International appeal of Beirut Art Residency

Friday 11/12/2015
Syrian photographer and visual artist Sara Naim and British-Iraqi painter Athier Mousawi sharing the work space at Beirut Art residence.

Beirut - Instability and progress seldom go hand-in-hand. Yet in Leba­non, the rule is not the norm, especially in Beirut, where cultural life moves on despite insecurity and tumult fuelled by political deadlock and economic slowdown.
In an environment laden with contrasts, a dynamic ecosystem of local artists, curators, gallery own­ers and patrons thrives and attracts a constant stream of international artists.
Nestled away on a side street in Gemmayze district, one of Beirut’s creative hubs, is an unpretentious three-bedroom flat where interna­tional artists can share a workplace as part of a six-week art residency programme. Beirut Art Residency (BAR) is a non-profit organisation and an interdisciplinary space aimed at fostering cross-cultural relations between foreign artists and the local artistic community.
Preparing a kettle of cinnamon tea, Amar Zahr, BAR’s 27-year-old director, reveals the gamble she had to take to conceive it all.
A double major graduate in business and studio arts from the American University of Beirut, Zahr had participated in several art residencies abroad. “Whenever I’d be on these art programmes other artists would ask me [if] there are any art residencies in Beirut,” she said.
It was then, she said, that she noticed there was a gap in Bei­rut’s art scene, although some art groups such as Ashkal Alwan had some form of artist residency pro­gramme.
Still employed in a stable job in Dubai, Zahr decided to take pho­tographs of her friend’s apartment in Mar Mikhael district adjacent to Gemmayze and launch a seemingly legitimate open call via a fake pilot website called “CRATER” to gauge the interest of potential partici­pants to an art residency in Beirut.
To her surprise, 40 people ap­plied in the first week.
“A co-working studio space is something that is very rare in Bei­rut. People usually work outside their apartments by themselves, not a lot of artists have shared stu­dios here,” Zahr said.
“I wanted to create this place as a melting pot for both international, regional and local artists to meet and collaborate. [It’s] not just for the international artists to see Bei­rut but also for the local artists who are based here and don’t always get the chance to travel and meet art­ists from abroad.”
The space is constantly active, offering a six-week residency pro­gramme to as many as five artists at a time. After receiving the first resi­dents, including Sara Naim, a Syr­ian photographer and visual artist, and Athier Mousawi, a British-Iraqi painter, Zahr had an inaugural show on October 27th to introduce guests to the residents and their artwork.
“We help the artists with their projects from start to finish by in­viting critics, curators and [other] people from the art scene in Bei­rut to come to the residency every week and meet with them,” she said.
The latest roster of resident art­ists includes Pierre Dalpé, a pho­tographer from Montreal, whose works navigate between docu­mentary reportage and staged sce­narios to examine the relationship between the body, identity, dis­guise and performance; Lucienne Bestall, from Cape Town, who is preoccupied with considering the function of everyday objects with­in an artistic framework; and Serbi­an artist Ivana Ivkovic, who creates site-specific interventions.
Although the artists work across different approaches their upcom­ing projects all incorporate Beirut as a central motif.
“There is a little bit of a culture shock when you come from North America,” Dalpé said. “But as I’ve gotten to know the city I like it more and more. I guess the chal­lenge for me is sort of landing in a milieu you’re not familiar with and having to connect with a lot of dif­ferent people.”
Meanwhile, Bestall clarifies that her perceptions of the city have begun to shift. “I thought there would be a lot of parallels between Beirut and Cape Town. I thought the art scene would be very small, I was completely wrong,” she said. “There’s so much energy behind the arts here. I feel a lot safer here than I do in Cape Town. It feels like quite a relief to me.”
For Ivkovic, who underlines the similarities between her hometown of Belgrade and Beirut, the transi­tion was a smoother one. She said: “It seems to be a centre of hedon­ism. You can feel a huge amount of life; there is that tendency of non­chalance and even indulgence.”
With a drawn-out garbage crisis and other tensions continuing to mount, Zahr said that the uneasy energy can play a positive role in shaping the artistic process.
“It draws people in, for sure, and it affects your work. I’m sure the artists had a certain idea of what to do before they came [and] now they’re going to be changing their concepts as they get influenced by the surroundings, which is what happened to me when I was doing my art residency in Istanbul,” Zahr said, as she recalled her residency on Taksim Square in 2013 when the Gezi Park protests were taking place.
“There were hundreds of thou­sands of demonstrators and tear gas and that affected me, but I wanted to stay because it brings out so much of your creativity. [It] completely changed what I was working on.”