how the Arab World Institute gives Lebanon “hope and support”
Deep in the basements of the imposing brutalist museum of the Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris, new galleries have opened as a sign of “hope and support” for Beirut.
The project started as a simple architectural renovation of the museum’s storage spaces, so that they could accommodate a revolving program of the extraordinary donation of 1,600 works of the Lebanese-French art dealer Claude Lemand and his wife, France . But it has become a bigger investment in the livelihoods and well-being of Beirut’s designers and artisans as they navigate the country’s severe financial and social crises.
“I can’t believe they let me do this,” says architect Carl Gerges, who led the project. “We wanted to surround the work with the efforts of the Lebanese people. “
The first exhibition in the Salle des Donateurs, Les Lumières du Liban, celebrates the Lebanese works of the Lemand donation. But Gerges took the celebration a step further and managed to convince the museum to manufacture all the material for the exhibition – from lighting to plinths to graphic design – in Beirut, ship it to Paris despite the forced to work in the besieged Lebanese capital.
“I wanted to spread a very strong message for Lebanon,” he said. “Everything for the donor room, we produced in Beirut.
The Parisian museum approached Gerges a year ago to transform the basement. The museum then envisioned the place as a place for satellite exhibitions, like that of Lemand’s generous donation. Gerges had temporarily moved to the French capital after his studio and home were badly damaged by the explosion at the Port of Beirut.
At first, Gerges responded aesthetically to the site – he describes the first idea as a “humble gesture” in the building, which was one of the first major works of Jean Nouvel, from 1987.
Gerges added partitions to the cavernous space to allow visitors to move through the exhibits and cut the industrial atmosphere of the museum by painting these walls in warm tones – reminiscent of the earthen material that is the common building block for old buildings across the Arab world.
“I wanted to root the building in the soil of the Middle East,” he says. Gerges worked with technicians in Lebanon to develop a new painting technique that literally incorporates the land of the country, in bespoke consistencies made for the walls, floor, baseboards and other parts of the site.
Likewise, he worked with the design agency Fabraca Studios for lighting; Manufacturers of parts for production; and Joseph Chalhoub for graphic design – all based in Beirut.
It was no small task. Electricity and fuel shortages have made it almost impossible to do work. Rampant inflation and food shortages even make everyday life difficult.
The final destination of Paris added an increased wrinkle: all objects had to meet European hygiene and safety standards, then had to be transported in time for the opening of the exhibition. Gerges and the Beirut designers filled two 12-meter containers with the works, filled out the forms and hoped for the best.
The Arab World Institute has also invited decision-makers, which means more paperwork, more visas and more logistics. Yet it was worth it.
“For some people, it was the first time they had traveled outside of Lebanon,” says Gerges. “But when they got there it was the most rewarding and emotional feeling. These people worked with their hearts. It’s very heavy to live there now. We wanted to bring some hope and change in their lives.
The architect also organized the exhibition. Echoing the surge of optimism in his architectural design, he inscribed this story of hope and change in the exhibition.
It starts with Ayman Baalbaki The end, a cold, dystopian painting of a neon sign against an industrial building carrying its eschatological message.
“We started in the 2000s with The End,” he says. “He cannot go lower than what we are today.”
The exhibition takes place in a semi-chronological manner, mixing younger artists with established older artists such as Saliba Douaihy, Etel Adnan or Shafic Abboud. Gerges also paid attention to the context in which the works were made, collaborating with journalist Gilles Khoury at the Beirut newspaper. L’Orient-Le Jour to hang stories in the newspaper next to the paintings.
The juxtaposition with the political events of the time gives international audiences information about what is going on outside the walls of the artists’ studios – and also serves as a deflating reminder of the many crises Lebanon has gone through over the years.
“It was amazing,” says Gerges. “The headlines keep repeating themselves. The newspaper said “Apocalypse” in the 1970s and then again in the 2020s. “
The exhibition ends with the golden age of Beirut, in the 1950s and 1960s. “You can feel the joy of this period,” he says. “The colors are brighter, the atmosphere is lighter. It’s such a contrast to the more aggressive colors of today.
Lemand, who has lived in Paris since the 1980s, opened the Galerie Claude Lemand in 1988. The site has become an important meeting point for the Arab diaspora, and thanks to it, Lemand has acquired his extraordinary collection of Arab art – which he and his wife generously donated last year at the IMA, increasing its permanent collections by 40% in one fell swoop.
The radicality of Gerges’ proposal is a fitting legacy for Lemand, a relative outlier in the rarefied world of French collecting. Born orphans in Lebanon, he does not come from a wealthy family, but approaches art and collecting in his own way. His eyes were opened to the complexity of Arab art, he said, when he lived in Cairo in the 1970s. On his return from Egypt to Lebanon, then in the midst of the civil war, he was kidnapped during the fighting, then fled his homeland to France, where he has remained ever since.
The project was supported by the Galerie Claude Lemand and the Barjeel Art Foundation, who introduced the IMA to Gerges. Gerges, musician of the Lebanese group Mashrou ‘Leila and architect, was invited to give a lecture at the American University of Paris, where the founder of Barjeel, Sultan Al Qassemi, was teaching a course on Arab art.
It was through Al Qassemi that Gerges was connected to the IMA team. The The Barjeel Art Foundation also helped support the project as it grew – not only to include Gerges’ support for Lebanese artists, but in terms of the museum’s plans for the rooms, which are now also a venue for ‘workshops and other educational programs.
For the next few years, it will remain a place of representation of Lemand’s legacy, with an exhibition of his Algerian work in winter, and it will become a place of exhibition of other gifts in the future.
Update: October 1, 2021, 4:13 a.m.