Saleh Barakat Gallery, which opened in Clemenceau in May, provides a larger counterpart to Agial Art Gallery, allowing for large-scale retrospectives and the display of statement pieces by contemporary Arab artists

Saleh Barakat’s eponymous new gallery is a state-of-the-art white cube space housed in the former Clemenceau Cinema, a beautiful structure with a long history as a central part of Beirut’s cultural scene. After a decade of dereliction, Barakat has transformed the space into an underground gallery, large enough to hold paintings and sculptures measuring several metres across and full of natural light, thanks to the strategic design of the front window and dramatic central staircase.
He sat down with Selections to talk space, programming and hope for the future.

How did you come to buy this space and what made you think it was the right venue to become Saleh Barakat Gallery?
When I was looking for a bigger space it was on the market and it has this incredible history. I saw my first movies in this place, back when it was the Clemenceau Cinema, which was the first RAC cinema in the Middle East… Then it turned into Masrah al-Madina, which was a really fantastic period, because the best Arab theatre people came here. Not only that, but Ayloul Festival started here, and Ashkal Alwan started here. So I thought it was a place that deserves to be kept as a cultural landmark. It was not really a logical decision, rather an emotional one.

Why did you decide you needed a larger gallery space?
While I firmly believe that Agial is a wonderful gallery, the space cannot be made either bigger or higher… Sometimes you need somewhere big, with a high ceiling, and sometimes you need a smaller, more intimate space. I represent many estates that need retrospectives, and when it comes to somebody like Shafic Abboud or Michel Basbous or Saloua Raouda Choucair you need to show 50 or 60 years of career, so you need a big space. And some of my living artists sometimes come up with large statement paintings. Now we have the space for these things.

What’s your approach to programming for the new space?
My intention is to run shows for six to eight weeks — not more, because I would like to do at least four events a year, maybe five… I know my programme until the end of 2017. I’m doing an established artist, a younger artist, a curated show, a retrospective and a critical show. I want to convey a message in my first year of opening that this is not only a gallery that shows solo exhibitions for living artists, it also does other things.

Why did you chose to open with Nabil Nahas?
Firstly because I firmly believe that he’s one of our top artists today. I don’t like the superlative but I think he’s probably one of the most important painters not only in Lebanon or the Arab world, but worldwide. When he started working on this new series, based on the cedar and with these different dimensions coming together, I saw in it a lot of hope and joy. And I want to convey a message of hope.

A version of this article appeared in print in Selections, The Urban Art Issue #37, on pages 26