In a city arguably where it all started— Laure d’Hauteville raves about the National Museum of Beirut’s recently reopened lower floor full of sarcophagi that outlines the precursors to art today—it has not always been an easy road. While lacking substantial government backing, Beirut Art Fair has powered through political instability and is now largely lauded as one fair in the region that doesn’t need to worry about censorship. “I came back to do a fair here because it’s one of the few areas where we can do what we want,” d’Hauteville explains. “Despite all the problems, it still exists. No one can destroy what exists in Lebanon.”
Part of the motivation of d’Hauteville, along with fair artistic director Pascal Odille, is to give back to Lebanon what belongs to Lebanon. With a focus on heritage and the reinvigorated energy, the fair has experienced steady growth due in large part to the Lebanese people themselves. “The best piece of art is Lebanese people… they are strong,” says d’Hauteville. And open-minded, if this year’s expanded programme is any indicator.
Osama Esid. The Girl with The Silver Shoes. Cairo. 2004. Silver gelatine hand-coloured photographed with Egyptian made camera from 1920. 48 x 40 cm. Edition one of six. Image courtesy Hafez Gallery, KSA
Beirut Art Fair may not position itself as provocative, but it certainly is continuing to adopt a more free-willed approach, pushed heavily by d’Hauteville and supported by the numerous patrons and collectors who lend their works to special non-profit exhibitions every year. The main highlight of this year’s fair will be the exhibition Ourouba, The Eye of Lebanon curated by Rose Issa. It will reflect the aesthetic, conceptual and sociopolitical concerns resonating throughout the Arab world in the last decade through 62 works from 20 private Lebanese collections.
By focusing on “Arabicity”, Issa was given carte blanche to manifest a show where the works will speak for themselves, presenting what has happened and what is yet to come with questions like “How can we resist clichés, injustice, double standards, opportunism and at times even opportunities?” D’Hauteville uses this as an example of the freedom of expression, remarking that even in locations like France it would be impossible before citing a recent example of how one French exhibition ran into complications given it was too Islamic. “Everyone was saying ‘No, we cannot say things like this, even if everyone knows them already… but I thought, because I cannot, I will!” she laughs. “I wanted something impactful.” Indicative of the lack of censorship, d’Hauteville says, “It’s a little crazy, but I want it to be crazy because we are in Beirut. We are alive here. Lebanon is alive.”
Ghada Da. Orient. 2015. Mother of Pearls, ottchil and birch wood. Image courtesy Hafez Gallery, KSA
With just over 51 galleries from 23 countries (spanning as far as Chile) showcasing 1400 art pieces, newcomers including Hafez Gallery and Galerie Nathalie Obadia will form part of a careful selection ready to present to the Lebanese public. “We push galleries to not exhibit the same works and artists. Some were refused this year, while some were accepted, but not with all the artists they proposed.” But, d’Hauteville promises, the fair will be fun.
The second special exhibition is curated by Odille on The Prophet by Khalil Gibran, which will feature works from his eponymous museum as well as an original, never before exhibited editor’s copy of the book complete with notes, alongside Rachid Koraichi’s illustrative interpretation of the tome. “We have it. This is really Lebanese Modern,” says d’Hauteville.
Mahmoud Obaidi. Farewell Kiss. 2012. Mixed media on canvas. 113 x 113 x 15 cm. Image courtesy Ramzi & Saeda Dalloul Art Foundation, Lebanon
With a series of new collateral events to round out the usual programming of the fair and Beirut Art Week, visitors can expect highlights such as the talk Political Disorientation – Artistic Reorientation between Michket Krifa and Dr Alexandre Kazerouni on 21st century Arab artistic production, tackling its start in 1991, the liberalisation of the region, and the dissolution of the borders of Arab identity; the performance Equilibro by Spanish artist Maria Gimeno, where she will hold plates on her head as she balances atop stilts dressed as a man to reference the female experience in a male-oriented world; a small section playfully dedicated to food art, a sculpture related to the Beirut marathon (because, d’Hauteville says, they may host an art marathon next year), and a special runway show of Elie Saab’s latest collection that plays with a yet-to-be-decided piece of art—“Art is everything,” repeats d’Hauteville.
Two special “must-sees” include a partnership forged with the Lebanese Film Festival that will result in an outdoor cinema at archaeological sites at Opera Gallery featuring Lebanese films—“to be educational and fun in the middle of history”—as well as a visit to the inauguration of the Emile Hannouche Museum in the Beka’a which showcases the Modern art collection of a man d’Hauteville describes as quiet yet brimming with fascinating anecdotes of how his collection came to be.
But d’Hauteville doesn’t stop there, saying the first exhibition at the Maison Jaune, Catastrophe: Healing Lebanon at Beit Beirut, is also worth seeing, along with the first edition of Beirut Design Fair… “All of it,” she finally exclaims. “See everything!”
Beirut Art Fair runs 21-24 September at BIEL, Beirut, Lebanon. Beirut-art-fair.com