Lebanon’s rich cultural scene has outgrown its crumbling infrastructure. The people may not have proper electricity, water, or roads, but they have talent that cannot be taken away. This year’s Beirut Art Fair, held at BIEL from September 17-20, only highlighted Lebanon’s remarkable artistic potential. Now in its 6th edition, the event has grown to host 51 galleries from 19 countries and featured an array of contemporary art, plus an extensive program of activities.
Fair founder and director Laure d’Hauteville and artistic director Pascal Odille agree that Lebanon is a small but important market. “For a small country it’s exceptional. It’s a very authentic market. There’s a rare interest in art. There are real collectors,” Odille says. “Our art fair is not like the others, we are a fair of discovery, of young talent,” d’Hauteville says, adding that this contrasts with other Arab countries that mostly buy well-established artists for museums (and spend accordingly).
In the past, Odille explains, it was mostly Europe and the USA that had an art market, but when interest in art began to increase in the late 90s in Lebanon, d’Hauteville was the first to jump at the opportunity, founding ARTSUD in 1998, and later Beirut Art Fair in 2010. “In 1998 no art fair existed in the MENESA countries, from Morocco to Indonesia,” she says. Some of the galleries participating this year have worked with her since then.
At this year’s art fair, 18,000 visitors feasted their eyes on 1,500 artworks including paintings, drawings, sculptures, videos, designs, and performances. A special booth was set up to combine reality and the virtual world. The Byblos Bank Award for Photography encouraged the work of up-and-coming Lebanese photographers, while round table discussions were held on significant topics in the art world. Photographer Roger Moukarzel presented a documentary, while artist Ghassan Ghazal showcased a live sheep named Faro, shaved and tattooed to represent sacrifice in the modern context. In an intriguing interactive performance, visual artist Nadine Abou Zaki asked viewers to touch her, prompting her to move as a shape-shifting human sculpture. In trying to keep storytelling alive, Dar Onboz in association with Brave Heart Fund held several readings of the children’s book “Sama.”
D’Hauteville points out that the art scene in general is on the rise in Lebanon, with many galleries, museums and foundations flourishing in recent years. While this progress is great, it’s completely disproportionate to the rest of the country’s development. Yasser Akkaoui, Strategic Partner of the fair, says, “If you put art and development on a timeline, they usually grow together. Through art we can trace the state of a culture and ideally art goes hand in hand with institutional development.” But in Lebanon, he continues, “our institutional development is dysfunctional, so we feel culture is way ahead and this shows you how much lost potential we have.”
If the country is able to thrive artistically as well as it does in such circumstances, imagine what could happen if Lebanon had infrastructure and stability. On the other hand, Lebanese talent is undeniably everywhere. “Lebanon’s creative ecosystem goes beyond its borders,” says Akkaoui, and includes artists, architects, designers as well as other creative industries such as film, music, etc. D’Hauteville too, says Lebanon has always been a creative pioneer in the region, listing Lebanese talent from writers like Khalil Gibran, to fashion designers like Elie Saab, Nadine Labaki in cinema, and many more. “It’s a rich country with rich ideas – it’s rich in heritage and history and with great people working hard,” says d’Hauteville. “Lebanon is full of possibilities,” she states.