Ramzi Dalloul: An Elegant Hand

BY Harper's Bazaar Arabia / Apr 28 2016 / 19:20 PM

Lebanese-Palestinian art patron Ramzi Dalloul has amassed what is probably the largest collection of modern and contemporary Arab art in private hands. Rebecca Anne Proctor visits Ramzi’s collection in Beirut and learns of his upcoming museum

Ramzi Dalloul: An Elegant Hand
Ramzi Dalloul: An Elegant Hand

Beirut is no stranger to challenge. And few in its modern history have been greater than what the city is enduring today. As we travelled down the bumpy road to West Beirut, the joyous and resilient nature of the Lebanese was still to be found on every street corner, but so too were the piles of uncollected garbage emblematic of the on-going political instability that plagues this nation. Its creative soul is nonetheless irrepressible and well encapsulated through the collection of Palestinian-Lebanese art patron Ramzi Dalloul.

Ramzi’s collection of over 3,300 works rivals most others in the region. For example, Qatar’s Mathaf museum has a collection of 8,000 mostly Arab artworks, including pieces from Turkey, Iran and other areas connected to the Arab world. Assisted by his son Basel Dalloul, CEO and Chairman of the Noor Group, a leading company in the field of information technology, who also has his own contemporary art collection in Washington D.C., in the Dalloul family collection in Beirut are works by artists such as Paul Guiragossian, Ayman Baalbaki, Nabil Nahas; Dia Azzawi, Sleiman Mansour Samia Halaby, Amer Shomali, Adam Henein, Abdul Rahman Katanani, Mahmoud Mukhtar, Salwa Raouda Choucair and Alfred Basbous, among many others. Previously a senior economist at the United Nations Secretariat in New York, Ramzi amassed the collection over several decades during trips around the Middle East.

Mahmoud Obaidi. The Kiss Farewell. circa 2010
“I really started collecting seriously six years ago,” he says in his Beirut apartment. “I decided to commit substantial resources to this effort. But moreover, because I felt we needed to use art as an instrument to educate people.” His first artwork was purchased years ago when he was on a business trip in Baghdad.
“We had this idea after the 67 war to do something for Arab society whereby we used our talents to create a think tank. We called it ‘Reversing the Brain Drain’"
"And the brain drain reverses from the least developed countries to the more advanced ones. In our part of the world, unless you have connections with a certain party or a certain sect, you won’t have the opportunity to change things.” Ramzi left his job at the UN to dedicate himself to the project. While he was working in Iraq, Ramzi would go to the museums, such as the Gulbenkian Museum, which was later transformed to become the Saddam Modern Art Museum. “I met a number of famous Iraqi painters there,” he remembers of his time in Iraq. “I would buy the paintings or commission the artists to do them. I met the late Faig Hassan then.” Ramzi would buy his art and then ship it to Beirut, where his company’s headquarters were based and where he also lived when he worked for the UN. “At the end of that period I had over 50 paintings by Iraqi artists,” says Ramzi. During the Civil War in Beirut, he moved to Paris but still kept in touch with the Iraqi artists he met. “Faig used to ask me for canvases and brushes and I would give them to him. But still he would put me on a waiting list for his work because he was in such demand,” he laughs. During this time, Ramzi also became close to senior political figures running Iraq and they were aware of his artistic penchant. “I gave many works by Faig Hassan to these men of the state,” says Ramzi. “Should I have done this or should I have not done this — I don’t know. They are very important artworks.”

In addition to the many artworks that line the walls of the room in which we are seated, including a stunning Mahmoud Said work entitled The Bath of the Horses, are piles of books. He is clearly a man who likes to study. “Before I buy an artwork I research it,” he emphasises, stating that reading books seems to be more and more a dying activity. This love for research and for investigating the provenance behind a work of art is something Ramzi believes is pivotal to share with others. “Many things are not measurable in economics and when they are not we must introduce a value judgment,” says Ramzi. “You cannot quantify everything in life.” We begin to discuss the art market and the many innuendos of the contemporary scene. “I find myself at times arguing economics with artists!” exclaims Ramzi. “They say ‘Dr. Dalloul is difficult’—but I am not, I have just researched the artwork.” Many artists nowadays appear to have resorted to selling directly to buyers like Ramzi. “They seem to prefer to do this,” he says. “An artist needs to be make a living.”

Ultimately, Ramzi’s collection is about giving back to the Middle East region through the creation of a museum. “The idea for this cultural center and museum of Pan-Arab art emanated from my travels throughout the Arab world,” he says. “I always would visit museums at the various countries I was in. However, what I noticed was that there was great affinity between different artists in various parts of the Arab world but that you don’t see this affinity in the region’s museums. The Mathaf museum in Doha began efforts in this direction but it hasn’t been greatly publicised.”

