View of Beirut from the north. Photo by Paul Assaker.


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Perhaps the apotheosis of Beirut’s rise as a center for contemporary art came earlier this year, when e-flux was invited to set up shop in Ashkal Alwan’s Home Workspace academy, with co-founder Anton Vidokle as a resident professor. Everything, from one “chapter” of the study program to a book launch, has since merited an e-flux announcement, an email with a global audience that usually commands a premium fee. Contemporary art in Beirut had certainly achieved a global reach, yet perhaps one of the defining features of the city’s early success had also been laid to rest.

The often-repeated narrative goes that contemporary art began inauspiciously in Beirut after the Lebanese civil wars ended circa 1991. Artists, organizers and activists began investigating the conflict’s effects through interventions in public space, videos screened in appropriated locations, the formation of fluid collectives and the founding of associations. The city was considered a blank canvas, at least as far as contemporary art was concerned, and these experiments were largely shaded from the glare of both the art market and the attention economy.

Since 2000, associations such as the Arab Image Foundation and Ashkal Alwan, which were first established in offices and apartments in the 1990s, have grown into fully fledged institutions with purpose-built spaces and funding secured from a mixture of local patrons (who have, impressively, been cultivated from scratch) and international organizations. The growth and success of these institutions has had an almost miraculous quality to it, given that government support for the arts has always been negligible. Even during the optimistic postwar years, when the real-estate boom began, politics have been deadlocked, political assassinations constant and the country in or on the verge of conflict. Despite numerous plans and rumors of funding from Gulf states, no national art museum or contemporary art institute has been created—private initiatives have filled the vacuum.

The arrival of commercial galleries focusing on contemporary art, such as Sfeir-Semler in 2005, capitalized on artists who had honed their skills away from the hyperactive demands of the international market. And, while gallerists complain of a limited collector base, having a branch in Beirut can still help gain access to prestigious international art fairs, many of which impose regional quotas.

Artists from younger generations have not benefited from such sheltered upbringings. Last year, a 20-something-year-old, just back from graduate study abroad, was hailed by his gallerist at his first-ever solo show as the “new Walid Raad”—himself not yet even 50—with prices to match. The market seemed to think it had come full circle, or that it was time to start afresh.

The city’s art scene has always survived against the odds, but the background rumble of Bad News can provide rich material for artists. With global interest in “Arab art” spiking post-9/11, local artists have met the demand, yet this work has not always been shown in Beirut. This is due in part to the limitations of its cultural infrastructure, but the aggressive demands of the market have also stretched the ability of artists to supply goods in all places at all times. 

In a complete reversal of the norm, Lebanon itself has remained relatively stable of late while the wider region has experienced three years of convulsions. The absorption of more than one million Syrian refugees from the civil war-cum-revolution has transformed the country’s demography, and seen an influx of artists and cultural practitioners. A few local galleries have begun exhibiting Syrian works, and some Damascene galleries have migrated across the border. Lebanese artists have also been responding to events in Syria, which at times bear uncanny similarities to Lebanon’s past. However, these works are rarely seen by Syrian artists, who are predominantly unengaged or uninterested in the local contemporary art scene. This
lack of interest is largely mutual.

Lebanon and Syria have a complicated history, often called “brotherly,” but perhaps more accurately typified by the larger neighbor manipulating the smaller. It is not surprising that interactions between artists from the two countries are complicated. Although many Syrian artists and organizers remark that their practices have evolved since the revolution began in 2011, it will be interesting to see if the pioneering efforts of a generation of Lebanese artists and cultural practitioners, with their nimble handling of institutions and use of new media, have an effect. One sign might be Bidayyat, a Syrian initiative based in Beirut that supports young Syrian documentarists, at least in its polyvalent institutional model and funding of a new medium.

Or perhaps, vice versa, there could be an excavation in Lebanon of the fine-art tradition maintained by Syrian artists—no sign of this yet. In any case, cross-pollination is interesting but presupposes mutual interest and constant dialogue. The problem is that in Beirut, with conflict and the market raging in the background, it can be difficult to have a proper conversation.