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A bouquet of new spaces and work

Miscellaneous

The past 12 months have seen unprecedented growth in the local art scene. By square meters alone, there are now more commercial galleries, non-profit art centers and hybridized contemporary art spaces up and running in Beirut than at any time in the last 10 years.

This article was featured on the Daily Star’s website (www.dailystar.com.lb) written by Kaelen Wilson-Goldie on December the 27th, 2011.
 
Where once there was only Galerie Sfeir-Semler in Karantina; there are now at least five arts initiatives clustered in the neighborhood, with the design-centric Smogallery and the just-opened Art Factum joining the fray.
Down the road in Jisr al-Wati, Ashkal Alwan’s Home Workspace Program opened in September next door to the Beirut Art Center, adding educational and discursive depth to activities ranging from exhibition making to the buying and selling of art as either cultural sustenance or savvy investment. With an outstanding series of artists’ talks (Alfredo Jaar, Sophie Calle, Willie Doherty) already underway, expect more from HWP in 2012.
Here are 10 shows (five singled out, four paired and one for collective effort) that stuck in the mind in 2011.
Mohammad-Said Baalbaki, “Al-Buraq,” Maqam
This exhibition squeaked into 2011 by virtue of an unexpectedly long extension. Little did anyone know back in January – when Saleh Barakat and Joseph Tarrab decided to keep Mohammad-Said Baalbaki’s wondrous, mock archeological, faux historical installation on view a little longer – that this show would be Maqam’s last (the gallery closed its doors when the rent for its Saifi Village storefront doubled). Best known as a painter, Baalbaki created an arch-conceptual, museum-style display, filling sumptuous, velvet-lined vitrines with objects, drawings, archival photographs and more. All of this material contrived to tell a convincing yet utterly fictional story about an archeologist, an ornithologist and a paleontologist who, in the calm between two world wars, discovered evidence supporting the existence of a mythological beast in Jerusalem.

Mohammad-Said Baalbaki's “Al-Buraq” (2010), installation view
Chris Marker, “Par Quatre Chemins,” and Harun Farocki, “Image Works,” Beirut Art Center
In its third year, the Beirut Art Center organized not one but two world-class solo exhibitions for artists both internationally renowned and acutely influential among creative types in Beirut. The Chris Marker show emphasized the famously reclusive French filmmaker’s photographs and multimedia installations. The Harun Farocki exhibition likewise privileged projects for art spaces rather than cinema screens, including the mind-bending installations “I Thought I Was Seeing Convicts,” “Workers Leaving the Factory in Eleven Decades” and “Serious Games.” Both shows were captivating (and immensely time consuming) in their own right. That each show was accompanied by a comprehensive film and video program – including both classics and works that are epically hard to find – showed the young institution at its best.

From Harun Farocki's 'I thought i was seeing convicts' (2000) Image courtesy of the Beirut Art Center
Wael Shawky, “Contemporary Myths II,” and Mounira al-Solh’s “Exhibition No. 17,” Galerie Sfeir-Semler
One would be hard-pressed to find two more seemingly incompatible artists in the stable of Galerie Sfeir-Semler, yet somehow the pairing of Wael Shawky and Mounira al-Solh worked. Shawky’s “Cabaret Crusades: The Horror Show Files,” inspired by Amin Maalouf’s “The Crusades through Arab Eyes” and made with 200-year-old marionettes, is a contemporary masterpiece, buttressed by a terrific series of “puppet portraits,” drawings and a spooky installation. Solh’s various embodiments of her alter ego Bassam Ramlawi – along with her uproarious impersonations of a dog, cat, goat, camel and donkey – are as intellectually probing as they are goofy to watch.

From Wael Shawky's portrait series
Samir Khaddaje, “Parcours,” Beirut Exhibition Center
Opportunities to see the work of the notoriously press shy Samir Khaddaje are rare to begin with. This exhibition of more than 200 paintings, a site-specific installation and two films was virtually unprecedented. Khaddaje’s portraits are visceral and emotive, with the spontaneity of sketches, the visual impact of graffiti and the timeless sorrow of witnessing abysmal violence, both internal and external. It isn’t easy to fill the Beirut Exhibition Center’s space the size of an airplane hangar, but Khaddaje’s work did the trick. For an artist now in his seventies, “Parcours” was almost the retrospective he palpably deserves.

