Atelier Assaf offers visitors journey into art, heritage and ecology

Atelier Assaf has become a major tourist attraction across the Chouf, encompassing a museum where sculptures and other creations are displayed.
Sunday 02/09/2018
The six pieces making up the head of Mikhail Naimy seen separately. (Samar Kadi)
The six pieces making up the head of Mikhail Naimy seen separately. (Samar Kadi)

WARHANIEH - Atelier Assaf in Warhanieh in the heart of Lebanon’s Chouf Mountains is about combining nature, art, culture and heritage. It is a project nurtured by three sculptors, the Assaf brothers.

Assaf, Mansour and Aref Assaf have been making art for more than 20 years. Their passion for modelling stones was passed down from their father, a stone carver who initiated them into the profession. They upgraded it to artistic sculpturing.

“We have been brought up in an environment of art and culture,” said Assaf, the oldest brother. “We started working with stones by helping out our father, who was commissioned by artists and designers to execute stone works for them, and then we took up the family profession and stayed in the business.”

The Assaf brothers were also largely influenced by the works of their godfather, artist Aref Rayyes, and those of their uncle, artist Fouad el Werhani.

Atelier Assaf, a 10,000-sq.metre property about 50km south-east of Beirut, was intended to be the brothers’ home and workshop. They built their house in affinity with the environment, using natural stones, wooden ceiling interposed with clay and hay and topped it with a roof of soil adorned with green grass.

The place has become a major tourist attraction encompassing a museum, in which some of the brothers’ creations are displayed. Visitors are introduced to eco-friendly architecture, endemic trees and plants and agricultural practices.

A large limestone statue of late Lebanese politician Kamal Jumblatt greets visitors at the entrance of the atelier. Other statues and abstract sculptures are on display, including six stone pieces that appear meaningless when seen separately but, viewed from the correct angle, the pieces unite to depict the head of late Lebanese poet and philosopher Mikhail Naimy.

In 1999, the Assaf brothers spent months working on creating a statue of Naimy in his hometown of Baskinta, which they said was one of the highlights of their careers.

“This is where we started to synchronise our artwork and work together on the same piece. For instance, I would give the idea, we would agree on the method we will use, then Mansour would propose some modifications, Aref would fine tune, et cetera. We take turns sculpting the same piece and this is possible because we follow a system and agree on the same guidelines,” Assaf Assaf explained.

The museum, set in the basement built with traditional rib-vault architecture, contains sculptures that embody artists, religious and political figures from Lebanon and the Arab world.

“We choose the personalities we want to sculpt carefully for history to remember them,” Assaf said. “They are people who marked history or had many achievements but were not properly recognised, like Lebanese nuclear scientist Salim Mourad, who lived in Germany but nobody knows about him in Lebanon or the Arab world.

“This is our way of preserving history. Our role as artists is not only to produce art pieces but also to write history and contribute to cultural development.”

A statue of late Lebanese comedian Hassan Alaa Eddin, better known as Chouchou, captures his prominent features such as his curly hair and moustache, as well as his funny character. Another statue embodies late Egyptian-Syrian singer Farid al-Atrash sitting next to his oud looking as if he could stand up any minute and walk away.

Among other works are the busts of Lebanese poet Khalil Gibran, Charles Malek, a prominent Lebanese diplomat who was responsible for the drafting and adoption of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and painter Aref Rayess.

“Visitors to the museum are exposed to these personalities. They get to know them better, who they are, what they achieved and what role they played in our life and in history,” Assaf said.

Opening a sculpting school is among the three brothers’ plans.

“It will be divided into two parts: one for the beginners and another for professionals. Students will learn sculpting techniques and, at the same time, be exposed to the professionals and learn from them,” Assaf said. “Residing sculptors from the Arab world and elsewhere will be staying here to work and at the same time share and exchange with the students.”

Visitors to Atelier Assaf are guided around the premises and get lessons in art, indigenous culture and architecture and local botany. In addition to the museum, they visit the workshop where they get a comprehensive idea of the sculpting process and the creativity that goes in it.

At the end of the tour, they can relax on the oak tree terrace and enjoy coffee and seasonal fruit while looking over the lush green valley or just stroll around the grounds.

Nature, arts and heritage — Atelier Assaf combines all the elements of a tourist attraction.

The museum at Atelier Assaf in Warhanieh in Lebanon’s Chouf Mountain.(Samar Kadi)
The museum at Atelier Assaf in Warhanieh in Lebanon’s Chouf Mountain.(Samar Kadi)
The face of Mikhail Naimy when seen from the opposite angle.(Samar Kadi)
The face of Mikhail Naimy when seen from the opposite angle.(Samar Kadi)