Two of the three curators behind ART IN MOTION’s first public exhibition, Resistance and Persistence, discuss building bridges between Europe and the Middle East, and the role of art as a unifying force

This October, 24 Lebanese and international artists are set to transform Beirut’s Sanayeh Garden into an artistic spectacle the likes of which the city has never seen. Sculptures, installations, videos, conceptual art, design and performances will be choreographed within the theme Resistance and Persistence with the joint aims of reconciling a painful past and a chaotic present through art and identifying new points of reference in our turbulent times. This public exhibition marks the first project launched by ART IN MOTION, a non-profit organisation co-founded by Rania Tabbara and Rania Halawi, Lebanese art-world personalities.

Two of the exhibition’s three curators, Valerie Reinhold and Rania Tabbara, cross-interviewed each other exclusively for Selections.

Valerie Reinhold: Rania, how was ART IN MOTION born?
Rania Tabbara: Rania Halawi and I share a common vision about contemporary art and its critical role in our societies to raise awareness and create a cohesive force. We believe that art should not be a privilege given to a certain category of people who can afford it. It should be a right accessible to everyone.
That’s why, through various art events, exhibitions and performances, ART IN MOTION makes it possible to pave the way for exchange and encounters between people from various backgrounds and to strengthen the dialogue between Lebanon and the region.

VR: The goals are very ambitious!
RT: Indeed, Rania Halawi and I want to give Beirut what it deserves — to let it revive and shine through contemporary art and culture. Call us persistent! We are fortunate to have a great team, including Lina Ghotmeh and Sylvia Beder, and amazing sponsors like Banque du Liban, MTV, BB Energy, Université Antonine and private donors: they believe in us and in the importance of this project on a social, artistic and cultural level.

VR: Resistance and Persistence: why did you choose this theme?
RT: First of all, the theme relates to Sanayeh Garden itself. It was built following a plan for the modernisation of the city and turned the area into a new urban development centre in the 19th century. Adjacent to the garden, a school of arts and crafts and a hospital were built. Sanayeh means “creation” or “craft.” The garden, the hospital and school were celebrated as a triumph of man over nature.
After the attack that took the life of President René Moawad in November 1989, the authorities wanted to honour him and decided to give his name to Sanayeh Garden. In recent decades, the garden has become a symbol of resistance and solidarity. In 2014, after two years of renovation by the Azadea Foundation, a non-profit organisation, Sanayeh Garden reopened; trees were replanted, flowers blossomed, ideas began to circulate again. It regained its initial function as a forum of dialogue and communication.
I also chose this place to honour my dad, Ahmad Tabbara, who gave all kinds of support to this garden throughout his life. I decided to give back to him, but to do it my way, through art.

VR: You also told me about a song —
RT: You may laugh, but I was also inspired by a song by France Gall called Resist. This song is about life. It tells me that life is mainly about joy, continuity and persistence, without always showing the pain.

VR: Is that the quality you were looking for in the artists you invited?
RT: Yes, I guess so, in a way. Some choices were obvious, like Ziad Antar and Marwan Rechmaoui: their body of work is all about our theme and they are also key Lebanese artists on the international art scene. Mustafa Ali investigates the fragility of mankind and Houmam Al Sayed speaks about revolt. Lutfi Ruhmein brings a positive energy to the exhibition and Chaouki Choukini a degree of spirituality.
We also selected other works from prominent and upcoming MENA artists to show different generations of artists whose works investigate the theme in a very complementary way.
It was also important to have artists from the whole region to outline the diversity and richness of our culture. We are very grateful to have this amazing artistic network here in Beirut, such as Ghiath Machnok, Agial Gallery and Galerie Tanit, who willingly lent us works from many of the artists we were very keen on having!

RT: How did you select the artists from Europe?
VR: The reason you and Rania Halawi invited me as the co-curator was to engage in a dialogue between European artists and MENA artists, as well as visitors, with one rule: the artworks would have to be produced in Lebanon. I selected artists whose investigations are complementary and who work with very different media.
Cathy Weyders talks about survival, and to some extent about the issue of displacement. Yok Yok incorporates news in their work and manages to merge different cultures so that the most delicate shelter lures us and creates a safe haven. Karine Debouzie explores the relationship between humans and their environment, and the tensions, the resistance and the persistence of both. Ada Yu confronts us with ourselves in her delirious installations, where the only way out seems to be the way up: peace of mind, despite a chaotic world. Vika Kova’s video installation pays tribute to Lebanese women. Hanaa Malallah counts as British, but tough — she is also a MENA artist: she talks about the relationship between neoliberal capitalism, consumption and waste production, referencing Beirut’s recent environmental and public health crisis. All of the artists’ works seemed to relate to an aspect of the theme Resistance and Persistence.
This year, we are very proud to have the support of one of Lebanon’s most prominent collectors, Samir Abillama, who kindly lent us works by Xavier Veilhan, Thomas Houseago and Xander Spronken. This adds, in my opinion, another dimension and level to the exhibition. It would have been impossible for them to produce work specifically for the exhibition, so the rule didn’t apply.

VR: What is the expected outcome and impact of the exhibition?
RT: I think that this first exhibition, accessible to all, will be a true surprise, and that people will see and accept that there is a change in motion in our city. The exhibition is not only about reuniting different societies and cultures; it is also about individuals questioning and integrating their beliefs in this complex socio-economical region, so as to be able to have dialogue and understanding. I believe that this is an important step, and such established and emerging artists are able to give us a platform from which we can move forward and establish art as a universal and unifying language.

VR: I really hope the project will foster exchange and dialogue between the participants and the public. I think that the scenography by Lina Ghotmeh will increase the interaction between the public and the artworks and trigger discussions, questions and debates.
The whole project has been an eye-opener for me, about Lebanese and MENA culture and the transformation of societies, as well as the incredible diversity of the region. I have also learnt so much about the local history, mentalities and customs. I expect European artists to learn as much and come back home as messengers: it is time Europe learns more about the MENA region!

VR: How do you see ART IN MOTION in 10 years?
RT: We know that ART IN MOTION will act as a changing force, be it artistic, individual, social or political. It will create a movement that will raise awareness of connectivity between all people. We believe in the power of art to make this world a better place.

VR: I see ART IN MOTION as a driving force to promote art to a broad audience, and MENA culture abroad. It is as much social as artistic, and that’s what makes it so important. We need more initiatives of this kind in the world.

ART IN MOTION’s first public exhibition, Resistance and Persistence,
will be on show at René Moawad Garden in Sanayeh from October 5 to 12

by Valerie Reinhold and Rania Tabbara

A version of this article appeared in print in Selections, The Collectors Issue #38, pages 98-99.