The Beirut Art Fair or Contemporary Art in the Levant

The above article was adapted to English from Dimitri Joannides’ “La Beyrouth Art Fair ou l’art contemporain au Levant”, which appeared in La Gazette Drouot in its 23 September 2016 edition.

In a country where the budget of the Ministry of Culture doesn’t exceed ten million dollars – most of which are spent on archeological excavations – it goes without saying that private support for art initiatives are more than welcome. If, at the Beirut Art Fair, Lebanese Banks have lead the way since the creation of the event in 2010 by supporting young talents and photography projects, a myriad of private collectors are progressively incorporating the regional art scene.

The apartments and houses of the Lebanese well-to-dos are immense. But what surprises the most when sauntering around the stands of the forty-five galleries hailing from twenty countries is the near-absence of monumental works, an indicator of the meager demand by public entities in the Levantine artistic economy. This contrasts significantly with the effervescence of museum projects launched across Lebanon’s Gulf neighbors. Sculptures did not abound either in the fair, where painting remained the most exhibited medium. In the “Revealing by SGBL” box, which promotes twenty-seven young talents from the Middle East and North Africa, the Parisian gallery Nikki Diana Marquardt exposed for example small formats of Isabelle Manoukian’s works, whereby Alex Katz’s influence seemed to mix with Persian miniature. But the most ambitious bet came from Algerian gallery Les Ateliers Sauvages, which exhibited photos of a performance by Adel Bentounsi revisiting the ritual of circumcision. A radical choice by the Maghreb youngster, whose items figured amidst a selection comparable to 20th century Western painting.

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The SGBL bank, managed by collector Antoun Sehnaoui, sponsor of the “Revealing” box dedicated to young talents, plans to open in five years an art foundation in Beirut’s downtown. The foundation is to be located in a forty-floor tower named Renzo Piano and harboring the bank’s new headquarters.

This assessment was particularly relevant to the space devoted to women artists in Lebanon. Covering the 1945-1975 periods, the gallery clearly showcased the influence of abstract expressionism or cinema art on Cici Sursock and Nadia Saikali’s paintings respectively. In contrast, Huguette Caland managed to emancipate herself from the grasp of Western graphic arts, and to implement a novel and singular vision. It is not surprising that the Centre Pompidou has recently exhumed one of her big canvases to expose it in its permanent fifth-floor exhibition.

A Breeze of Fresh Air in the Middle-East

Managed by the affluent Laure d’Hauteville, who partook in the inceptions of Abu Dhabi and Singapore’s art fairs, the Beirut Art Fair can count on the active support of important private collectors. Businessmen Basel Dalloul and Abraham Karabajakian, as well as business lawyer Tarek Nahas, are members of the fair’s selection committee.

It must be doubly stressed that the program dedicates an important part to women artists in a country that has always protected individual freedoms. If Beirut’s Down town, Christian and highly secured, displays features of a little Paris, it is hard to forget that Lebanon’s neighbors are Israel and Syria, and that tensions present within these countries tend to spill over borders. The Lebanese capital still bears the stigmata of the 2006 air raids and must manage a highly preoccupying flux of refugees.

To overcome this atmosphere of anxiety, the Beirut collectors, all polyglots and globe-trotters, cultivate artwork. Amateurs of racing car and gleaming 4x4s in a city where traffic is saturated, they stroll along the alleys of the Beirut Art Fair in couples, year in year out. On March Hachem’s stand, two large paintings of Charbel Samuel Aoun, priced at $19.000 each, were the objects of an intense negotiation on the evening of the opening between the gallerist and a couple of particularly determined amateurs.

A Very Promising Potential

The 2016 edition allowed amateurs to purchase works priced from $1,200, for cardboard-supported gouaches by Hassan Samad (Artspace Hamra, Beirut), to around $340,000, for Jean-Paul Guiragossian’s major works (Emmagoss Art Gallery, Beirut). For a contemporary art fair, these amounts would seem affordable, especially when comparing them to the mammoth costs of items in Basel, Miami or Paris’s art fairs; however they are reportedly on the rise. Since 2010, the Beirut Art Fair has multiplied its attendance by seven and its receipts by four for every exhibited artist.

The price for a stand still being nearly half that of Dubai’s fair and galleries listed in the “Revealing by SGBL” box having no stand fees to pay, it is safe to bet that candidates for participation in upcoming Beirut Art Fair editions will be both numerous and highly motivated. Moreover, in light of this year’s encouraging spell, Laure d’Hauteville has announced a parallel design fair to be inaugurated no later than in 2017.

The 2016 Beirut Art Fair teaser.
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