MACAM, Lebanon’s first contemporary art museum
Alita, Lebanon - Perched on a green hill overlooking the Mediterranean and flanked by the legendary Adonis Valley stands a large factory compound that has been turned into a dynamic cultural hub. Featuring nearly a century of sculpting in Lebanon, the Modern and Contemporary Art Museum — MACAM — is dedicated to preserving and promoting Lebanon’s cultural and artistic heritage.
In addition to a permanent exhibition, “Panorama of Sculpture,” displaying more than 300 sculptures by 115 artists, MACAM is a treasure-trove of art history with its archives library containing 550 files about Lebanese artists.
“We are an educational museum and an art research centre,” said MACAM’s Founder and Director Cesar Nammour. “We are open to the public only three days per week. The rest of the week we host entire school classes as well as architecture, design and art students. We give them a tour of the museum and initiate them to art through lectures and workshops.”
In the absence of a Lebanese national gallery, the factory-turned-museum provides local artists in media — ranging from stone and metal to ceramics and wood and also installation art — with a platform to showcase their work.
Inaugurated in 2013, MACAM is the brainchild of Nammour, an art critic and the author of 25 books on Lebanese art. He said the idea came about when he felt the need to preserve installation art.
“Usually when installation art exhibitions are over, the works are dismantled. I wanted to conserve these pieces and was ready to keep them and take care of them,” he said.
Nammour soon realised that it was necessary to exhibit these artworks and as the project took shape, the scope was broadened to include modern and contemporary art, providing a unique opportunity to appreciate the significant output of modern and contemporary local sculptors, ceramicists and installation artists.
The site in Alita, north of Beirut, consists of two huge spaces that have kept their industrial feel. Hall 1 contains installations and Hall 2 showcases sculptures.
“It is the first museum of contemporary art in Lebanon. When people come here, I hear ‘WAW’ all the time,” he said.
The museum showcases the works of reputable artists, including the first Lebanese sculptor Youssef Houeik, the Basbous Brothers — Michel, Youssef and Alfred Basbous — Hussein Madi, Wajih Nahle, Zaven Hadichian who is a master bronze sculptor, Dorothy Salhab Kazemi, the first modern woman ceramist in the region, Moazzaz Rawda, who started sculpting at 50, Ginane Bacho and Boulos Richa, a blacksmith who became an expert in iron sculpturing. Installation artists Nada Sehnaoui and Adnan Hakkani are also featured.
Many of the displayed pieces were donated to the museum such as the sculptures by Houeik, Mady and the Basbous Brothers.
“We receive a lot of donations but we also have artists who give us their pieces for keeping and conservation,” Nammour said. “We do not really care about possessing the artworks, as long as they are displayed and the public can appreciate them. Some artists retrieve their works and others place them back.”
Sculptures by Houeik, Lebanon’s first academic sculptor, and the Basbous Brothers, the pioneers of modern sculpture in Lebanon, take centre stage in Hall 2.
“Here we explain to visitors the difference between academic or realistic art and modern art,” Nammour said. “In academic art, the more you are exact in your reproduction the more the work is valid, while in modern art we don’t care about appearance, it is the psychology and the idea of the artist that matters.”
Bacho’s “cedars,” sculptured out of shrapnel, speaks about the physical and psychological damage of the Lebanese war. “Here we explain that art does not have to be necessarily beautiful; it can be ugly. It depends on what the artist wants to say,” Nammour said.
For his installation, Hakkani collected soil from 50 villages across Lebanon providing a rich palette of all tonalities in earthen colours from red to blue, green, grey and white for his paintings. His works break with the academic conception of colour and reaches out for the spiritual, philosophical and existential dimension in demonstrating the beauty of soil.
Made with 420 brooms, Sehnaoui’s installation “To Sweep” reflects the simple daily sweeping of one’s home to the more painful sweeping after bombardment and wars and the sweeping of all sorts of bad things such as terrorism, poverty and hatred.
To promote art appreciation MACAM organises temporary retrospective exhibitions that highlight prominent local artists. In parallel, artists are invited to participate in competitions on specific themes and prizes are awarded.
MACAM is an absolute treat for adults and children alike. The entrance fee is $10 per person and an additional $13 is charged for a guide.