Art events turn Beirut’s centre into open gallery
Beirut - After being a hub for violent protests against a garbage crisis and a dysfunctional government for several weeks, Beirut’s central district was turned into an open art space in September, attracting thousands of art lovers.
The annual Beirut Art Week and Beirut Art Fair provided residents and visitors of the Lebanese capital with an “artistic break”, turning the streets and luxury boutiques of the city centre into a public museum of contemporary art, including sculptures, installations and paintings.
While the Art Fair was inside an exhibition centre, Art Week displays included sculptures in the streets, alleyways and window shops.
Entangled Love, a sculpture by Lebanese artist Nayla Romanos Iliya, occupied a central spot of Beirut’s renovated old souks. Inspired by the Phoenician alphabet, the artwork depicts four letters that are united in a warm embrace.
“I have used the four letters — L, O, V, E — which are inspired by symbols of the Phoenician alphabet and have become universal somehow,” Romanos explained during an interview with The Arab Weekly.
“The most important aspect of this piece is the relationship and interaction between those four letters. It is only together that they have a meaning; only when they are combined together that they try to convey the feeling of love and the different emotions that love could trigger, like supporting each other, holding each other, embracing each other,” she said.
The sculptor used brass with patina for the letters and mirrored stainless steel for the base. “The mirror stainless steel is part of the concept because it symbolises the water element, a reference to the fact that the Phoenicians had spread the alphabet through their maritime journey,” she said. “It reflects shades just like water.”
Romanos’ piece was among 24 works featured as part of the third installment of Beirut Art Week, which included an intricate face sculpture by Korean metal-smith Seo Young-Deok at well-known Lebanese fashion designer Elie Saab’s flagship store and a one-off Hermès scarf by Argentinian artist Julio Le Parc at the brand’s boutique in Beirut Souks.
Lebanese artist Nabil Helou’s large sculpture — a bench made from fiberglass — greeted visitors at the entrance of the souks. The piece is part of a larger project on public art.
“The concept is to make ordinary people who don’t go to galleries or museums interact more with the public art and sculptures,” Helou said. “Whatever you put in public or in the street, even if it is ugly, people get used to it and it becomes part of their daily life. So my idea is that why not have sculptured benches in public places, which people can sit on and at the same time their eyes would become acquainted with art and beauty.”
“The Arab region these days is being associated with lots of ugly images and this is not true. We have beauty and art as well, which we should shed light on and expose,” he added.
Beirut Art Week Event Manager Rania Halawi stressed the importance of educating the public on art. “By exposing art pieces in public spaces, we are aiming at initiating the average person and the people at large on the love of art,” she said.
“It is also a way of diverting the public attention from problems of politics and violence and have them look at the beauty of art for a change.”
In parallel with Beirut Art Week, the Beirut Art Fair brought together 51 galleries from 19 countries where artists represented all the trends of modern and contemporary art and expressed themselves through painting, drawing, sculpture, video, design or performance.
Mamia Bretesche’s Gallery of contemporary art in Paris participated for the first time in Beirut Art Fair, representing painters from the Maghreb.
“We give these artists, who have no chance to expose their work abroad, the opportunity to be known globally through participating in international fairs in New York, Singapore, Beirut,” Bretesche said.
For Beirut Fair, the gallery focused on writing and reading. “When I was young all my books and dictionaries carried the sentence, ‘Edited in Beirut or published in Beirut’, so I wanted to pay tribute to this country which inundated the Arab world with books and knowledge,” Bretesche said.
Samer Kozah Gallery from Syria is a veteran of the Beirut Art Fair. Since the outbreak of the Syrian conflict, now in its fifth year, the gallery has opened an outlet in Beirut where the works of young Syrian artists who still live in the war-torn country, are exposed.
“When the war started, I had to focus my efforts abroad because the Syrian market has just ceased to exist,” Kozah said.
“Syrian art, which was spread by 30% outside Syria prior to the war, has become spread by 99% and has a growing market. It is now much more in demand and better known.”
Although many Syrians artists have relocated to Lebanon, Kozah’s support goes mainly to those still inside Syria. “I make sure that they get the exposure they deserve,” he said.
In Kozah’s stand, oil paintings by three Syrian artists were displayed, including the artworks of 22-year-old Mohamad Dabajo, a first-timer in the fair.
“Within the past five months, Mr Samer gave me two opportunities to expose my work. He is an outlet, a vent for me, because I am staying in Syria, away from the galleries,” Dabajo said.
Commenting on the stress of working under the war situation in Syria, the young artist said his art is an escape from violence and a means “to evacuate all the negative energy one absorbs from the street”.
“I can take it out on the canvas,” he said. “It is a good way to release the stress, a way to breathe.”
Since it was launched in 2010, the Beirut Art Fair has significantly boosted art activities in Lebanon. “Many galleries have since opened in Beirut and several artists have relocated in the city,” noted Rania Tabbara, the fair’s public relations representative.
“We are happy to say that Beirut Art Fair has become a landmark in the international cultural agenda and is considered as one of the most prestigious art manifestations in the Middle East,” Tabbara said.