Art Without Bounds

BY Laurence Cornet / Feb 15 2017 / 16:33 PM

Lebanese art veteran Saleh Barakat expands his reach with a larger space in the Clemencau area of Beirut, writes Laurence Cornet

Art Without Bounds
Photography by Sueraya Shaheen
Saleh Barakat in front of a work by Ayman Baalbaki

Saleh Barakat is the owner of Beirut’s famous Agial Gallery, located in Hamra, which presents a high-end selection of modern and contemporary art. “We are the most important defender of Arab modern art in the region and we support contemporary artists as well,” he explains. “It is a way to reclaim our identity, our past, and to define the art practice as a continuity.” Barakat stepped onto the city’s art scene in 1991 when he opened up Ras Beirut’s Agial Gallery. Beginning his career as a gallerist with a touch of militancy, it was a time when the civil war raged and when defending art was thus a way to reclaim life. This past May he opened up a new and larger space set in the mythical Clemenceau cinema art house, a place that hosted the first screenings of Andrei Tarkovsky and soon became a theatre whose stage saw the greatest figures of Arab theater. Barakat’s new gallery space offers in-depth exhibitions that fit his current ambition. “It’s an organic evolution. We needed more space and higher walls to feature large retrospectives of some of our artists who have a 50 or 60-years long career.” The closure by Solidere of the Beirut Exhibition Center and the reorientation of the Beirut Art Center towards an increasingly minimalist programming made this move furthermore necessary. The opportunity of keeping the iconic space as a monument of Beirut’s history of culture was also relevant. 

Saleh Barakat
An exhibition view of Nabil Nahas: Recent Paintings at the gallery. Photography by Sueraya Shaheen
The list of exhibitions planned for the three coming years only proves this choice right. The series of shows conceived by Barakat will range from emerging artists to established ones, with a focus on the Lebanese scene. There will be some discoveries, too. Barakat has, for example, planned an exhibition of Waddah Faris, who is known for his work as a gallery owner in Beirut, following and supporting the artistic counter-culture which flourished in the city in the 1960s. But Faris also happened to be an artist, who documented with his Leica camera Beirut’s glorious years, from 1960-75, and has only now that he is retired decided to look again at his photographs. His work will be associated to art pieces from the same period in order to draw a portrait of that fruitful decade. In this endeavor, Barakat’s new gallery takes on a role that merges with that of a museum, whereby contextualisation is a key element of the curatorial intention. 
Such an approach will also be applied to Hamed Abdalla’s retrospective, co-curated by Nasser Soumi. An iconic Egyptian artist who exhibited in Paris in the 1950s and then fell into oblivion, he was recently rediscovered by the Tate Modern in London, who purchased three of his pieces. The retrospective, which will coincide with a commemoration of 100 years of the artist, will feature paintings by European artists such as Cesar and Alberto Burri alongside Abdalla’s. “We are interested in drawing such parallels in order to show that he was ahead of his time,” Barakat explains. 
Saleh Barakat gallery
Installation view of Ayman Baalbaki: Blowback at Saleh Barakat Gallery. Photography by Sueraya Shaheen
Though less involved in the Egyptian scene than he used to be, Barakat just returned from Paris, where Centre Pompidou inaugurated an exceptional exhibition of Egyptian surrealists. 
“The dream of seeing these artists considered at the same level as Western artists became true,” Barakat says. A great defender since the beginning of his career of the Arab scene, Barakat is at the origin of projects such as Mathaf, Doha’s Arab Museum of Modern Art. His vision of the future tells a lot about his approach: “As a gallery owner, I am more interested in developing the local scene here than in the rest of the world. I believe that this is our role. Artists in Lebanon also need it very much as they lack public support. 
We discover artists and support them very early on in their career, even if it’s a hard bet.”
Against the diktat of establishment, never did Barakat renounce his support for an artist whom he believed truly deserved to be recognised. This is the case with Ginane Makki Bacho, whose work will be exhibited in Barakat’s new space next year. Entitled Civilization, Bacho’s 100-meter wide installation will feature metal sculptures inspired by Daesh (the Arabic term for ISIS) imagery. By converting it into art pieces, she questions what is happening in the region. A provocative questioning of art and money, the coming exhibition of Hady Sy will also be very critical—it features a cushion whose leather is replaced by bank notes, an utopian dollar-tree, and an ambiguous zero-dollar bill seeming to announce an apocalypse before a possible rebirth. 
Revolutionary too is artist Ziad Abillama, who will also get a solo show next year. “Each time his work is recognised and appreciated, he changes his practice,” says Barakat. “He always renews himself because he is ultimately interested in transgressing the norms.” And maybe that’s also the way in which we could apprehend the gallery owner’s own professional trajectory: a pioneer for Arab art who knows no bounds.  
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