x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Critical eye

Art After three decades of chronicling the Lebanese art scene, Joseph Tarrab has helped to open a gallery that revisits its increasingly forgotten past. Kaelen Wilson-Goldie visits its first exhibition

All images courtesy of the Maqam Gallery
After three decades of chronicling the Lebanese art scene, Joseph Tarrab has helped to open a gallery that revisits its increasingly forgotten past. Kaelen Wilson-Goldie visits its first exhibition. Joseph Tarrab is a man at ease in a three-piece suit. He checks the time on a pocket watch and loops the arms of his eyeglasses through a delicate chain. He carries not one but three daily agendas. On another man, the look might seem affected, old-fashioned or eccentric. With Tarrab, one hardly notices that he is, on a given afternoon, rather formally attired. Tarrab is a distinguished veteran of Lebanon's lively newspaper culture. Though he is an economist and demographer by training, he started covering the visual and performing arts in the 1960s. He contributed regularly to L'Orient, a French-language newspaper that was established in the 1920s, and occasionally to Le Jour, another French paper, which launched in the 1930s. These were the days of luxuriously long profiles of local cultural figures, when it was hardly an aberration to find art stories splashed on the front pages. "The approach was very different from how it is now," says Tarrab. "Culture was really valued then." In the 1970s, L'Orient and Le Jour merged, and Tarrab decided to focus exclusively on painting and the plastic arts. "With music and theatre, there were too many events and I couldn't cover everything," he says. He chronicled the Lebanese art scene for L'Orient-Le Jour day in and day out through the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, despite (and perhaps even motivated by) the long years of conflict in the country, until he stopped in 2004. The paper, Tarrab says, "did not want art criticism anymore. It was too expensive for them. They wanted to save money." Despite vociferous complaints from his readers, Tarrab's career as a public critic came to an end.

Five years have passed, and although Tarrab is no longer telling the story of Lebanese art in the local press, he has found another way to narrate it. Last month, Tarrab and Saleh Barakat, the owner and director of the 19-year-old Agial Art Gallery, opened a new gallery called Maqam on Al Mkhallasiya Street in Saifi Village (The name references both the modal structure of Arabic music and the word used for "pedestal", as in that which supports and uplifts an artwork.)

Tarrab and Barakat intend for Maqam to document - through three or four collective exhibitions a year - the history of Lebanese art from the late nineteenth century through the present. They particularly want to dispel the notion, generated in part by the international success of conceptual artists such as Walid Raad and Akram Zaatari, that Beirut's contemporary art scene started from scratch in the 1990s, or that the city's cultural vitality is a product of the postwar era alone. Tarrab and Barakat want to show how the current generation is linked to its modern predecessors, even if the links have been obscured by years of intertwined political upheaval, market volatility and critical neglect.

In the Lebanese context, this means showing how the pre-civil war understanding of art - as an object-based affair defined for the most part as paintings and sculptures - is connected to the broader post-civil war notion of art as a field of conceptual strategies, often temporary, interventionist and interdisciplinary. To this end, Maqam's inaugural exhibition - entitled Landscapes Cityscapes 1, and on view until March 31 - guides viewers through some of the major 20th century movements in Lebanese painting. Though only loosely chronological, and by no means comprehensive, the show sketches a compelling story of Lebanese modern art that begins in the 1930s, with artists depicting the natural beauty of the countryside and the mesmerising play of Mediterranean light on scenes pristinely free of human interference.

The exhibition traces how painters moved from these relatively realistic depictions - influenced by Impressionism on one hand; conceived in opposition to postcard pictures of Beirut and Orientalist images of the exotic on the other - to experiments in simultaneously collapsing space, time, emotion and critique into two-dimensional composition. By focusing on landscapes, the show documents how artists of different periods have dealt with the state of the world around them: whether they have embraced it, rejected it or used their work to interrupt it. Some of the artists on display render the landscape faithfully, some imagine it differently, some idealise it for nostalgic and political purposes, and some use it as an opportunity to reflect themselves. "Painting a landscape," Tarrab writes in the exhibit catalogue, "is really painting your own portrait."

Landscapes Cityscapes 1 features 30 works of art ranging from Youssef Howayek's tender portrait of a winsome pine tree, painted around 1930 (a rarity, considering that Howayek was primarily a sculptor), to a 1998 suite of three nearly sculptural works in concrete, Plexiglas and wire mesh on wood panel by Marwan Rechmaoui, collectively titled Construction Site. For Tarrab, Rechmaoui's work is the exhibition's evocative ending: the point at which the modern narrative yields to the contemporary (Rechmaoui is, after all, more closely associated with the latter than the former).

Nearly all of the legends of Lebanese art are present and accounted for. There's Chafic Abboud with a charcoal drawing from 1969 entitled Garden; Rafic Charaf with a sombre, moody canvas of a denuded tree beneath storm-heavy skies from 1962; Georges Corm with four colourful, expressive landscapes, circa 1940; a thin, smudgy watercolour by Cesar Gemayel from around 1950; a view of terraced farmland by Mustafa Farroukh; a hyper-stylised depiction of falling leaves by Hussein Madi; and two colour-block mountain vistas by Helen Khal and Paul Guiragossian. There's a luminous oil painting of an outdoor fountain by Omar Onsi, from around 1936, which captures the distinct warmth of late afternoon Levantine sunlight slanting across the canvas. And there's a bold canvas from 1975 by Saliba Douaihy, entitled Composition, which is emblematic of the artist's iconoclastic break from figuration to hard-edged abstraction, and, according to Tarrab, signals a shift from the landscape as the subject of painting to painting as its own subject.

