By Dr Basel Dalloul
I first met Ayman Baalbaki about a decade ago, when my late father asked me to take over the vast family collection of art by Arab artists. At the time my father was consolidating this particular family collection, in Beirut, from various residences we have around the world. On this occasion of our first encounter, my father had asked me to join him to meet this particularly talented, young Lebanese artist at his Hamra studio, which at the time, also served as his home.
I recall walking into this rather large room, with carefully placed neon lights along the length of the studio space. There were a couple of cosy seating areas, a bookshelf and loads of canvases standing against the walls. Towards the end of the room there were bottles of acrylic paint strewn all over the floor. Ayman, a rather handsome man with piercing blue eyes, was sporting an interesting teal turban on his head. My father dove into an intellectual conversation with Ayman while my curiosity took me around the room, looking at all these amazing paintings of partially or completely destroyed iconic buildings from around Beirut. There was the Murr Tower, the iconic ‘Egg’ building, the Holiday Inn hotel, and several others. Ayman was also working on a series of Middle East Airlines planes, one of which my father had chosen; actually, it was the largest one in the series, as I recall, an asymmetric diptych, measuring 2 x 4 metres.
At the time, Ayman had completed a piece for my father from his “Al Mulatham” series, which depicted the Palestinian freedom fighter wearing a kafiyyah covering this androgynous looking person’s face. I remember hearing my father asking Ayman, prior to this commission, why the expression of his freedom fighters seemed downtrodden, as he had read the description in an article. My dad disagreed, and wrote Ayman a poem about the pride of the freedom fighters, holding their heads up high, fighting for the freedom of their occupied lands, and then asked Ayman to paint him one as described in the poem. The result was brilliant.
Because of the fatherly relationship that had developed between them, my father commissioned a couple of rather large pieces from Ayman: one was the Middle East Airliner destroyed on the tarmac at Beirut International Airport during an Israeli air, sea and land assault on June 18, 1982. The second piece my father was after was of the Tower of Babel. At the time, Ayman painted one for himself, and in his generous spirit, decided that my father shouldn’t wait, so he sold him his own piece, and because of his fondness for him, at a substantial discount I recall.
Ayman and I quickly developed a great friendship. I was still learning my way around our collection and Arab art in general. Although I had grown up with it all around us, my interest at the time was in Western art, particularly American modern, and pop, street, and outsider art. Ayman, coming from a family of artists, took me under his wing and taught me the ropes of art from the region. We both had keen intellectual minds, which worked well together; he was also a lot of fun to be around.
I met quite a few artists, critics, writers and art historians through my friend, all of whom I developed quick and deep friendships with. These relationships, and the knowledge I had accumulated from all of them at the beginning of my journey organising the family’s immense collection of Arab art, made what was a very steep learning curve in fact a breeze. I quickly learned the nuances of art from the Arab world and always had my dear friend and mentor to clarify areas I was a bit confused about. He was always generous with his time and quite patient with me. Once I had a good base after a few months of intense learning, I was ready to establish an institution whose mission was to introduce and inform audiences, both local and global, about art from the Arab world.
I founded the Ramzi and Saeda Dalloul Art Foundation, now known as DAF, and Ayman was a great guiding influence; he was very keen that the foundation become the reference for everything in terms of Arab art. He was very quick to point out that no such thing existed. Ayman was excited about the prospect of having a professional institution whose sole objective was to promote Arab art to the world through research, storytelling, and display. Our relationship became symbiotic. We were both in a position to guide and influence one another, in very positive and constructive ways.
Fast-forward a half-decade later and DAF had indeed become the reference institution for Arab art. The little-known collection my late parents had put together over the span of a half-century went from obscurity to world-renowned. Ayman Baalbaki always made sure I remained focused, and I did the same for him.
In late spring in 2019, Ayman had gone through a dry spell in art production, researching what he would do next. All of Ayman’s close friends were encouraging him to experiment with new techniques and get himself into a new groove. During this time, I remember calling Ayman to figure out what time he would be at his studio, so I could go and watch him work, which I often did. Ayman liked having good company around while he worked, especially during transitional times where he was trying out something new.
That day, he was with our dear friend, Serwan Baran, a rising star of an Iraqi artist who lives and works in Beirut. Ayman told me, “We’re going to play with clay.” Serwan was experienced with clay, but Ayman had never really worked with it or sculpted anything of significance before. I was happy that Ayman was trying out something new, so I encouraged him. That afternoon, Ayman sent me a picture of the bust he had sculpted out of the clay and I was stunned. It was a 3-D version of his “Al Mulatham,” which was identical in style and true to the image in the paintings. I was speechless. Ayman had never done anything like this before and yet on his first attempt at “playing” he had produced a masterpiece! This is the genius of Baalbaki at work, and I was happy to see him emerging from his dry period.
