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One Year after Beirut Explosion, the City’s Art Scene Is Still Rebuilding

Rawaa Talass
Aug 3, 2021 4:57PM

Installation view at Août Gallery, 2021. Courtesy of Août Gallery.

August 4th marks one year since twin explosions, caused by more than 2,000 tons of ammonium nitrate carelessly left for years in a warehouse in Beirut’s port, tragically ravaged the Lebanese capital. Time stood still, homes were destroyed, and lives were lost. Museums, galleries, theaters, and foundations all took massive hits. The country’s economy was already on its knees prior to the blast; it has now collapsed. A year may seem like a long time to recover, but during that period, no credible investigation has brought justice, the same negligent political class is in power, and the effort to significantly improve the well-being of Lebanese citizens is nonexistent. As one art gallery director put it: “A lot happened and at the same time nothing happened.” It is fair to say that the country is still in mourning.

One year ago, I asked Lebanese gallerists what happened in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy. I followed up with some and reached out to others to see how they have been coping. All of them were thankfully able to rehabilitate and reopen their galleries, but the uncertainty and hurt is still there, like a deep wound. “It’s not something we can forget. We are all very much injured in a way or another. I think you keep this injury all your life,” said Naila Kettaneh-Kunigk over the phone. She is the co-founder of Galerie Tanit, located in the Mar Mikhael area, which opened its doors again on June 12th.

An aerial view shows the damage at the port in Beirut following a massive explosion there. Photo by AFP. Image via Getty Images.

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It was a challenging task to clean up everything and get started again. Nevertheless, the gallery was able to present its reopening group show, “Togetherness,” featuring works of more than 15 artists, many of whom are based in the city. In addition to Galerie Tanit’s own space, Kettaneh-Kunigk said they were offered a space to display an exhibition of fresco paintings by Lebanese artist Chafa Ghaddar through September. “It was to prove to a lot of people that there is creativity in our country,” she added on resuming the gallery’s programming.

For her part, Joumana Asseily, of the independent art space Marfa’ Projects, said she is taking things one day at a time. “Everyone’s asking me, ‘Why are you still in Beirut?’ and I’m like, ‘It’s not that easy to leave,’” she said. Marfa’ Projects, whose name means “port” in Arabic, stands 500 meters away from the port of Beirut. She and her colleagues were miraculously away from the space at the time of the explosion, having closed the gallery for a short break just one day prior. As for many other gallerists, restoring her destroyed space was a self-financed endeavor; she received no aid from the government. In a touching gesture, Wrong Marfa, a small gallery in Marfa, Texas, offered to help the Lebanese gallery by sending it a share of the money the Texan gallery had raised through a separate fundraising effort.

In late May, Marfa’ Projects finally inaugurated a new show that brings together paintings, photographs, and video art around the theme of water. “Water” includes works by Lamia Joreige, Paola Yacoub, and Stéphanie Saadé, among others, and runs until August 13th. The topic was proposed to Asseily through Galleries Curate: RHE, an initiative connecting around 20 galleries from across the globe in the wake of COVID-19. “We had nice support from the international community of gallerists and that was really important,” she noted. “I didn’t want to do something directly related to what happened. Water is a universal theme and it unifies us all.”

Installation view of “Water” at Marfa’ Projects, Beirut, 2021. Courtesy of Marfa’ Projects.

A key priority for Asseily is to keep supporting artists. “You survive as a gallery not by rebuilding the walls but by assuring that your artists can work, produce, and continue,” she stressed. “We rebuilt the walls and it took time. But if you don’t have work on them and nothing to show, then what’s the point?” As the Lebanese have been trying to get back on their feet, they faced an uphill battle as electricity outages, price inflation, and fuel shortages became rampant. Asseily said that at one point last month, she closed Marfa’ for one week due to power shortages. “It’s like we’re going backwards,” she remarked.

The country is still in the thick of a banking crisis, whereby citizens can’t access or export their money. Dollars in their bank accounts are now known as “lollars” and the local currency is essentially worthless. “The Lebanese lira lost 100% of its value in a year,” remarked Kettaneh-Kunigk. “People can’t eat anymore, let’s put it this way. The middle class has gone down into poverty.” Such an unstable situation has prompted some gallerists to perform “financial acrobatics,” allowing payment for an artwork to be divided across multiple methods, such as paying partly in cash and partly with checks.

