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Lebanon’s cultural scene is struggling. But the art activists aren’t giving up

The resilience of the art scene is best illustrated by the opening of art galleries and cultural spaces damaged in the port explosion.

Lebanon’s cultural scene is struggling. But the art activists aren’t giving up
[Source photo: Venkat Reddy/Fast Company Middle East]

Like other sectors in Lebanon, the cultural and art scene was severely impacted by more than two years of a crippling economic crisis, financial collapse, global pandemic, and the seismic Beirut Port explosion, which devastated two of the city’s vibrant cultural districts. 

Anti-government protests swept Lebanon in October 2019, followed by extended lockdowns due to Covid-19, forced art and cultural institutions to suspend their activities, put their programs on hold and revisit their strategies to adapt to the new realities to keep the industry accessible and productive.

However, the deadliest blow to the art and cultural scene came on August 4, 2020. The massive explosion of haphazardly-stored 2,700 tons of ammonium nitrate at Beirut Port killed more than 200 people and injured thousands. Large swathes of the city were decimated, more than 600 historical and heritage buildings, including museums, were severely damaged, and Mar Mikhail and Gemayze, where many cultural spaces and art galleries were located, were largely destroyed.  

Art specialists agree that the sector has yet to recover from the series of calamities impairing the country while fighting to survive. 

KEEPING THE CULTURAL SCENE ALIVE

According to Joumana Rizk, a communication expert in arts and culture, cultural institutions face the biggest challenge of preserving their mission and providing a platform for cultural exchange while remaining afloat during extreme uncertainty.

“There are genuine efforts and activities to keep the cultural scene alive,” Rizk said. “Artists have not stopped producing. Many produced their best works in times of crisis and torment.”

“One sculptor, for instance, had the opening of her exhibition in downtown Beirut a few months ago when burning tires cut off streets in protest against the deteriorating living conditions. Nonetheless, more than 300 people attended. This shows that Beirut lives on and has the dynamics against all the odds,” Rizk added.

The resilience of the art scene is best illustrated by the opening of new art galleries and the restoration of those damaged in the port explosion.

“It is such a contradictory scene. While nothing is functioning in the country, you have new galleries opening and taking the risk of investing in art,” commented culture writer and journalist Zena Zalzal, 

“The art scene is in survival mode,” she said. “So far, galleries have been able to cover their running costs and continue to support their artists, hoping for better days. But how long they can keep going is anyone’s guess.” 

To secure fresh income, most galleries resorted to online marketing and set up virtual galleries while looking overseas for exhibition opportunities to promote their artists. 

Owners of new art galleries Nadine Fayad and Randa Ghajar are not deterred by the formidable challenges and risks facing the art industry.

WITHIN EVERY CRISIS, THERE IS AN OPPORTUNITY

“I am organizing an exhibition against all the odds every three weeks,” said Ghajar, who had to close for seven months to repair her KAF gallery damaged by the port blast. “I will continue operating as long as I can cover operating expenses. “

“I refused to pack and leave. I want to show that Lebanon is not only about corruption and crises, but it is also about creativity and art. Artists are producing profusely. Their works are colorful and bright, which helps break all the darkness and gloom surrounding us.” 

A year ago, Fayad opened her gallery, The Nadine Fayyad Gallery, “despite the tough market dynamics,” representing exclusively her favorite Lebanese artist Raouf Rifai based on “One artist… one gallery.”

 “Within every crisis, there is an opportunity,” she said. “We intensified our online activities to bring the most engaging experiences to our virtual audience during the lockdown, participated in international exhibitions, and continue planning future shows and platforms.”

“Our commitment to the art and our artist will continue and further expand. The crisis and the pandemic impacted all of us across all industries. But artists, curators, and galleries need to keep going, reimagining and adapting their activities to provide necessary relief for people experiencing setbacks daily in Lebanon.”

On her part, veteran art advocate and founder of the Beirut Art Film Festival (BAFF), Alice Mogabgab, decried the “deteriorating” situation, forcing her to temporarily close her gallery in Beirut and rely on a sister branch in Brussels to draw income.

“When anti-government protests erupted in October 2019, we canceled all shows except those reflecting the miserable situation in which the country has slipped. I strongly believe that we should persist in safeguarding our freedom of expression and averting a cultural collapse similar to the economic and financial collapse imposed on us by a criminal and corrupt ruling class,” Mogabgab said.

As people try to live under distressing economic conditions, art and culture became a luxury for many. Nevertheless, institutions try to find ways to draw people back into activities that could provide a collective outlet for their suffering.

Veteran actress and theater director Nidal al-Ashkar kept “the show going on” at her al-Madina theater by offering the space at symbolic prices to young performers and producers.  

“As a collective art, the theater was the most affected by the crisis,” she said. “Nevertheless, we did not stop performances except during lockdowns. Last month, we had nine different shows that sold out at an extremely low price. People were happy and grateful for an affordable distraction from their daily worries.”

Support for arts and culture has always been secondary in Lebanon, with no effective cultural policies by the Ministry of Culture. It is more so in a bankrupt state that is unable to provide essential services such as electricity and water.

Despite the challenges, there is a glimmer of hope. Many in the art community stayed behind to revive the city’s liberal cultural landscape.

Curator and gallery owner Saleh Barakat describes himself as an “art resistance” activist. 

“It is the time of strong resistance to reaffirm our mission,” he said. “Life is full of ups and downs, but eventually, we will overcome the crisis.”

“I did not stop organizing big shows, although these are not prosperous times. But what other choice do we have? Closing down? Absolutely not! Lebanon has gone through many crises; this one will not be the last or the toughest. I want the people to feel that there is hope, that the country is not dead but still capable of amazing creativity,” Barakat added.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Samar el Kadi is a freelance Lebanese journalist. Worked with the Middle East Reporter and United Press International (UPI) as a reporter and writer covering the last years of the (1975-1990) Lebanese civil war and post-war Lebanon. Also covered the US invasion of Iraq remotely for UPI. For two years, was the day editor of the Lebanon desk of the Daily Star, the local English-language newspaper and later the editor of the society and culture sections of the London-based The Arab Weekly newspaper. Holder of a bachelor's degree in political sciences and public administration from the American University of Beirut. More

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