Making the bust wasn’t enough for Ayman. At the time, he was also experimenting with alternative materials, and wanted to enlarge the bust and cast it in resin, a material that quite intrigued him. I recall we first had to find a shop to 3-D scan the original bust, in order to enlarge the scan to the size Ayman had in mind. We then took that data-set to another shop to make a 3-D print of the enlarged version, cut out of Styrofoam. This rather large version was then taken to a casting shop to make the mould, which was then used to pour the resin into to make the final product, the larger than life 3-D “Al Mulatham”. Watching Ayman go through this process was like watching a kid in a toy store. He was lit up and focused and finally back in his element.
Ayman Baalbaki working on Al Mulatham bronze sculpture in his studio at Furn El Chebbak and the artisan’s atelier, 2019. Photos by Basel Dalloul.
Over the years, I had become very involved with my dear friend, Laure d’Hauteville, founder and director of the Beirut Art Fair. In 2019, for the landmark 10th Edition of the fair, Laure had asked me to convince Ayman to do something very special and gave him the prime spot at the entrance, to display the work he would create. We were only a couple of months away from the opening, so I quickly went to Ayman with the news. He had to come up with something big and fabulous, something that would stir the audiences coming to visit what was, sadly, in hindsight the last fair prior to Lebanon’s disastrous decline Ayman did not disappoint. He had always wanted to paint the legendary Piccadilly Theatre of Beirut, which had hosted some amazing shows by world-renowned and local performers. Sadly, it too saw its demise during Lebanon’s civil war and still stands abandoned. The work he envisioned was massive. At 3 x 4 metres, he began painting against the clock. Both our necks were on the line, so I made sure I visited my friend every day until he completed this monumental work.
Simultaneous to working on the painting, Ayman was also finishing up the large-scale bust he had created. We both thought it would be nice to have the painting and the bust at the fair. The Piccadilly Theatre was epic, and definitely the star of the show. It was also the first major piece Ayman, the painter, had created, after a two-year dry spell. I, like everyone else, was mesmerised by the work. It was so good that you wanted to walk into it. The piece deserved to be at a major institution, but alas, it was sold at the fair to an important Swiss collector.
Ayman Baalbaki working on Picadilly Teatre (2019) in his studio in Furn El Chebbak. Photos by Basel Dalloul
Fast forward to 2022; Ayman was selected to represent Lebanon at the prestigious Venice Biennale. He created a monumental work for the occasion, an installation approximately 5 x 11 metres called “Janus Gate”, which at the time I was writing this piece was already completed and crated. This subject is covered extensively in this special issue, so I’ll leave it alone for now, but I was also involved in this project with Ayman from day one to completion.
In January of this year, it came to my attention that the collector who had bought the iconic Piccadilly Theatre piece wanted to sell it. I figured it was time for this piece to come to its proper home at DAF. I reached out to the collector and negotiated a mutually acceptable price and, as I write this article, I am happy to announce the piece is now in the foundation’s custody.
While I could write a book about Ayman (and perhaps I may one day), I only have a limited number of words to describe him here, so I’m going to spend the rest of the time describing my dear friend. He is first and foremost a great intellectual mind, well-read and articulate. Ayman comes off as somewhat shy when he first meets someone, but quickly warms up once he’s comfortable. He is talented and in a class all of his own when it comes to his craft. Ayman is also one of the most polite and generous people I know. I’ve personally spent hours watching him get into his groove, working his magic on canvas, carving metal and even moulding clay for the first time. To say Ayman is brilliant at his work, would be a big understatement.
Ayman Baalbaki, working on Baalbaki’s Warehouse N°12 (2020) in his studio
For a decade now, Ayman has been and continues to be a part of my daily life. He is by far one of my dearest friends, and we are both confidants to one another and have developed a brotherly bond. During this time, I’ve consolidated my own knowledge of modern and contemporary Arab art and, thanks to Ayman, I myself have become somewhat of a force to reckon with in the art community from the region. So, I can comfortably say, while I’ve had the privilege of meeting hundreds of very talented artists from around the Arab world, none are as humble and talented as my dear friend Ayman Baalbaki.
I would also like to take this opportunity to thank two very special people in my life, my dearest friend Rima Nasser, the publisher of this magazine and her lovely daughter (my goddaughter as well), Anastasia Nysten, the editor in chief, for allowing me to write this piece in this very special edition of the Selections Magazine.
I am very proud that Ayman was chosen to represent Lebanon at the 2022 Venice Biennale, and I can’t wait to see what he does in the coming decades. Ayman, we all love you.
Dr Basel Dalloul founded the Dalloul Art Foundation in 2017 to manage and promote his father’s (Dr Ramzi Dalloul) vast collection of modern and contemporary Arab art. At over 4,000 pieces it is the largest collection of its kind in private hands. The collection includes but is not limited to paintings, photography, sculpture, video and mixed media art. Dalloul has had a passion for art since he was very young, inspired by his mother and father, both of whom are also passionate about art in all its forms.