International appeal of Beirut Art Residency
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.”