Aug 06 2020

Lebanon’s Cultural Community Devastated by Port Blast

by HG Masters

Beirut’s Sursock Museum is among many cultural institutions ravaged by the explosion at the Beirut port. Copyright Marie Nour Hechaime. Image via Twitter

The massive explosion in the Beirut port just after 6pm on August 4 killed more than 135 people, injured many thousands, and wrecked buildings across the city. The tragedy has taken a severe toll on the vital, creative, and multicultural city. In a matter of seconds, the lives of many artists, creative professionals, and cultural workers were upended, and the blast has severely damaged Lebanon’s cultural heritage housed by museums, galleries, private homes, and studios. 

Reports of injuries were widespread across the city in the hours after the blast and the number of causalities is still rising. Many older buildings partially collapsed in the neighborhoods of Gemmayze and Mar Mikhael. Several hospitals were severely damaged. Some of Beirut’s new generation of glass-walled luxury condo towers had their entire exteriors sheared off. For kilometers in every direction, offices and apartments were wrecked as the shockwave ripped window frames out of the walls, while ceilings collapsed, facades cracked, windows shattered, and interiors were instantly turned into piles of debris. The city’s governor Marwan Abboud estimated that at least 300,000 people have been left homeless. 

As Beirut residents started to pick up the pieces of a devastated city the morning after, pictures began circulating online regarding the magnitude of the destruction. Hyperallergic reported that Letitia Gallery director Gaia Foudolian and architect Jean-Marc Bonfils, a professor at the Académie Libanaise des Beaux-Arts, were killed in the blast. Galerie Tanit, located in Mar Mikhael in a building on Armenia Street designed by Bonfils, also suffered heavy interior damage, with its interior entirely destroyed. 

Located just adjacent to the port area, the gallery Marfa’ Projects reported that it had received “massive damage.” Pictures showed that the explosion had blown the metal grate off of the gallery’s front, destroying artworks and collapsing the office in the back into a pile of sheetrock and broken furniture. 

In Gemmayze, directly south of the port, the ornate mansion that houses the Sursock Museum, known for its stained-glass windows and galleries full of Lebanese modernist and contemporary art, had its paintings and drawings ripped from the walls, punctured by twisted metal and shards of glass. Works from the museum’s permanent collection were damaged including historical paintings and a pair of ceramics by Simone Fattal. The museum reported it was “severely damaged” but its staff and visitors were safe as the building closed just before the explosions occurred. 

To the east of the Beirut port, in the Karantina district, the windows and temporary interior walls at Sfeir-Semler Gallery were destroyed, littering the space with debris. The gallery staff were reported as “safe and sound” though they found a giant glass shard that had pierced a wall like a spear. Offices for the Arab Image Foundation, Ashkal Alwan, Beirut Art Center, and numerous other cultural organizations and creative studios sustained damage. “Our hearts are full of sorrow and we mourn for Beirut,” the gallery posted on Instagram.

Before the destruction of the port, Beirut was already struggling to cope with hospitals overcrowded by Covid-19 cases, an unemployment and currency crisis, and protests fueled by anger that the country’s sectarian patronage system has bred corruption, political stagnation, and governmental negligence. That a shipment of 2,750 tons of highly combustible agricultural fertilizer, ammonium nitrate, was left for six years in a warehouse in the country’s main port and has now decimated much of the city is, for many, emblematic of the country’s excruciating dysfunction. 

Along with voicing their shock and anger, many Beirut residents are calling for international support of groups including the volunteer-run Lebanese Red Cross; the nonsectarian nonprofit Impact Lebanon; an organization to help house displaced residents, Offrejoie; the Lebanese Food Bank, and many others.

HG Masters is the deputy editor and deputy publisher of ArtAsiaPacific.

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