Aref El Rayess, Homage to Martin Luther King, 1968, Oil on canvas, 150 x 101 cm © Aref El Rayess

Saradar Collection has launched an archive of images documenting Beirut’s flourishing art scene from 1955 to 1975.

Famed art historian and critic John Berger once said that archives are what “distinguishes man from any other animal, we can only see what we look at. To look is an act of choice.” An archive can be like a voyage into the unknown, a will to chronicle – to examine a lost past, to assemble and break down distinctions between time and space, if only to ascertain what might remain for the present.

Seta Manoukian, First Atom of a Dream on Trauma, 1970, Oil on canvas, 90 x 110 cm. From the White period series © Seta Manoukian
Seta Manoukian, First Atom of a Dream on Trauma, 1970, Oil on canvas, 90 x 110 cm. From the White period series © Seta Manoukian

Last November, the Saradar Collection – an initiative with a public mission to preserve, study and share modern and contemporary art from Lebanon – launched an important archive of images that maps Beirut’s “golden age” from 1955 to 1975. The specific chronology dates to a period of flourishing artistic activity that began in the years after the end of the French Mandate over Lebanon in 1943, ending with the outbreak of the Lebanese Civil War in 1975.

Rafic Charaf, Untitled, 1965, Oil on masonite. 56 x 75 cm © Rafic Charaf
Rafic Charaf, Untitled, 1965, Oil on masonite. 56 x 75 cm © Rafic Charaf

The images were selected by Sam Bardaouil and Till Fellrath, a duo Emiratis will recognize as curators of the upcoming UAE pavilion at the 2019 Venice Biennale. Bardaouil and Fellrath began by researching six artists from the collection: Shafic Abboud, Rafic Charaf, Laure Ghorayeb, Halim Jurdak, Seta Manoukian, and Aref El Rayess, eventually narrowing down their selection to some 1,000 archival documents relating to hundreds of art exhibitions at more than 50 art spaces.

 Shafic Abboud, Lithography nº6, Intimes, 1969 © Shafic Abboud

Shafic Abboud, Lithography nº6, Intimes, 1969 © Shafic Abboud

Though the archive focuses on the artistic activity in and around Beirut, there is a distinctive pan-Arabian context to the images and artists from within it. “The history of [different] modernisms are deeply intertwined,” the curators stated. “To a large extent they are reflective of the emergence, culmination and decline of a number of modern local and regional imaginaries. Some were concerned with post-colonial identity. Others were marching to the beat of different drums varying from pan-Arabism to national Nativism.”

Laure Ghorayeb, Untitled, 1968, Ink on paper, 18 x 24 cm © Laure Ghorayeb
Laure Ghorayeb, Untitled, 1968, Ink on paper, 18 x 24 cm © Laure Ghorayeb

Nevertheless, the concentration of their work examined Beirut’s artistic intelligentsia that was active in the two long decades between 1955 and 1975, with the bulk of activity concentrated in and around Hamra Street, where artists of various nationalities would congregate and debate the leading social and aesthetic ideas of the time. There, artists and writers enjoyed a concentration of universities, galleries, cinemas, theatres and leftist-leaning cafés, including Café La Palette, an early artist-run space founded by an Austrian painter and rumoured diamond smuggler Jean Benedek. Café La Palette was active between 1954 and 1962, hosting two exhibitions by Paul Guiragossian, the famed Armenian-Lebanese painter known for his figurative works that pushed the boundaries between representation and abstraction.

Halim Jurdak, Untitled, 1963, Lithography, 30 x 30 cm © Halim Jurdak
Halim Jurdak, Untitled, 1963, Lithography, 30 x 30 cm © Halim Jurdak

In bringing this incredible archive to life, Bardaouil and Fellrath worked with Berlin-based design lab Eps51, developing a platform that gives access, for the first time, to a searchable database that is both user-friendly and interactive. Above all, the archive presents notable dates, exhibitions, art spaces and artists that played an instrumental role in shaping cultural activity in Lebanon and beyond, presenting a compendium of information useful to both scholars and the public alike.

For more info, visit www.saradarperspective.com

Dorian Batycka

Dorian Batycka is a Canadian curator, art critic and DJ based in Muscat, Oman. He is currently curator at Bait Muzna for Art Film. Previously, he was assistant curator for the first ever Maldives National Pavilion at the 55th Venice Biennale and has contributed to numerous publications, including Art and Education, Frieze Blog, and Nero. He can be found on Twitter.

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