Sfeir-Semler Gallery, with spaces in Hamburg, Germany (since 1985) and Beirut, Lebanon (since 2005), concentrates on international contemporary art with an emphasis on conceptual and minimal art. Since the early 2000s, the gallery has been a key figure in art production in the Arab World, nurturing a unique cross-cultural link between Western and Middle Eastern contemporary art practices. It has taken on an integral role in launching and developing the careers of major international artists from the region such as Walid Raad, Akram Zaatari, Wael Shawky, Khalil Rabah and Etel Adnan, presenting pioneer solo exhibitions, gaining global exposure through participation in international biennials and shows in public institutions, and facilitating acquisitions by notable museums around the world, simultaneously encouraging young emerging artists to expand the gallery’s programme and continue its history of innovation.
What did you do before you founded Sfeir-Semler Gallery?
I grew up in Beirut and completed my BA at the American University of Beirut. I moved to Germany later on, and I studied filmmaking in Munich, then switched to art history. I eventually wrote my PhD, which was on the emerging art scene in France in the 19th century, and when I finished, I was offered to take over an art gallery in Kiel where I lived with my family at the time. I started right away!
Why did you decide to open the new exhibition space in Beirut, and how was the art scene then compared to today?
At the end of the 1990s I encountered the work of Walid Raad, in an exhibition curated by Catherine David. I approached Walid and immediately started representing him. This was a pivotal moment. Through Walid Raad, I began to follow art from Lebanon and the Arab World, and started representing artists in his close circle – Akram Zaatari, then Rabih Mroué, then Marwan Rechmaoui. I decided to open a gallery in Lebanon as there was nothing of this kind in the Arab World. I was working with many artists from the region and wanted to bring it all back home somehow. So, I started to look for a space, and when I found it, it all went very quickly. I opened the gallery in Beirut in April 2005 amidst one of the most significant moment in our contemporary history.
Could you tell us about your first exhibition in Beirut, which acted as a statement for your program?
The inaugural show was entitled Flight 405 and the opening took place the year my gallery in Germany turned 20! The show, and subsequently our program, aimed at linking the Western contemporary art scenes with the Middle Eastern ones, and I believe what we have been doing was instrumental in creating these bridges.
How would you define the identity of your gallery?
With our focus on conceptual and minimal art as the underlying thread, we have been presenting shows that highlight the region, with a very political programme that favours quality as much as voicing out current concerns and maybe sometimes uncomfortable questions. I like to present work that is meaningful and relevant to today’s societies. Whilst the discourse might obviously be engrained in the Middle East, reflecting our heritage and our physical location, it remains a universal language that our artists speak. Also, many artists we represent have reached a certain level of maturity in their careers, which means their work is no longer observed and presented as being specifically linked to the region, but is rather presented against an international backdrop.
You began exhibiting artists who are now historic. You later introduced younger artists to the programme who are also making their way high on the art scene. Could you tell us about your approach to the diversity of artists you represent?
The most important criteria to start working with an artist for me is quality. The handwriting content and ideas of the artist have to be very singular, and rooted in their deep inner-self. The artists I represent, and have worked with over the years, are all very distinctive individuals, but they also develop significant work. Sfeir-Semler gallery now represents around 30 artists, and we are actively engaged with the majority of them: we support the development of their career through solo shows at the gallery, participation in exhibitions and biennales around the world, of course, and by striving to place their works in major museums and institutions. Most importantly we help them venture into new projects and research, so they are constantly pushing the boundaries of their practice. It’s very exciting to follow an artist’s career and build it together with him over the years. We are in for the long term, and it is as exciting as discovering new blood that comes in with the younger generation.
“THE MOST IMPORTANT CRITERIA TO START WORKING WITH AN ARTIST FOR ME IS QUALITY. THE HANDWRITING CONTENT AND IDEAS OF THE ARTIST HAVE TO BE VERY SINGULAR, AND ROOTED IN THEIR DEEP INNER SELF”
Which photograph from 2019 best represents your gallery and activity?
Sfeir-Semler Gallery booth at Frieze London 2019, Lawrence Abu Hamdan, Natq, 2019, and Mounira Al Solh, The Mother of David and Goliath, 2019.
Could you tell us about your programme for 2020?
We have a very special programme planned for 2020, which marks the 15th year of the gallery in Beirut and 35 years in Germany: together 50 YEARS! Hopefully the situation in Lebanon will allow us to move ahead with our plan. In the Beirut space, we’ll start in January 2020 with a show devoted to Etel Adnan including new works in all mediums she uses. It will also mark her 95th birthday. This will be followed by a very special event planned around our April opening – but I do not want to spoil the surprise, and we will be announcing this in the coming months. Our last show of the year will be Wael Shawky’s solo opening at the end of August 2020, with an extensive presentation.
Opening year and key dates in the lifetime of the gallery:
1985 – Sfeir-Semler Gallery opens in Kiel, Germany
1990s – the gallery starts representing artists from
Lebanon and the Arab World
1998 – the gallery moves to Hamburg
2005 – Sfeir-Semler Gallery opens in Beirut
A VERSION OF THIS ARTICLE APPEARED IN PRINT IN SELECTIONS, SHOW & TELL #51