Oct 28 2019

Beirut Arts Programs Halted Amid Protests

by Chloe Chu

*Originally posted October 21, 2019.

Installation view of “On Water, Rosemary and Mercury,” at Home Works 7, Ashkal Alwan, Beirut, 2015. Photo by Marwan Tahtah. Courtesy Ashkal Alwan.

Arts platforms in Beirut closed their doors on October 18 due to anti-government protests. The nationwide unrest was sparked on October 17, when the Lebanese government announced that it would impose taxes on calls made over WhatsApp and other mobile applications. This was further fuelled by citizens’ long-simmering frustrations with the endemic corruption of the ruling elite, as well as the nation’s crumbling economy. 

Among those that suspended their programs was nonprofit Ashkal Alwan, which has presented the multidisciplinary forum Home Works since 2002. About the 2019 edition of the event, originally scheduled to run from October 17 to 27, the organization stated in a Facebook post: “Ashkal Alwan fully supports the ongoing strikes and protests taking place across the country against unjust tax hikes, successive government failures, and our increasingly dire economic conditions. For this reason, all events scheduled to take place on Friday, October 18 as part of the 8th edition of Home Works are postponed indefinitely.” The exhibitions of Home Works, hosted at various venues including the Beirut Art Center, Nicolas Ibrahim Sursock Museum, and Platform 39, were shuttered as well.

On October 21, after also suspending Home Works over the weekend, Ashkal Alwan announced that the program was indefinitely postponed. “Our artistic, intellectual, and organizational energy will be redirected towards the achievement of our hopes and aspirations, the possibility of which is being granted to us by a momentum that should be seized at any cost,” the statement read.

The protests have likewise affected the capital’s commercial galleries, such as Marfa’, which announced on Instagram that it would be closed until further notice, commencing October 19. That same day, Hamburg and Beirut-based Sfeir-Semler Gallery also issued an email stating that its Beirut branch would be temporarily shut, and that the tour of multimedia artist Lawrence Abu Hamdan’s solo exhibition “Natq,” slated to be led by Abu Hamdan on October 19, was cancelled.

A statement calling for cultural organizations to join a mass strike was later published on October 25. As of October 28, there are 37 signatories who are committed to the action. The basic operations of these organizations will be maintained; otherwise, staff are free to join the protests. The signatories include: Arab Image Foundation, The Arab Fund for Arts and Culture, Beirut Art Center, Sursock Museum, Ashkal Alwan, and Metropolis Art Cinema.

The uprisings are ongoing in Lebanon. On October 27, thousands of protesters joined hands to form a human chain stretching over 170 kilometers—a showing of unity across religious and political sects in a country that has historically been divided along these lines.

Chloe Chu is the managing editor of ArtAsiaPacific.

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