Making art affordable and accessible through small works on paper has always been the aim of Simon Mhanna, a visual artist and founder of The LT Gallery, which is based in the Achrafieh district. The gallery luckily wasn’t severely damaged in the August 4th explosion, but Mhanna initiated a six-month campaign to raise funds for charitable NGOs by selling artworks. He plans on opening another space in Mar Mikhael, which is near the port. “Beirut gave me a lot,” he told Artsy, adding that he previously contemplated leaving Lebanon. “Each one of us has a role to do, and for me, it’s to rebuild in my own way and to show the world the artistic side of Beirut.”

ABED AL KADIRI
Nyctophilia, 2018-2019
Galerie Tanit

Another consequence of the economic meltdown is that immigration from Lebanon has skyrocketed, and locals fear a brain-drain. “If all our intellectuals, creators, designers, doctors, and teachers leave their country, there’d be nothing left, and this is a disaster,” said Kettaneh-Kunigk. Among those who decided to leave Beirut for good is the Lebanese artist Abed Al Kadiri, who is currently in France. Last year, he painted a pair of large murals, Today, I Would Like to Be a Tree (2020), in the emptied-out Galerie Tanit space. The profit generated from every sold fragment of the murals contributed to efforts led by the NGO Bassma to rebuild homes in Beirut.

“After I did the project, I felt I should move,” Al Kadiri said. “I left immediately without thinking about anything. I wanted to escape everything that happened in the last year from the revolution [in October 2019] to the pandemic and the explosion.” In Paris, he was granted an eight-month residency by the Saudi-established Al-Mansouria Foundation. Although he is working on new projects for upcoming shows in London and Saint Petersburg, Al Kadiri struggled with moving on. “We are in Paris but our minds and our hearts are in Beirut,” he said. “We can’t stop thinking about it.”

Installation view at Août Gallery, 2021. Courtesy of Août Gallery.

One of the crucial ways Beirut galleries have been promoting their artists, especially in the past year, has been by looking overseas for exhibition opportunities. As travel restrictions started easing around the world a few months ago, in-person art fairs like Art Dubai and the newly launched, Middle East–focused MENART Fair in Paris welcomed international participants, including those from Lebanon. As fall approaches, some Lebanese gallerists I interviewed are planning to take part in high-profile fairs such as Art Paris and Frieze London.

There is a glimmer of hope, despite all the challenges, in the fact that so many have stayed behind to revive the city’s liberal cultural landscape. That’s the case with Lebanese art researcher Zeid El Amine, who, at the age of 26, recently founded a new contemporary art gallery in the heavily damaged Gemmayze neighborhood. A lifelong passion for art had made him dream of one day establishing an art space abroad, either in Dubai or Barcelona. But his dreams took a nightmarish turn when El Amine’s father, a civil engineer who collected art, was killed in the blast.

Installation view at Août Gallery, 2021. Courtesy of Août Gallery.

“When you suddenly lose the person that is closest to you in this world, in this very sudden, violent way, your goals change,” El Amine said from his Beirut gallery office, which is lined with paintings that belonged to his father. “Everyone deals with grief in their own way.” He named his space Août Gallery, after the French word for the month of August, as a tribute to his late father and a commitment to help revive Gemmayze, a district known for its vibrant cultural life. He found the space—which has high white walls and good lighting—by chance. “I came upon it by mistake and I immediately knew this was the place to do it,” he recalled.

In March, Août Gallery held its debut exhibition, “Young Dreams,” showcasing paintings by 14 emerging artists from Chile, the United Kingdom, the United States, France, and South Korea. On August 10th, the gallery will open its second exhibition, a solo show of U.K.-based Korean artist Minyoung Kim. El Amine hopes the gallery will generate exchanges between international art communities and Beirut—where he knows he is meant to be.

“I know a lot of people who decided to leave after the explosion,” he said. “For me, it was actually completely the opposite. This is where I am and where I will stay.”

Rawaa Talass
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Jenna Gribbon, Luncheon on the grass, a recurring dream, 2020. Jenna Gribbon, April studio, parting glance, 2021. Jenna Gribbon, Silver Tongue, 2019