A large part of the show's value lies in its public dimension. Unless you are of the disposition to talk your way into the back rooms of Beirut galleries, or to convince private collectors to invite you into their homes, there is no place in Lebanon to see these pieces in person. For today's ardent art lovers, the most common points of reference are reproductions in books. And even there, books such as Edouard Lahoud's bilingual L'Art Contemporain au Liban fell out of print ages ago.

That said, all of the works on view at Maqam are for sale. "We're not a charitable institution," says Tarrab. "We're not a museum. We want to be a small substitute for a museum. We are narrating, but not very strictly. There is a story, but there are gaps. For now we have to manage with the works that are available." There are two other motivations behind Maqam. One is the rapid inflation of prices for Arab art that have accompanied auction house activity in the region, and the other is forgery. There is a thriving industry of counterfeits and fakes in Lebanon, which is well known and much discussed, though little has been done in legal terms to counteract it. "There are entire workshops producing fake Onsis, fake Gemayels, fake Guiragossians," says Tarrab, "and while some of them are very good, they are forgeries nonetheless and they are sold as authentic. They are presented, for example, as coming from the collection of an elderly woman who was once very wealthy but whose husband has died and she wants to be discreet. Many collectors and non-collectors fall into this trap." A painting by Hussein Madi was recently withdrawn from the sale of a major auction house when the artist announced it was a fake.

When Tarrab left L'Orient-Le Jour, he began teaching part time, then full time, at a university north of Beirut. But the course load left him no time to engage with the art scene. "It isolated me. I could not follow what was going on," he says. "Last year, I asked for a year off. The next day, Saleh said to me: 'What do you think about a gallery?' I was interested not in the gallery per se but in the idea Saleh put on the table. We were both aware that many young people, not only young people but young artists, knew nothing about the past because there is no museum here - even though we have been battling for a museum since the 1960s. This is not just a gallery to sell works. It is a gallery to show modern art - not postmodern art, nor contemporary art. It is a gallery to see what existed before."

Tarrab's conviction about Maqam grew stronger when he visited Walid Raad's solo exhibition at Galerie Sfeir-Semler last summer. That show, entitled A History of Modern and Contemporary Art: Part I, Chapter 1: Beirut, 1992-2005, featured one work that particularly caught Tarrab's eye. The piece, entitled Artists, consisted of a list of Lebanese artists' names in Arabic, cut from three layers of vinyl and wrapped around three walls of a room, white on white, barely visible, with some of the named intentionally misspelled.

"He purposefully disfigured their names as if to say that there is no way to prove or ascertain who was who," remembers Tarrab. "I felt very hurt by this - although I accepted it as a work of art - this way of treating the past as if it is something doubtful. This is a way of saying: 'We are the first; there was no one before us.' This is not true, and this was very painful. It's as if [Raad] considers that these painters did not exist, as if he has deleted them from history. There is a need to reaffirm their existence and show them again, even if it is through just one painting."

Tarrab has been here before, at a point of redressing a painful erasure. A wonderful storyteller with a memory as sharp as his attire, he recalls a 1977 exhibition that took place in the home of Samia Toutounji, a great patron of the arts who was killed in an explosion during the later stages of the civil war. "Her apartment was on the demarcation line, and it was shambles all around her, and she exhibited paintings by Omar Onsi. In 1977, Omar Onsi had been completely forgotten. That whole generation - Onsi, Farroukh, Gemayel - had come out of the 1940s. And, of course, their students had revolted against them. They were killing the father, you see? Their students went in different directions - abstraction and so on. And so by the 1970s, [their style of] painting was either forgotten or despised. Then Samia Toutounji showed Onsi's work, and this started a wave of landscape painting, and this wave continued - because this was the impact of the war, the trauma of the war and the nostalgia for the good old days. This, paradoxically, was the painting of the war, these peaceful landscapes that retraced the roots - not only cultural but also existential - of the people."

In 2009, as in 1977, the elder generations of Lebanese artists are largely either forgotten or despised. There are a few collectors who still cherish their works, and a few critics who still make reference to them. But younger artists - including Raad, Rechmaoui and Walid Sadek, who has made a number of works dismantling the lineage Tarrab and Barakat are piecing together - deliberately disavowed them a decade ago.

Some, including Raad, argue that this is symptomatic of the civil war - that in the aftermath of a wrenching disaster, artists can no longer access the works that came before. Try as they may, they just can't see them. Others counterargue that such an explanation is too easy. Either way, by asserting the absence of Lebanon's pre-war modern artists, Raad has, to a certain extent, called attention to their presence instead. Perhaps his work, which so affected Tarrab, has actually paved the way for the revival that Maqam is engendering. Consider this: The painter Ayman Baalbaki, 10 year's Raad's junior, is now in the process of revisiting and repainting several of the vistas on view in Landscapes Cityscapes 1. His work might be an aberration, and it might be another disavowal. It's certainly a sign that Tarrab and Barakat have succeeded in making people see these paintings all over again.

Kaelen Wilson-Goldie reports for The Review from Beirut.