BY Maghie Ghali in Opinion | 23 MAY 23

On the Reblooming of Beirut’s Art Scene

Almost three years on, the city’s cultural sector is slowly recovering from a devastating explosion that killed 218 people

BY Maghie Ghali in Opinion | 23 MAY 23

Walking through Beirut’s Gemmayzeh and Mar Mikhael neighbourhoods, filled with bustling bars, cafes and art galleries, it’s hard to imagine at first that almost three years ago the entire district was nearly wiped from the map. A closer look, however, reveals old houses propped up by scaffolding, businesses that never reopened and buildings with entire walls missing, abandoned since August 4, 2020. These are the scars of the Beirut Port Blast, a catastrophic ammonium nitrate explosion which claimed the lives of more than 200 people and injured 7,000.

Sursock Museum after the blast. Courtesy: Sursock Museum, Beirut

Compounded by an unstable political situation and an ongoing financial crisis, the blast devastated Beirut’s cultural sector. Now almost three years on, the art scene is starting to recover along with the city, with new galleries opening, established ones adapting and most notably, the reopening in May of the Sursock Museum – Lebanon’s only modern and contemporary art museum, which has been shuttered for repairs since the explosion.

‘I think it's a very beautiful message of hope,’ Sursock Museum director Karina El Helou tells me. ‘With so many artists emigrating after the blast, it’s important that there is a platform with international reach for them to exhibit their works.’ With this in mind, El Helou and her team are planning a number of solo and group shows with Lebanese artists such as Zad Moultaka, Marwa Arsanios and Sabine Saba, alongside a series of conferences and screenings. ‘They were here for the museum when it opened and we have to be here for them now,’ she says.

Architecture Restoration at Sursock Museum. Courtesy: Sursock Museum, Beirut

This is the third time Sursock, and many other cultural institutions, have had to rebuild, following the Lebanese Civil War (1975-90) and the 2006 Lebanon War. Housed in an Ottoman-era villa built in 1912, this time they had to replace its iconic stained-glass windows, repair all doors, elevators and ceilings, and restore the traditional wooden panels on the floor. Fifty artworks that were severely damaged by debris have also been painstakingly restored by a local team and experts from Paris’s Centre Pompidou.

While, as El Helou points out, many Lebanese artists – from Walid Raad and Akram Zaatari to Simone Fattal and Etel Adnan – are already well-known outside the country, she sees the recent recovery as a moment of change for the city’s art landscape. ‘I find that we are discovering a lot of new names, as suddenly there is space there to be occupied with new people, new generations, new artists, who are experimenting with new mediums, with new ways that are maybe clashing with older generations.’

Galerie Tanit after the explosion. Courtesy: Galerie Tanit, Beirut

About 500 meters from the port sits Galerie Tanit, a long-standing gallery that took some of the worst damage. Five people in the building died, while many more were hospitalized and the gallery on the ground floor was left a concrete shell. Just days after the blast, artist Abed Al Kadiri, who had just opened a solo show at the gallery days before, created a massive mural on the remaining walls and sold the pieces to raise money for relief efforts. It was the artist’s final creation in Lebanon, as he decided to leave the country soon after. In 2021, the gallery reopened and over the past few months has begun to increase its programming. 

‘At the beginning we did quite a few group shows because the artists weren't emotionally ready to do solo presentations,’ says gallery founder Naila Ketteneh-Kunigk. Fittingly, their first exhibition after the blast dedicated to a single artist was with Gilbert Hage, who showed a photographic series dedicated to tulips, a perennial flower that reblooms every spring. ‘He was comparing them to us Lebanese, who keep regrowing,’ Ketteneh-Kunigk explains.

gilbert-hage-the-earth-is-like-a-child-that-knows-poems-by-heart-exhibition view
Gilbert Hage, ‘The Earth Is Like a Child That Knows Poems by Heart’, 2023, exhibition view, Galerie Tanit. Courtesy: the artist and Galerie Tanit, Beirut and Munich

Most of the established galleries slowly recovered and reopened, including Sfeir-Semler who are currently showing Lebanese artist Rayyane Tabet in their La Quarantaine space, but some lost the will to continue after the explosion. 392rmeil393, a contemporary gallery in Gemmayzeh, is now a furniture store. The owner of ARTLAB left Lebanon, but the location was taken over by award-winning photographer Maher Attar and transformed into Art District – House of Photography, an exhibition space and studio which opened in 2022, dedicated to film photography and young emerging artists.

Attar spent his younger years as a conflict photographer during the civil war, before working for two decades in France and the Gulf. In 2022 he decided to move back to Lebanon and take on the challenge of opening an art space in troubled times, confident in the country’s ability to bounce back, as it has had to in the past. ‘The biggest difficulty is the infrastructure – there’s no electricity and we have to rely on a generator,’ Attar admits. ‘A lot of people said to me, “You must be crazy to open in an economic crisis” but some others said “Bravo, you took the risk, and really it's fantastic.”’

Rim Al-Bahrani, ‘Elusive Dreams of Belonging’, 2023, exhibition view, Art District – House of Photography. Courtesy: the artist and Art District – House of Photography, Beirut

While Attar has been thrilled with sales from the gallery’s current exhibition ‘Elusive Dreams of Belonging’, by Iraqi-Swedish sculptor Rim Al-Bahrani, the ongoing financial crisis – the result of decades of mounting public debt and insufficient levels of international trade – still limits the ability of Lebanese artists to make a living. Over the past three years, the Lebanese lira has lost roughly 95 percent of its value, while capital controls on Lebanese banks mean accounts denominated in dollars have been frozen: withdrawals can only be made in lira, at a heavily depreciated rate. As a result, artists rely on sales to dollar-rich foreign residents, either visiting Lebanese expats or foreign audiences at international shows and fairs.

The recently opened Chaos Gallery aims to address this issue by helping to connect local artists with the international art scene. ‘My aim is not just to put on good exhibitions, but to help artists gain exposure internationally,’ says founder Charbel Lahoud, who has been collecting art for more than 20 years. ‘So far, three of our artists have had pieces acquired by museums abroad for their permanent collections, and we’ll be participating in our first art fairs this year.’

Charbel Lahoud, owner of Chaos Gallery, photographed in front of Jad El Khoury’s Connection, 2023. Courtesy: Charbel Lahoud

Lebanon’s art scene has always reflected the pulse of the moment, entangled in the political and social issues affecting the nation. As the most liberal country in the Middle East, its lack of strict censorship has made it a cultural haven for many, which is continues to be despite its unstable infrastructure. ‘Beirut is a star, an artistic hub for the entire region,’ explains Lahoud. ‘I named the gallery ‘Chaos’ because from the chaotic life here in Beirut we produce beautiful artworks. We’re used to starting again.’

Sursock Museum reopens to the public on 26 May.

Maghie Ghali is a journalist. She is based in Beirut, Lebanon.