One night about five years ago, I found myself in a small movie theater in the Gemmayze section of Beirut watching a film by the Lebanese artist Akram Zaatari. There were maybe 80 people there, a full house; afterward, Zaatari took questions, and after that people collected in the lobby, talking, laughing, arguing. I stood on the sidewalk outside and watched, and I realized I was seeing something surprisingly rare—almost mythic—and very valuable. It was a true Scene, a collection of artists brought together by age, location, friendship, rivalry, and, above all, work and the ideas behind it.
When I returned a few months ago, the city felt quite different. It still has an art scene, and soul to spare, but the cranes that dominated the skyline in the middle of this past decade have given way to high-end high-rises, hotels, apartments, and offices.
In the wake of a long peace, Beirut has ridden a crest of capital—collecting, renovating, building. It’s always been a legendary city: polyglot, multiracial, secular, intellectual, artistic, a little bit crazy, a little bit vulgar, and beautiful long before you were born. The Lebanese Civil War made the city a synonym for sectarian violence. But that war has been over for 30 years, and the New Beirut has finally emerged. In recent months, a succession of governments has struggled to fend off economic collapse, defaulting on foreign loans and neglecting city services, but the resulting chaos has not led to significant violence, and when the dust has settled, the New Beirut will no doubt resume its ascendance. For proof, look no further than its art.
“Beirut’s a village, so you’ll meet everyone in two days,” arts editor Negar Azimi had told me back in 2015. That seemed true at the time, but the village has expanded rapidly, and now it feels like a metropolis, dotted with new cultural institutions. The Sursock Museum, an elaborate, Italianate-Ottoman building in the heart of the arts district that exhibits contemporary work, has been gorgeously renovated. The Aïshti Foundation, a vast and pricey collection of mostly non-Arab art founded by retail magnate Tony Salamé and designed by David Adjaye, has opened as a wing of one of Salamé’s department stores. Another very large private collection, built by the Dalloul family over 45 years, is set to open to the public this year. The ten-year-old Beirut Art Fair is still small by comparison with its brethren in New York and Miami, but it’s growing steadily, year by year. The Beirut Art Center, also ten years old, serves as a Kunsthalle for more experimental work, and on top of that there is an abundance of new galleries and additions to old ones, including a large space opened by Saleh Barakat to complement his low-key but well-established Agial Art Gallery.
Beirut has always been a city that thrives when it should be having trouble surviving: It’s like Havana that way, like Naples and New Orleans, at once ruinous and bursting with energy. For 60 years now, it’s been the locus of Arab thought and expression, with one of the region’s best universities, the American University in Beirut, a tradition of cosmopolitanism and even avant-gardism, and a government too busy and too cash poor (Lebanon has no oil) to either fund or censor its experiments. It’s uncommonly beautiful, but very much a jumble, a tangle of narrow, twisting roads studded with cedar trees and surrounded by a long, wide corniche with spectacular, breezy views of the blue-gray Mediterranean. There are Shiites and Sunnis and Druze, Protestants, Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and Copts; there are Arabs, Armenians, and Palestinians. In the northwest there are fancy hotels; down south lie the notorious refugee camps, Sabra and Shatila, now coming up on their 40th anniversary. There’s an endless parade of street life—it’s a terrific city for walking— and bars at night, students, plutocrats, Prada outlets, ordinary folk, street vendors, cafés, and corner shops. “What makes Beirut so special is not just its history,” Zeina Arida, the Sursock’s director, told me. It’s a hybrid city, in a way that makes it feel both ancient and postmodern.
Nowadays there’s enough art-making to support two separate scenes. One, in Gemmayze, is younger, more hipsterish, and committed to new forms and technologies: video, performance, installation. The other, across town in the Hamra, has a longer history, a greater focus on painting and sculpture, and a more political bent. Not only is Beirut becoming more worldly, but the world is also awakening to Beirut’s native sons and daughters, some of whom still live there, some who have long since left. In the past few years, Walid Raad has shown at New York’s MoMA, Etel Adnan in the Whitney Biennial, and Mona Hatoum in London at the Tate Modern. And London auction houses like Christie’s, Sotheby’s, and Bonhams are snapping up works by Zena Assi and Ayman Baalbaki, most of which get sold to collections in Dubai and the other Emirates.
I spoke to Abdul Rahman Katanini, a young Palestinian-Lebanese artist from Sabra, where he started as a graffiti and caricature artist before moving into the heart of the city— chased north, in effect, by disapproving religious leaders and threatening military authorities. He went to Lebanese University and turned to more traditional painting and sculptures made from materials like barbed wire and corrugated tin. He was looking for freedom, community, and a place to show his work. He found all three in Hamra, where he shows at Agial Art Gallery. “I don’t feel art is a luxury; I think it’s for everybody,” he said. It had saved his life. I don’t know that I’ve ever met a more cheerful artist.
The aesthetic generally supervenes on the everyday: California painters tend to paint California light, and New York art is as serene as the city itself, which is to say not serene at all. Beiruti art is accordingly dire, though not especially bleak. The topics tend to be apt to the region and its history: borders, confines, displacement, exile, battle, loss, and destruction. Baalbaki, for example, makes warscapes and portraits of masked militiamen; Hatoum creates severe and somewhat threatening metallic sculptures. The fact that this kind of work sells is a paradox lost on no one. But it’s always this way, everywhere: Money changes everything. If Beirutis manage to disentangle commerce from culture, they’ll be the first ever to do so. Moreover, there is no growth without at least some pain, and besides, the keepers of a scene feel a natural need to protect it from outside encroachment, though it’s a futile effort. Beirut is changing, and it will be better for some and worse for others.
It will be better for visitors, to be sure. The Sursock is gorgeous and monumental and, according to its director, Zeina Arida, more popular than their most optimistic projections. The Beirut Art Center is almost the opposite: Though it’s nondescript to the point of invisibility outside, its exhibitions are a wonder. When I visited it was showing “How to Reappear,” a collection of underground published material, from independent presses to samizdat chapbooks. One especially fine section showed hand-drawn covers that book owners had fashioned for volumes that had lost their official bindings, a perfect and touching example of readers’ taking matters into their own hands. When the Dalloul Art Foundation opens its museum next year, it will fill in even more of the missing stories, by way of a first-rate collection of more than 4,000 works by Arab modern and contemporary artists.
Despite its beauty, its openness, and its sophistication, Lebanon is very troubled right now. But the momentum of change can’t be easily stopped, and right now the city seems like a diver jumping from a very high board, unsure of whether the pool below is heated or freezing. Something will happen; it could be anything.
Arab art is somewhat of a mystery to the West. Chinese painting, Japanese or West African photography: These are familiar genres. Lebanese work is less known, but art, like any other international industry, relies in large part on local infrastructure, and Beirut has been rapidly assembling its own. If the current peace holds and the larger economy rights itself, the region’s visual history will be codified, contextualized, regularly exhibited, and justifiably celebrated. Our world, we are told, is getting more global; borders are melting, whole histories and aesthetics are heaving into view. This beautiful city, Beirut, has something extraordinary to show us. When I suggested to Katanini that Westerners still saw the place as dangerously unstable, he replied that it was, in fact, safer than most cities in the region. If the wider world doesn’t believe that yet, he added, “They have to come to Beirut to see.”