Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 20 August 2019

A new artistic ecosystem for the Middle East

While biennials and international shows exhibited signs of institutional fatigue in 2010, the region enjoyed a boom in smaller, boutique art initiatives.
Cesar Nammour mingles at a book launch in his Beirut-based store, Recto Verso.
Cesar Nammour mingles at a book launch in his Beirut-based store, Recto Verso.
In his long and eventful career, the Lebanese art critic Cesar Nammour has run three galleries, written four books and seen the Beirut art scene rise and fall and rise again. He has created a publishing house, a festival for art books, an association for art critics and a society for the development of contemporary art in his country. Still sprightly in his seventies, Nammour has a tendency to look back on his life and laugh - not ruefully or politely but in huge, boisterous gales. "I was avant-garde in the 1960s!" he said one day when I stopped by to see him. "Do you know what that means? That was 50 years ago! That means I am a dinosaur!" So hilarious were those passing decades that Nammour nearly split his sides with laughter.

At a time when many of his lifelong friends and colleagues have retired, Nammour spent much of the last year starting something new. In May, he opened a bookshop called Recto Verso, which doubles as a library and triples as a cafe. The place is tiny, just 17 square metres of street-level real estate, kitted out in vibrant colours, with a bench out front and an espresso machine sitting on a counter in the back. A compact spiral staircase leads to an even smaller mezzanine, with a reading room and worktables for research.

Despite its diminutive size, Recto Verso fills a huge gap in the local knowledge of modern and contemporary art in Lebanon and the region. There are more than 800 titles arranged alphabetically on the shelves, including artists' monographs, exhibition catalogues, magazines and reference books. Only 150 of them are for sale. The rest come from Nammour's personal collection, and most of them are rare, out of print or impossible to find anywhere else.

Nammour is a fount of what would be called institutional memory, if only there were such an institution to back him up or archive his knowledge. Since the late 1950s, when he first started writing about art and when Beirut was fast becoming a bustling hub for Arab modernity and the regional avant-garde, Nammour has worked on more plans for more museums than he cares to remember, in part because none of them have ever been built.

He and his peers have lobbied governments, universities and real-estate developers, trying to sell them on the idea of institution building for the arts. "We did architectural studies and financial feasibility studies," he says. "We have beautiful proposals, but nothing ever happened." Perhaps for that reason, Nammour calls Recto Verso a museum on shelves. It is a revenge fantasy brought to life in a space the size of an architectural afterthought.

"Lebanon is a country without an infrastructure for the arts," he says. "We don't have a contemporary art museum. We don't have an opera house. We don't have a national library." In Nammour's view, only actors outside of the state - whether from the private or the non-profit sectors - have the potential to construct that infrastructure, albeit piecemeal and over a long period of time. "We are building all of this," he says. "It's scattered, but this is what we are here for."

In a way, he is right. And perhaps his perseverance is infectious, for 2010 can be characterised as the year a generation of independent arts organizations in the region began to grow up and get serious about playing a part in Nammour's dream.

A chronically weak state that has several times fallen apart, Lebanon is one of the most problematic places in the Middle East to talk about institution building on any level, quite apart from art. In this regard only Palestine is worse. But here as elsewhere in the region, the past 12 months have witnessed promising developments in the institutionalisation of a once thin, precarious and highly improvisational art scene.

Both the Beirut Art Center and the 98 Weeks Project Space celebrated their one-year anniversaries, having established two very different destinations for engagements with contemporary artistic thought and practice. Both have developed approaches to programming that keep their spaces active and further the vision of their respective projects. The Beirut Art Center hosts regular, relatively regimented exhibitions, film screenings and performances. The 98 Weeks Projects Space throws together sporadic, occasionally shambolic workshops, experiments and events.

Other additions to the infrastructure of the local scene this year include Solidere's slick Beirut Exhibition Center, which is currently giving the storied Salon d'Automne a home as the Sursock Museum endures another year of renovations, and Karaj Beirut, a laboratory for experimental art and technology located in an old house in the rapidly gentrifying neighbourhood of Mar Mikhael.

The Lebanese Association for Plastic Arts, Ashkal Alwan, also announced that it has secured a space for a new, independent art school, which is slated to open in April. The Home Works Academy, as Ashkal Alwan's educational initiative is called, is not necessarily the first of its kind in Lebanon - the Académie Libanaise des Beaux-Arts was also a new, independent art school at the time of its inauguration in 1937 (it was folded into Balamand University some five decades later). But it throws down a fine challenge to other art faculties in the country that have foundered or stagnated for decades. Even the American University of Beirut's Department of Fine Art and Art History, which was relaunched a few years ago after closing shop at the start of Lebanon's civil war, has yet to generate the buzz or vitality (to say nothing of the artistic production or scholarship) that Ashkal Alwan's school has already created in the minds of future students, teachers and the public at large.

Elsewhere in the region, Cairo's venerable Townhouse Gallery of Contemporary Art has transformed itself from a ragtag community centre with a little bit of commercial activity to a fully functional and totally non-profit foundation. Istanbul's Platform Garanti Contemporary Art Center has merged with the Garanti Gallery and the Ottoman Bank Archives to form a new institution called SALT, scheduled to open in two beautifully restored buildings in the spring. The Modern Art Museum of Algiers (MAMA) is now three years old and going strong. According to the critic Nadira Laggoune, it has become "a flagship for the city's development and for its future." And it will soon be joined by a new, experimental space organised by the artists Kader Attia and Zineb Sedira.

In Casablanca, around a dozen arts organisations have joined the collective CasaMemoire to inhabit and activate a series of crumbling buildings that were once used as the city's slaughterhouse. Conceived as a kind of cultural factory, the project, known as Les Abattoirs de Casablanca, is still precarious in that neither the city nor the state has agreed to reserve the site for artistic use. But with more than 50 events organised there over the past year and a half, it seems to be gathering plenty of its own momentum.

Such home-grown projects may seem worlds away from the museums being planned and built in the Gulf. But Mathaf, the new museum of modern art in Doha, which was scheduled to open yesterday, is in many ways a modest proposal, run primarily by a core group of young people who are bound to mess around, make mistakes, deal with a critical backlash, and try again. Falling under the umbrella of the Qatar Museums Authority and enjoying the patronage of the state, they may not have to scramble and hustle for funding like their counterparts in other cities in the Arab world, but they do have to build their institution from the ground up with the same toil as everyone else. Not for nothing did the museum's acting director, Wassan al Khudairi, thank her colleagues and co-conspirators for their "hard work, long hours and no sleeping" during the preview of Mathaf's three inaugural exhibitions this month.

Cesar Nammour and his friends may never see the museums they imagined in their youth. But they are witnessing the rise of new and very different institutions - museums, art centres and cross-disciplinary projects that are true to their times - which are making links across the region and creating a novel kind of infrastructure. The value of that network beyond the region lies in the alternatives being posed, almost accidentally, to the broader international art world.

The Cairo, Istanbul and Sharjah biennials are at this point institutions in their own right. But the artistic ecosystem in the Arab world consists equally of other, more experimental platforms such as the Home Works Forum, Video Works, Meeting Points, Photo Cairo and the Jerusalem Show. There is a palpable desire in the art world at large to declare the biennial dead. These initiatives, and the institutions responsible for their continuity and maturity, may very well be at the vanguard of what comes next.

 

Kaelen Wilson-Goldie reports for The National from Beirut.

Updated: December 31, 2010 04:00 AM

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