Abdul Rahman Katanani, The Wave of Change, 2019. Woven barbed wire, 350 x 850 x 400 cm. ©Paul Hannebelle
Agial Art Gallery, established in Beirut in 1990, is one of the leading destinations for modern and contemporary
art from Lebanon and the Arab World. As a pioneering platform, Agial is showcasing a broad spectrum of regional
art, from the most established artists to promising emerging artists, alongside retrospective exhibitions. The
permanent collection of the gallery is host to an important historical survey of Middle Eastern art, having
incubated and witnessed the profound transformation of artistic practices in one of the world’s most dynamic
regions. Beyond the exhibition space in Ras Beirut, Agial is a global presence through participation in art
fairs, off-site projects and publications, highlighting the role of the gallery in the promotion of Arab art.
Representing artists across different generations, Agial is active in primary and secondary markets, with a
roster of artists that has been well placed in institutions and collections, both public and private. Yet the
gallery remains an open space for critical debate, cultural dialogue and cutting-edge practices.

AGIAL ART GALLERY


SALEH BARAKAT,
FOUNDER

What did you do before you opened your first gallery, Agial, in Beirut in 1990?
While finishing my MBA degree at the American University of Beirut, I worked for a short time in financial markets. I soon discovered this was not what I wanted to do in life. I wanted, rather, to work in a field that could create value.
What was the art scene like then?
We were barely coming out of the Civil War (1975-1990), and most art galleries in Beirut had closed. There were only two operational galleries at the time, Epreuve d’Artiste and Alwane, which had to move from Beirut to Jounieh for security reasons.Only a few cultural centres, like the Göethe and the Centre Culturel Français, were active during this period. Agial was the first gallery to open in Beirut after the Civil War. Because we were only a few working in the domain, there was a great potential to explore.

“THE MISSION OF THIS INSTITUTION HAS BEEN TO NURTURE A LOCAL ART SCENE THAT COULD IN TURN SPONSOR A LOCAL ART SCENE”

Could you tell us about your first exhibition, which acted as a statement for your programme?
I opened Agial with a sculpture exhibition by Sami Rifai. My inaugural statement was to open a white cube space in which art and art alone was exhibited outside of its context, and not with other antiquities as was commonly done in local galleries at the time. My long-term objective was to run a professional institution that was fully dedicated to modern and contemporary artists from the Arab World. This continues to be my mission.
Why did you choose the name Agial for your gallery?
I wanted to represent several generations of artists in order to cover art of both the modern and contemporary periods in my programme. I also wanted an Arabic name, but one which was easy to pronounce by non-Arabic speakers. Even phonetically Agial sounds close to “age” in English, if you think about it!
Your second gallery that you opened in 2016 to commemorate the 25th anniversary of Agial gallery shares your name, Saleh Barakat. What does that mean to you?
It was important for me to keep Agial running as a gallery with its own separate programme. The mission for both galleries is the same, but each one has its own spatial specificities. My roster of artists and artist estates was expanding, and it felt sound for the new gallery to take advantage of my name which was, 25 years on, well recognised in the field of art in this region.

“I PERSONALLY HAVE RESERVATIONS ON THE OVERCOMMODIFICATION OF ART, BECAUSE FOR ME, ART IS A CAUSE”

How do you see the international art scene today and your relationship with it?
I personally have reservations on the over-commodification of art, because for me, art is a cause. Wealth has definitely had a positive influence on raising the value of art, but I am increasingly wary of practices of speculation on the market.
How would you define the identity of your galleries?
Both galleries are essentially one institution bent on empowering artists from the region who express concerns of their respective communities and whose art is addressed to local critics and collectors. The mission of this institution has been to nurture a local art scene that could in turn sponsor a local art scene. The galleries engage with the international art world, but their programme is primarily geared towards a local community. This decision has definitely impacted the galleries’ visibility in the international art world, but this is the cost that has been assumed. There are no free lunches!
What can you tell us about the roster of artists you represent?
I have supported groups of artists who represent concerns of this community, and I have always been inclined towards painting and art with a strong formal basis, and therefore I work with artists who are less concerned with a global art agenda and, hence, outside the mouvance of the West.
What can you tell us about the roster of artists you represent?
I have supported groups of artists who represent concerns of this community, and I have always been inclined towards painting and art with a strong formal basis, and therefore I work with artists who are less concerned with a global art agenda and, hence, outside the mouvance of the West.
Which photograph from 2019 best represents your gallery and activity?
I have included a photo of Abdul Rahman Katanani’s exhibition, which coincided with the Lebanese Revolution that started on October 17 in response to years of dissatisfaction with the government and their policies. It came as the right thing at the right time, as if in connivance with the activism on the ground, which has been demanding social transformation.

Abdul Rahman Katanani, The Wave of Change, 2019. Woven barbed wire, 350 x 850 x 400 cm. ©Paul Hannebelle
Abdul Rahman Katanani, The Wave of Change, 2019. Woven barbed wire, 350 x 850 x 400 cm. ©Paul Hannebelle

Abdul Rahman Katanani, The Wave of Change, 2019. Woven barbed wire, 350 x 850 x 400 cm. ©Paul Hannebelle

Could you tell us about your programme for 2020?
We have been preparing our forthcoming activities for a long time. We have a robust program of exhibitions, including Mahmoud Obaidi, Samir Sayegh and Fadia Haddad. But we will have to adapt to the current situation, which is uncertain as of yet.


A VERSION OF THIS ARTICLE APPEARED IN PRINT IN SELECTIONS, SHOW & TELL #51

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