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Week of art, design begins as twin fairs open in Beirut

Beirut, a growing regional destination for artists, is showcasing its rich and diverse art scene with weeklong programs dedicated to contemporary art and design.

A group of art insiders descended on the Le Gray hotel in downtown Beirut to celebrate the beginning of the Beirut Art Week, which runs Sept. 18-25 with a multifaceted program dedicated to contemporary art and design. Together with Lebanese Culture Minister Ghattas Khoury, the group was taken on a 16-stop tour of public art installations by Lebanese and international artists throughout the city’s galleries and open spaces.

The walk curls from the Le Gray hotel at Martyr’s Square down through the Beirut Souks and back into the popular neighborhood of Gemmayzeh for its last stop. Beyond just showcasing public artworks, the tour intends to highlight the cultural heritage and architecture of the city through exhibits like “Building With Fire” held in the old L'Orient-Le Jour building and a "ciné-concert" combining archival footage with live performances on the terraces of the Opera Gallery.

This rich and visually stimulating tour set the tone for the ninth edition of the Beirut Art Fair, which opens Sept. 19-23 at the expanded Seaside Arena — formerly the Beirut International Exhibition and Leisure Center, known as BIEL. The Beirut Art Fair was founded by director Laure d’Hauteville in 2010 and has steadily grown over the past eight years, establishing itself as a landmark event in the MENA region. With the number of attendees predicted to rise to 32,000 from 28,000 in 2017, the space allocated for the event has increased by 45% this year.

This year’s event boasts a range of works by 250 established and emerging contemporary artists with some 1,600 pieces in 33 returning galleries and 18 new booth exhibitors from 20 countries. For the first time, the Beirut Art Fair team has assigned renowned architect and urban planner Patrick Boustani to recreate the city of Beirut within the exhibition space itself.

What sets this fair apart from others is that while it focuses exclusively on the MENASA region, its appeal is international in scope — even Brooklyn-based sculptor KAWS has work shown at the fair. The founder, French-born art expert Laure d’Hauteville, who has called Beirut home for over two decades, shared with Al-Monitor her attraction to the city as a base for a regional art fair: “What you have in Lebanon unlike other countries is this constant creation. In every Lebanese family you have an art collector, an artist, a painter, an author or fashion designer,” she says. “Art and creation is everywhere in the country. All the best designers in the Middle East used to create everything in Beirut because it was the place to be.”

Each year, the fair puts on a major exhibition. This year’s flagship, “Across Boundaries,” is a panorama of Lebanese photography from 1880 to the present. Curated by avid photography collector Tarek Nahas, the Fair's artistic director Marine Bougaran and its artistic adviser Laurence Nahas, the exhibit is the culmination of a two-year research project that aims to lift the curtain on an opaque chapter of the country’s artistic heritage.

“We set out to explore three themes,” Bougaran told Al-Monitor, noting Nahas' meticulous research, selection and compilation throughout the entire process. They're decidedly comprehensive: war documentation, territory and intimacy. The curators sourced and borrowed over 100 works from 30 private and public collections (both the American University of Beirut and Université Saint Joseph contributed). The photographs on display belong to generations of Lebanese artists, some of them unknown but whose passion projects were unearthed decades later. Others have had established artistic careers, like Nadim Asfar, Manoug Alémian, Randa Mirza, Gilbert Hage, Ziad Antar and the Lebanese painter, Ayman Baalbaki.

This unprecedented focus on the Lebanese photographic scene provides visitors with a clear lens into the rich culture of the region, as well as insight into the history behind Lebanese photography and how it has evolved in the last century.

Elsewhere, visitors can expect two sections dedicated to emerging talent, including an award for photography presented by Byblos Bank. Lebanon Modern has also curated a commemorative retrospective of written artifacts and video installations for the 25th anniversary of the passing of the great Lebanese-Armenian painter Paul Guiragossian. This richness in archival material is by design, said D’Hauteville, who pointed out that some of the documents and photographs are on display to the public for the first time. “We’re doing this because it’s very important for people here to understand the role of foundation and explain how archives are important to understand the present,” she said.

Although government officials, economists and bankers have expressed concern that Lebanon is in an economic crisis and the situation is worsening, creativity in the country is booming. Lebanon’s culture minister announced this summer that there would be $280 million in investment over the next five years into culture-related initiatives. With new museums underway in downtown Beirut and Tyre and restorations to the UNESCO Palace, the organizers are hopeful at the prospect of collaborating closely with the government.

Smaller art galleries particularly benefit from this open-arm policy, including young art enthusiasts like Hind Ahmad, who founded the Artual Gallery in November 2017. Her online space has been the driving force behind several major international art initiatives from London to Abidjan and her gallery is participating for the first time in the Beirut Art Fair.

Artual Gallery represents 12 contemporary artists from all over the world, including two Lebanese artists, Yazan Halwani and Fadia Ahmad. Her broad roster of established and emerging artists reflects her passion for diversity. “In order to progress it’s important to be exposed to be different cultures and know what’s going on around the world,” she told Al-Monitor.

As the city cements its place in the region as a bastion of freedom of expression and creativity, for a second consecutive year, the Beirut Art Fair coincides with the Beirut Design Fair, adding to a burgeoning design scene.

Guillaume Taslé d’Héliand, the design fair's founder and director, told Al-Monitor that he met last year with over 150 designers in Lebanon to understand the community and its needs. The Beirut Design Fair emerged from these conversations, with a strong conviction that Beirut was developing a viable marketplace for design. “Beirut is a major design pole in the Mediterranean, with lots of cultural exchanges,” he said. “Its history and geographical location account for the creativity, curiosity, culture and the discerning flair of the Lebanese.”

Taslé D’Héliand hopes the fair will encourage more local designers and craftsmen to collaborate in the future. “There is a know-how and a way of doing things and we want to rejuvenate this activity,” he said.

D’Hauteville’s long-term goal is changing perspectives about art in Lebanon and the Middle East. “I want [visitors] to leave with a sense of hope because they discovered something they didn’t know, or didn’t think possible before,” she said. “It’s as important for us as the future generations.”

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