Ahmed Bahrani. Uprooting. circa 2015

According to Ramzi, art should be used as an instrument in order to enlighten and raise awareness both in the political and economic realms as well as the rights of the ordinary citizen. His desire to do so has been magnified by the recent political developments in the region. “I am referring to the movements that have espoused Islam as their platform and which are not really Islamic in any way or form,” he says.

“We always hear statesmen in the West say that what the Middle East is battling is a generational struggle that will take a long time to win. It is a battle of ideas and doctrines and the people of the region will need to take a lead in this fight. It will not be done by planes, warriors or by armies. It is a battle of ideas.” Art is a means to an end because of its universal qualities. “When you look at a painting you need a very small introduction to it in order to realise the message behind it,” he adds. “You don’t need to have a PhD or an MA. The communication is direct.”

While plans for Ramzi’s museum are currently under way, one thing is for certain: It will be located in Lebanon. “Examining all of the Arab countries, we have found that Lebanese citizens have a very high level of cultural education,” he says. “We also have a relative freedom of expression here.” Beirut, historically, has always been the cultural center of the region and it is for this reason that Ramzi thinks it is apt to reinstate its strategic location. The museum will exhibit painting, sculpture, installation, multimedia art, film and also music and dance performances. Moreover, it will be free of charge. “We want it to be called the Arab Cultural Foundation for Fine and Performing Arts,” he says. In addition, it aims to help children and refugees and introduce them to art and culture as a medium for expression. “We want the cultural centre to develop young talents,” he adds. “We want to be able to contribute to the cultural current of the region, at least in a small way. We don’t have illusions of grandeur. But if people like us contribute, even just a little, then our efforts will form a river.”

NazarYahia. Bad Game. circa 2012. and to the right a sculpture by Dia Azzawi. circa 2012 and to the left Mesopotamia by Ahmed Bahrani

The educational arm of the museum and cultural center revolves around exhibitions staged according to specific themes. “Democracy, freedom, the woman—we recorded around 60 themes that deal with problems in Arab society and that we use as themes for each exhibition,” says Ramzi. “We have objectives. It is about dealing with the problems over the last 100 years through art.” In Ramzi’s future museum, he also wants a place where artists can come to interact and engage in various meetings and conferences. “We want to push Arab art to a higher phase; it’s no longer about having an exhibition and issuing a brochure; we want this interaction to happen alongside the exhibitions,” he says. Ramzi also emphasises the need for a good library on Arab art that will allow art professionals and artists to come and research.

Ultimately, art will not solve all the problems in the world. But for Ramzi it is an idealogical means to an end. “We also don’t see a lot of encouragement from governments in the region for the arts,” he says. By why should governments become engaged? Why are the arts important to the people of a state if what the people really need during a time of conflict is food, shelter and medical assistance? “Because if they are really serious in stopping this onslaught — this differing version of Islam — they need to understand that we are facing this new threat on many levels: military, economic, cultural, social and doctrinal,” he says.

“Ideas cannot be fought with military means”

Basel and Ramzi guide us to the various floors of the family’s art collection. One easily forgets that these are floors of his apartment converted into separate art galleries. There’s one for Egyptian art, Iraqi art, Palestinian, Lebanese and so forth. The artworks change location whenever Ramzi or Basel feels the need for change. The artworks remind us of the various historical and cultural moments in the collective history of each artist. Many of the Iraqi artworks refer to the various wars fought on its soil. There’s a series by Mahmoud Shubbar made from old, battered sign posts with bullet holes blown threw them emblazoned with ‘Saddam City’ and ‘Iraq Antiquities Museum’— places that are no more. And there is Palestinian artist Sleiman Mansour’s iconic painting of a poor peasant carrying the weight of Jerusalem on his back.

Ramzi’s passion for art is infectious. It is one that has been undiminished by age and enthused by travel and knowledge of the region. He locates, acquires, collects and now shares his art—with the greater good. And while there is certainly much to do in order to get his museum and cultural center off the ground — the ideas are there — the willingness and desire and it is enough to be easily lured into his art world. The Beirut art crowd arrives and artists, dealers, art lovers and fair directors converse amidst the Dalloul collection. Ideas are exchanged about art, politics, the region and the state of Lebanon. The artworks provide a scenic backdrop; they speak themselves of just the same ideas. And then the magical evening ends and we go back to Beirut. 

This article originally appears in the Spring 2016 issue of Harper's Bazaar Art. Photography: Richard Hall