located at 63 Abdul Aziz Street, Hamra; Sporting Club is located at Chouran Street, Manara.

Badaro and Jisr el-Wati

Museum Crossing, 2013
Taymour Grahne

In the Badaro and Jisr el-Wati neighborhoods, on the southern side of the city, you’ll find a mix of old-guard antiquities and experimental contemporary art. On Museum Street, the Beirut National Museum houses a rich array of artifacts—and offers a well of inspiration for contemporary artists and designers. “[It] has a beautiful archeological collection that is very well displayed,” says artist Lamia Joreige. “In 2013, for a commission for the Sharjah Biennial, I made an installation titled Under-Writing Beirut – Mathaf, in relation to this museum and its collection, which I always enjoy revisiting.”

Stop by the up-and-coming Badaro area for a beer and a bite at Roy’s or KissProof, then make your way east to Jisr el-Wati, where you’ll find two of the most progressive kunsthalle-style spaces in the city. Founded by Joreige and curator Sandra Dagher in 2009, Beirut Art Center (BAC) was the first nonprofit exhibition space to pull an international group of contemporary artists to Beirut—among them central figures like Giuseppe Penone, Kader Attia, Mona Hatoum, and Harun Farocki. “The lack of public space dedicated to contemporary art is the main reason Sandra and I created BAC,” says Joreige. Organized by BAC’s new director Marie Muracciole, “Aftercinema” is on view this summer, solo exhibitions by Christodoulos Panayiotou and Xavier Le Roy will headline the fall season, and 2016 will open with a show by Otobong Nkanga.

Several blocks from BAC, Ashkal Alwan operates as an elastic platform for artistic discussion and production. Founded in 1993 just after the war, it has long been an outlet—and instigator—for open cultural dialogue (a line from its mission statement reads: “Provide space, diffusion, and resources for independent initiatives working in the civic sphere such as on censorship, secularism, gay and lesbian rights, etc.”). Today, curated projects, a residency program, a publishing imprint, and the Home Works Forum activate the sprawling space.

The Beirut National Museum is located at Museum Street, the corner of Rue de Damas and Avenue Abdallah Yafi; Roy’s is located at Kfoury Street, Badaro; KissProof is located at Main Street, Badaro; Beirut Art Center is located at Building 13, Street 97, Off Corniche an Nahr, Jisr el-Wati; Ashkal Alwan is located at Building 110, Street 90, Jisr el-Wati.


The Aïshti Foundation building in the final stages of construction. Courtesy the Aïshti Foundation.

Finally, a short drive up the coast leads to the Aïshti Foundation, the future home of Tony Salamé’s monumental private collection of over 2,000 works, soon to be showcased in ambitious solo and group exhibitions. Think tightly curated medleys of superlative pieces by Ziad Antar, Tauba Auerbach, Carol Bove, Urs Fischer, Glenn Ligon, Christopher Wool, Danh Vo—the list goes on. In an expansive David Adjaye-designed space that looks out over the sea, Aïshti will open its doors on October 25th with “New Skin,” a show organized by Massimiliano Gioni, one of the globe’s more omnipotent curatorial forces, and sure to attract the international art world set. “The Lebanese art scene is already rich, and several renowned Lebanese artists are exhibited in major museums around the world,” said Salamé of the addition of his museum to the Beirut scene. “I hope the Aïshti Foundation will help create new vocations and strengthen this trend by familiarizing the general public of Lebanon with the great movements of contemporary art.”

The Aïshti Foundation is located in Antelias, Jal El Dib Seaside Highway, +961.4.722 227.

Alexxa Gotthardt