Beirut’s New Contemporary Art Scene
The opening of a new contemporary art museum in Beirut marks a turning point in the city’s cultural renaissance.
Not even a morning filled with violent thunderstorms could stop them. As the showers quelled and the sun set one evening last fall, the most fashionable citizens of Beirut and members of the international art world who had flown in from all corners of the globe came together to celebrate a momentous occasion: the opening of a contemporary art museum in the city.
Commissioned by Lebanese fashion mogul and art collector Tony Salamé, the Aïshti Foundation is set in a striking, geometric building that also houses an upscale department store. British architect David Adjaye, who lived in Beirut with his family in his early teens, referenced the city’s traditional terracotta roofs by coloring the building’s ceramic exoskeleton a rich red.
Inside the mammoth structure, which sits in a public plaza along the Mediterranean, guests at the opening took in “New Skin,” the Aïshti Foundation’s inaugural exhibition, and sampled the flavors of Beirut from food vendors hired for the night.
Salamé wants to share his love of contemporary art with the city and hopes the foundation acts not just as bridge between Beirut and the international art community, but also as a center for introducing new audiences to art. Salamé tapped New Museum artistic director Massimiliano Gioni to curate “New Skin,” which features works by artists such as Sterling Ruby, Lucio Fontana, Glenn Ligon, and Alice Channer.
Raymond Araiji, Lebanon’s minister of culture, praised the Aïshti Foundation’s opening as an example of a new spirit of openness in the city, referring to the museum as “a shield of art along our shores.” Indeed, after decades of war and continued upheaval, Beirut is experiencing a cultural renaissance, thanks to the Aïshti Foundation and a number of other new contemporary art spaces.
The opulent Sursock Museum, housed in what used to be the palatial mansion of Nicolas Ibrahim Sursock, recently reopened its doors after eight years of renovations. On display are contemporary pieces by Lebanese painter Seta Manoukian and Lebanese sculptor Alfred Basbous, among other artists.
Meanwhile over in the reclaimed downtown Beirut, the mirrored prefab structure that houses Beirut Exhibition Center, designed by New York–based firm LEFT, sits near the waterfront. In its current exhibition, “Heartland—Territoire d’Affects,” Lebanese artists like Mona Hatoum, who contributed a thought-provoking installation of hanging barbed wire, address the emotional territory of love, disenchantment, fusion, and rejection.
The gallery scene is also thriving in Beirut, as evidenced by the opening of Marfa’ (the Arabic word for “port”). Joumana Asseily opened the space with “Collapsing Clouds of Gas and Dust,” an exhibition of photographs of dust fragments from the ruins of the historic Barakat building in Beirut, a former sniper vantage point, that had been turned into crystal by Lebanese artist Vartan Avakian.
Just weeks after Aïshti Foundation’s opening, the city was hit with a pair of suicide bombings. The scars of war and upheaval remain, bringing a new sense of cultural importance to Beirut’s growing art scene, and those who cherish it.