Andrée Sfeir-Semler changed the face of Lebanon’s art scene – and perceptions of Arab art worldwide – when she opened her eponymous gallery in Beirut 10 years ago. She shares her thoughts on what draws her to the artists she represents, the reason she gave up art to become a gallerist and the growth of Arab art internationally.
India Stoughton: You work with a diverse selection of international artists working in multiple media and styles. How do you select the artists you represent? Is it primarily a business decision, or does it stem from some more personal connection to the work?
Andree Sfeir-Semler: My artists are not decorative. Most of them are rather hard to place, because they do political and conceptual work and not necessarily work for over sofas. So it’s never a business decision. It’s always a heart and a brain decision. When my heart meets my brain, this is when I do it.
IS: I’ve read that you studied fine art and filmmaking, as well as history of art. Do you still do your own artwork, and have you ever considered exhibiting it?
A S-S: I continued doing some art to relax when I was writing my PhD at the Sorbonne and University of Bielefeld, but I’ve never exhibited it. I’ve also made a few films. I showed some of the films at festivals and got a few prizes, in fact. When I decided to open a gallery, I packed it all away. The first artwork I
ever bought is a Henri Matisse, Masque au Petit Nez – a nose and eyes executed with a single brushstroke. We got it home, we hung it on the wall, and when I saw it next to my artwork, I decided I was not going to pursue it. I put all my artworks in the cellar and never showed them again.
IS: That’s a shame. It would be fascinating to see your artwork. In terms of your role as a gallerist,
Sfeir-Semler Gallery in Beirut was a pioneer, both in the kind of artists you represent and the kind of exhibitions you put on. Was it difficult to establish an audience when you first opened the gallery 10 years ago?
A S-S: When we first started, we had several curious and interested locals, expats, and international museums and collections visit the gallery, but they were not yet acquiring works. Many of those people have become collectors. If I were to look at international art fairs, such as Frieze, FIAC or Art Basel, there was almost nobody from the Arab world in 2004 or ’05 at those art fairs. You could count them on one hand. Now, there are so many that on the day of the opening, whether it is New York or Basel or London, our booth is full of supporters, because they know the work. It needed some years before they started collecting and now they’re super supportive.
IS: Obviously there has been a huge boom in recent years in sales of art from the region. Do you think that Sfeir-Semler Gallery played a role in that?
A S-S: I leave this answer with you. We opened the first white cube in the whole Arab world, and the first very big exhibition space that is not a dealer space. In fact, when I opened the gallery in 2005, I said it was only the start of a long road. We are really happy that the road is now a highway. Three of our artists are showing at MoMA within one year — Walid Raad, Wael Shawky and Rabih Mroue. We had six artists at Documenta. We will have five artists at the biennale in Istanbul. We have five artists at the biennale in Venice. This is not so bad for such a tiny country. These are artists we started working with at the very beginning of their careers, and who are now important. It is really very beautiful. Back in 2005, I was wondering if we would make a foundation or an art gallery. I decided on the gallery. A gallery allows a long-term cooperation with artists. When the artists can generate artworks that the gallery can place in international collections, exhibitions and museums, this is when you are able to leave an impact and create a nourishing art scene, which can become a testimony to the culture and memory of the Arab world, internationally and for future generations.
ART TO FEED THE HEART AND THE BRAIN
The artists I’ve chosen are central to our practice as a gallery working in Beirut and Hamburg. They are artists we have worked with, but do not necessarily represent. The works we show at the gallery are the works I love, I understand and I cherish. So for this selection, I could not but choose from our very own. I haven’t based my choice on the audience. I would have selected these same works for Selections or for Art Forum. I never follow the audience. Whenever I make a choice – for an artist or works within an exhibit – I always try to follow my deepest inner self and the things I believe in.
When you look through the works, you’ll notice that there is no obvious aesthetic line from one to the other. They all seem very different from each other. What they share is that conceptual moment. The works that I exhibit and collect are those that are subtle but carry a very poignant conceptual, historical or political message. Sol Le Witt’s isometric work was the first of its kind and was first produced and made in our Hamburg space, merging the concept of the three-dimensional installation into the gallery walls. Walid Raad’s museum door is part of his investigation of the contemporary Arab art scene, whereby he stages illusions of important museums doors. Akram Zaatari’s scratched portrait of a tragic woman excavated from the photos and negatives of studio photographer, Hashem El Madani, uncovers the histories of the people and Marwan Rechmaoui’s cement wall piece shows a geological cut of a city not only destroyed by the war, but also by a rampant urban catastrophe. Yto Barrada’s work gives us glimpses of childhood and nature in her native Tangiers. With similar sensitivity, the purity of Etel Adnan’s intimate paintings radiate color. Ian Hamilton Finlay’s Aphrodite transports the classical to the contemporary, combining love and beauty with the ugliness of war. Wael Shawky’s extensive project on the history of the crusades illustrates the grotesque nature of humanity in fragile Murano glass marionettes. Wael’s latest film installation, Secrets of Karbala, along with drawings and marionettes, will be on show in Beirut for his solo show this summer.society in the 50s and 60s.