By Saleh Barakat
I first met Ayman in his student days when he came to the gallery. Before he even graduated and became a professional painter I used to see his paintings and buy some of them. Around 2001, when he was a young Lebanese University art graduate looking to do a PhD in art and 3D space in Paris, he showed me a series of works that I was immediately taken with. I told him that I would purchase them and sell them so he could finance his trip, as his parents weren’t able to do so at that point in time.
Our relationship grew slowly and organically over time. After two shows together, Ayman was one of the reasons why I wanted to have a big gallery, so that I could show his large works and give him the importance that he deserves. He and Nabil Nahas to a certain extent were the biggest drivers of my ambition for a larger space. Of course, the big gallery was meant to happen because Ayman had this enormous capacity to create mega paintings that were impossible to show in a smaller gallery. We also needed the space and the dream of being able to create an installation rather than a painting exhibition, to give a complete effect.
It was a very friendly relationship from the beginning. It grew from somebody I had met as a young university student wanting to pursue his postgraduate studies to becoming more of a friend and, today, I still enjoy listening to his political ideas. His political engagement was apparent very early in his life. Born into a family of artists – his father and uncle are the well-known modernists painters Fawzi and Abdelhamid Baalbaki – it seemed that his becoming an artist was just a matter of destiny and time. Since his professional career began, he never compromised on his ideas, on his multidisciplinary practice, or on his drive for perfection. Erudite and highly experimental, he continues to explore his fascination with the human condition. Although he is eight years younger than me, I have always enjoyed his acute, thorough and revelatory views on international politics and their relation to local and regional dilemmas. He expresses the essence of “glocality” as a citizen in tune with globalism while firmly rooted in his locality.
He achieved early success with his portraits featuring the kuffiyah, which evoked the eternal rebel in him. Later he went on to develop the “ruinform”, an icon of buildings in ruin, following the 2006 Israeli war on Lebanon. The total devastation of his childhood neighbourhood, including his family house, in the Beirut suburbs, instigated in him the desire to paint his people’s own “apocalypse”, as if cursed to live through one tragedy after another, in a Sisyphean cycle of destruction without end. When he later moved into sculpture, he remained unsatisfied for years until he achieved success with a body of sculptures where his touch seemed identical to his painterly brushstrokes, in spite of the difference in media. I have rarely encountered an artist whose practices of painting and sculpting are so perfectly intertwined.
He has recently found the fascinating capacity to transcend himself once again in his new artwork, “Janus Gate”. It is a monumental effort at bringing together his numerous multidisciplinary skills, showcasing his facets of painter, sculptor, installation artist and conceptual artist all in one piece and in the service of his political aims. I have watched this work develop over the course of two years from scratch. It began as an idea for an exhibition that we wanted to do in this gallery with laundry coming down from the high ceiling. It started in bits and pieces and then it became this proposal for the Venice Biennale, and it suddenly made sense. So, instead of doing one big exhibition of different pieces we did one big piece that became the exhibition.
For me, Ayman is the artist who is the most engaged with his city, but he is also working on a human level, showing all the things that are happening in the world today, because Lebanon is an eccentric place, akin to a small laboratory where you can see, in an exaggerated way, what will happen everywhere else. The multimedia installation “Janus Gate” is a metaphor for our own world today, where we are living a schizophrenic existence between false promises and the bitter reality on all levels. It shows the failure of the political establishment that became a form of bureaucracy only feeding itself and no longer acting in the service of the citizen. The world is collapsing, the gap between rich and poor is widening, nature’s ecosystem is being abused, global warming is reaching its tipping point of no return; the planet is slowly turning into a total wreck, exactly like Ayman’s post-apocalyptic structure. It’s never too late to be conscious of the necessity to close this metaphoric Gate of Janus, to reject the politics of wars, theft and greed, and work together to make our world a better one.
When this mega-installation will be displayed at the Lebanese pavilion in the Arsenale for the upcoming edition of the Venice Biennale, it will allow the international art public to discover anew the “enfant terrible” of the Beirut art scene and his exceptional genius. I am one of those people who has infinite belief in the capacity of Ayman Baalbaki. Ayman is huge and monumental in what he can do but the country is not up to his level. We don’t have big institutions and usually you have to work according to the limitations of the country you are in, but this is not something I would push Ayman to do. I tell him to do whatever he dreams of doing and we will manage to adapt.
I feel privileged to have accompanied Ayman throughout the past 25 years and to have witnessed his evolution towards stardom. Beyond his artistic career, I have known Ayman the human being and the loyal friend. He has an unparalleled generosity towards his colleagues, especially in times of hardships, and is always present for unconditional yet subtle – and at times, tacit – support. As a handsome man, with a stylised dress code including a personalised turban, he impresses in his appearance as much as in his culture and stately wisdom. His friendship is beyond priceless.
Saleh Barakat is a Beirutbased gallerist who specialises 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 with Martina Corgnati and 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.
A VERSION OF THIS ARTICLE APPEARED IN PRINT IN SELECTIONS #58 BEING AYMAN BAALBAKI