Tucked away on a side street in Beirut’s bustling Hamra district is a newcomer to the city’s art scene. Since it’s opening in April 2018 Letitia Gallery has focused on emerging international and Middle Eastern artists whose work engages with global concerns. Mohamad Al Hamoud and Annie Vartivarian founded the gallery with the mission to strengthen the Middle Eastern art scene, with a particular focus on the younger generation.
“I was always fascinated by the Lebanese art scene and I wanted to contribute to it in a way that would support Lebanese artists and create space for international voices,” says Vartivarian who tells how her passion for contemporary art has been developing over the course of many years with a particular interest in Middle Eastern and international names.
While Letitia occupies your typical four-walled gallery space, it operates differently from most traditional spaces. It offers a project-based model, exhibiting four to five shows annually with an emphasis on the MENA region. The gallery’s first rotation of shows included exhibitions by artists such as Ahmed Badry, Nathaniel Rackowe, Radhika Khimji, Eileen Cooper and soon Sirine Fattouh, who will also for show for the first time with the gallery.
“All of the exhibitions the gallery has presented have been the first exhibitions by those artists in Beirut,” states Vartivarian. “The gallery is committed to bringing international voices into Lebanon as well as sharing Lebanese voices with our international audiences.”
Annie Vartivarian, Co-founder of Letitia Gallery Beirut. Courtsey of Letitia Gallery, Beirut
The promotion of cross-cultural understanding is thus central to Letitia’s mission, and one that can be found across a variety of activities it partakes in throughout Lebanon. Taking on a role similar to the idea of an art patron, Vartivarian has sponsored a series of talks at Beirut’s Sursock Museum, among other initiatives, flying in esteemed scholars and art professionals from abroad to speak on art and culture to a Lebanese art audience.
“We want to contribute to a healthier and more exciting artistic ecology not only for our gallery and artists but also for the Lebanese and international artistic community,” says Vartivarian. The gallery is also about fostering conversations about art and culture and for that Vartivarian and her partner chose to locate the gallery in the dynamic area of Hamra.
Once the epicenter for Arab and Lebanese intellectuals, this district, particularly the famous Hamra Street used to be the place where prominent politicians, artists, intellectuals and journalists would meet. Nearby are also the campuses of American University of Beirut (AUB) and the Lebanese American University (LAU).
Basir Mahmood. All Good Things. 2018. Inkjet print on photo rag. 120x180cm. Edition of five plus two artists’ proofs. Courtesy of the artist
The vibrancy of the area is still there and Letitia adds to its passionate creative fervour. “I wanted to locate our gallery in a dynamic area of Beirut, so that the exhibitions and artists could be in direct conversation with the city around them,” adds Vartivarian.
Cooper’s exhibtion, which marked the gallery’s first show, incorporated references to Lebanon’s cedar trees and traditional mosaics. Rackowe, an artist who hails from the UK, completed a residency in Beirut.
What sets Letitia Gallery apart from other commercial art galleries is its insistence on supporting emerging artists, and this doesn’t easily offer quick return of investment. “It is essential for artists to have the opportunity to make and show new work to move their practice forward,” adds Vartivarian. “The gallery wants to have a productive creative relationship with artists—helping them create, explore and communicate.”
To read the full article, pick up the Summer 2019 issue of Harper's Bazaar Art
Watch: Elie Saab speaks exclusively with Bazaar in Beirut