Samir Khaddaje's “untitled” (2008, acrylic on paper, 65x50cm)
Roger Ballen, “Boarding House,” UNESCO Palace
The local charity circuit may reliably orchestrate opportunities to tug on the heartstrings of donors, or at least give them occasions to dress up and show off, but it is highly unusual for a non-profit in Lebanon to pair a good cause with the work of a contemporary artist whose imagery is ambiguous, avant-garde and emotionally dark. So it was with this show, featuring the photographs of Roger Ballen to drum up support for the Lebanese Association of SOS Children’s Villages. Ballen’s black and white photographs create strange theater from the rooms of a halfway house populated by poor misfits and destitute outcasts – images as delicately redemptive as they are disturbing and abrasive. For lovers of serious photography, it was a gift just to see these prints in person. It was also wholly convincing as a gesture on behalf of children orphaned, abandoned or abused.

Roger Ballen's 'Room of the Ninja Turtles,' from the series boarding house (2003)
Rasha Kahil, “In Your Home,” Running Horse Contemporary Art Space
The talented Rasha Kahil has shown a few of her works in group shows at the Running Horse before – including the mischievous “Untitled (le cul),” a carved gypsum sculpture of a woman’s upturned bum – but “In Your Home” was her first proper solo exhibition in Beirut. Judiciously limited to a single series, the show ran through three years of apparently bizarre behavior. Whenever the artist found herself alone in someone else’s apartment, she took off her clothes, rested her 35-millimeter camera makeshift tripod and used the self-timer to take quick and furtive self-portraits of her naked body tucked into the folds of another person’s affects.
Rasha Kahil's 'Hackney Wick E9 London' (2011).Image courtesy of Running Horse
Saloua Raouda Choucair, “The Retrospective,” Beirut Exhibition Center
One of the most impressive exhibitions in Beirut for years, this eye-opening show delved into the full breadth and depth of Saloua Raouda Choucair’s practice over the past seven decades. With some 380 works on view, “The Retrospective” wasn’t the most elegantly installed of exhibitions, nor did it have any backup in the form of a scholarly, rigorous catalogue, but it did offer great insight into Raouda Choucair’s groundbreaking, self-styled language of abstraction. Everything was crammed in here: modular paintings, intimate sculptures called “poems” and “duals,” towering monuments, jewels, ceramics, tapestries, models, maquettes, preparatory sketches, the works. It was a show to return to many times. It was sad to see it close.Ashkal Alwan, Video Works 2011, Metropolis, and Naeem Mohaiemen,

Saloua Raouda Choucair's “two=one” (1947-51, gouache on paper, 31x23cm)
“The Young Man Was...” 98 Weeks Project Space
Video art is not to everyone’s taste, and there is much slippage and confusion between it and art-house cinema. One of the great benefits of contemporary artists making short films to be viewed on a single screen (as opposed to experienced spatially among an arrangement of multiplication of moving images) is that, in theory at least, they travel more easily than work in any other media (or for that matter, and depending on the visa situation, the artists themselves). Ashkal Alwan tacked an extra night onto this year’s edition of “Video Works” to screen three films – Rania Stephan’s “The Three Disappearances of Souad Hosni,” Akram Zaatari’s “Tomorrow Everything Will Be Alright” and Ahmad Ghoussein’s “My Father Is Still a Communist: Intimate Secrets To Be Published” – that were among the standout works of the 2011 Sharjah Biennial. Then, 98 Weeks added one more by scheduling an evening with Naeem Mohaiemen’s marvelous film “The Young Man Was...” Biennials are as stubbornly sited as they are insular in audience and fleeing in time. We’re grateful to organizations that spread great work around.
                               
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on December 27, 2011, on page 16.
 

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