Saleh Barakat is a Beirut-based gallerist who specializes in modern and contemporary art from the Arab world. He founded Agial Art Gallery (1991) and Saleh Barakat Gallery (2016) where he hosts an extensive program of exhibitions and events. He has also curated exhibitions elsewhere, including The Road to Peace (2009) at the Beirut Art Centre, retrospectives of Saloua Raouda Choucair (2013), Michel Basbous (2014) and Jean Boghossian (2015) at the Beirut Exhibition Centre, and he co-curated the first national pavilion for Lebanon at the 52nd Venice Biennale, as well as the itinerant exhibition Mediterranean Crossroads, in collaboration the Italian ministry of foreign affairs and Shafic Abboud (2013). He has lectured at Princeton University, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the British Museum and Christie’s Education in Dubai, and ne currently lectures in ALBA and USJ in Beirut. He served on the steering committee of the Arts Centre at the American University of Beirut, and on the founding committee of the Saradar Collection. He has been a board member of the National UNESCO since 2015 and currently serves on the advisory board of the School of Architecture and Design at the Lebanese American University. In 2006, he was nominated as a Yale World Fellow.
In a nod to the world’s hottest storytelling platform – Pecha Kucha or “show and tell” – Selections has asked a number of artists and designers to talk about a specific project through imagery and an economy of words. The result is a simple yet engaging and visually captivating tale that sheds light upon the work whilst providing insights into the life and personal thoughts of each featured artist and designer. Passion and knowledge all wrapped into one.
This list of accomplishments reflects 11 proud episodes from my three-decade-long career where Lebanese or Arab art reached a milestone. My selection highlights events that I believe have contributed to the ongoing struggle for the representation of art from the Arab World globally. Each of these events emblematises the work of resistance by which I continue to define my role as an Arab cultural practitioner.
Looking back onto the last 30 years of my involvement in art and culture, the first distinguished moment of my professional life was the inauguration of Agial in 1991. At a time when very few art galleries were operating in Beirut, opening a cultural space dedicated to the promotion of art from the Arab World was a very proud moment.
At the height of the reconstruction project of Downtown Beirut, there were plans to restore the Martyrs’ Statue to its original condition. I refuted the idea and instead spearheaded a project to conserve it in its existing war-torn state, so that it could retain the damage it suffered during the war as a trace of the memory of the city.
Sommet de la Francophonie
In 2001, I was invited to co-curate the artistic programme of the ninth Francophonie Summit in Beirut. Right after September 11, 2001, it was a huge feat to shed light, through Ateliers Arabes at the UNESCO Palace, on the most prominent Francophone Arab artists at a time when it was far more common to bring foreign artists to such major international events. The ninth Sommet de la Francophonie was being hosted at the UNESCO Palace in Beirut, where 65 nation-state representatives from around the world were in attendance. I was invited along with Mona Atassi to co-curate the artistic programme for this event. We brought together works by Arab artists who had strong ties to the Francophonie, including Shafic Abboud, Ahmed Abdel Al, Youssef Abdelki, Yvette Ashkar, Kamal Boullata, Adel El-Siwi, Rachid Koraichi, and Hassan Moussa, among many others. It was a huge feat to expose prominent, yet still by then little-known, Arab artists to the world at a time when it was far more common to bring foreign artists to such major international events.
World Bank Summit
In 2003, I was invited to curate the artistic programme of the World Bank Summit in Dubai. It was a great responsibility, but it was also highly rewarding to put on an exhibition of major artists from the region for an international audience when interest in cultural production from the Middle East was rare. I made it a point to include artists from (nearly) every country in the Arab World.
Yale World Fellow
I was the first Arab from the world of art and culture to be nominated as a Yale World Fellow. I was granted this prestigious fellowship in 2006, and it allowed me to continue my promotion of Arab art but in the context of an Ivy League university, which opened the doors to a wide international and academic network.
We were barely emerging out of the devastating war of July 2006 when I co-curated the very first national pavilion of Lebanon at the 52nd Venice Biennale in 2007. The pavilion presented an opportunity to show the world the resilience of Lebanese artists – they were at the forefront of the global avant-garde in spite of the fact that their country was completely destroyed. I believe it paved the way for other Arab countries to sponsor their national pavilions in this premiere international event.
In 2008, I opened MAQAM gallery (not to be confused with MACAM Museum in Alita), a space that I dedicated entirely to the promotion of modern Lebanese art. It was intended to be part of a larger project to create a Quartier des Arts in the Saifi district of Beirut. This quartier was to include 20 galleries of art and design, which shared parallel programmes and a common newsletter. I ran MAQAM for three years before shutting it down – the project of the Quartier des Arts never took off as the country was still suffering from the deleterious effects of the assassination of prime minister Rafik Hariri.
Road to Peace, Beirut Art Centre
The year that Beirut Art Centre opened in 2009, I curated a seminal exhibition of the art produced during the period of the Civil War between 1975 and 1990. I included monumental works by artists such as Abdel Hamid Baalbaki. It was a topic that had not been explored on this large scale, and it was such a success that it was covered by the New York Times, which was a first for Lebanese art in this international publication.
Saloua Raouda Choucair Retrospective at Tate London
It was an incredibly proud moment for me to witness Saloua Raouda Choucair’s retrospective at Tate Modern London in 2012. It was the very first exhibition to be held for an Arab artist in a major western institution. For the 20 preceding years, I had been one of very few people who believed in her and defended her work.
I showed the erotic work of Huguette Caland at Frieze Masters in 2014 after having presented Aref el-Rayess in 2013. In both instances, I was overjoyed to see the work of Lebanese artists exhibited along masters such as Raphael and Jerome Bosch. Caland’s exhibition in particular led to the snowballing of her international recognition after her major works at Frieze were acquired by the Centre Pompidou.
Saleh Barakat Gallery
In 2016, I opened Saleh Barakat Gallery. It was the result of 25 years of organic evolution and growth. The landmark space is on the grounds of what used to be Cinema Clemenceau in the pre-war period, and what was in the 1990s transformed into Masrah al-Madina. This 1,200-square-metre white cube, one of the largest in the Arab World, has been renovated to host large-scale exhibitions and retrospectives while staying true to its historical character.
A VERSION OF THIS ARTICLE APPEARED IN PRINT IN SELECTIONS, SHOW & TELL #51 PAGES 102-105.