With the KA Collection, Abraham Karabajakian co-created an art space dedicated primarily to modern and contemporary Middle Eastern artists

Abraham Karabajakian understood the value of Middle Eastern art long before any of his contemporaries. The Lebanese entrepreneur, who holds a Master’s degree in marketing, started collecting art over two decades ago, first buying whatever appealed to him, and later honing in on Middle Eastern art, especially Lebanese art, with the support of his wife.

“I never had in mind to become a collector,” Karabajakian explains. “I bought what I liked and what I could afford.” His love of art was so great that whenever he earned money, he spent it on an artwork. “You don’t need big budgets to become a collector,” he says. “Collecting can be achieved with different budgets.”

While collecting brought him great personal pleasure, Karabajakian felt that his artworks should be available to a wider audience, so he and his partner Roger Akouri teamed up to found the KA Collection in 2012. The idea was to create an important collection of mainly Middle Eastern art that would be displayed in a specific space. To that end, the two men transformed Akouri’s apartment, located on the fifth floor of one of two new buildings on the Dbayeh Marina, just north of Beirut, into an art gallery. In this sprawling, light-filled space, with large windows overlooking the Mediterranean, Karabajakian exhibits a changing selection of works from the KA Collection, which now numbers around 600 pieces. In addition to this, Karabajakian owns a further 200 pieces as part of his own personal collection.

“The KA Collection is mainly Middle Eastern art,” Karabajakian says, “but I also buy anything I like and can afford. I feel that I have a mission to protect and defend modern Lebanese art, without neglecting contemporary artists.”
Roughly 80 percent of his collection consists of Lebanese art, with the rest encompassing Armenian and international works.

The KA Collection includes important modern Lebanese artists, like Shafic Abboud, Saliba Douaihy, Etel Adnan, Huguette Caland, Helen Khal and Paul Guiragossian. “We have lots of contemporary art too,” Karabajakian says, “by geniuses like Walid Raad, Akram Zaatari and others.”

At the Dbayeh space, visitors can view a series of colourful oil paintings by Guiragossian, a wooden sculpture by Chawki Choukini, sprawling paintings by Caland and various sculptures by Saloua Raouda Choucair. There are acrylic works completed in the 1990s by Aref Rayess and a particularly expressive painting of a cedar tree by Nabil Nahas.

In keeping with his desire to make his collection accessible to as many people as possible, Karabajakian regularly loans out some of his pieces to such institutions as the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris and the Sursock Museum in Beirut. He also loaned seven Guiragossian works to the Istanbul Biennial last year, as part of a retrospective about the late painter.

The collector believes that Middle Easterners are starting to appreciate homegrown art. “Arabs understand the importance of art and of being surrounded by amazing pieces,” Karabajakian says. “Art is improving their lives and making them happier.”

A version of this article appeared in print in Selections, The Collectors Issue #38, pages 86-91.