The Custodian: The Dalloul Art Foundation: A Legacy of Stewardship by Wafa Roz

RIMA NASSER: CAN YOU DESCRIBE THE CRITERIA YOU USE WHEN SELECTING RESEARCH PROJECTS AT THE DALLOUL ART FOUNDATION? WHAT FACTORS ARE CONSIDERED WHEN DECIDING WHICH PROJECTS TO SUPPORT?

Mohamed Melehi, Untitled, 2014. 180 x 170.5 cm DAF Beirut

WAFA ROZ: At DAF, our research selection criteria are meticulously crafted to resonate with the foundation’s overarching mission and strategic goals. Our primary focus is on the MENA region and the Arabian Peninsula, excluding Turkey and Iran.

We take the history of the artworks and their respective artists as a lens through which we can read the region’s complex history and the countries that comprise it. Preserving the artworks we house at DAF also means preserving their respective history and safeguarding the cultural heritage of the Arab region.

First, it is paramount to research the biographical details and exhibition histories of the artists whose works form part of the DAF collection. We carefully explore the themes, topics, and realities represented or narratives relayed by the artist in each piece while broadening our scope to the artist’s wider oeuvre. In doing so, we contribute to archiving the region’s history through its artistic productions.

Second, we carry out our process with the aim of educating and innovating. We target research projects that enhance the foundation’s educational goals. We envision multifaceted research projects that can be expanded into other forms of exposure.

For example, we recently launched a project investigating a wide selection of Untitled artworks available at DAF. In addition to researching the history of ‘picture titling’, we decided to mount an exhibition named UNTITLED Abstractions, featuring a selection of 154 abstract artworks from DAF, all of which are untitled.

We showcased different styles of abstract art from the Arab region, with the intention of understanding the importance of a title or the lack thereof. As an extension to the project, we organised a series of talks and discussions inviting scholars, researchers, young artists, and art lovers to explore abstract art from the Arab region.

This project provided a platform to debate, or to even challenge the visual language used to converse about art. In doing so, we focused on a critical issue that concerned educators of art history: “How do we analyse artworks?” and “How do we write a visual analysis (formal and contextual) of an artwork?” The answers are found in the pedagogical methods through which we ‘read’ artworks. DAF wanted to provide a space for innovative ways of reading art. After completing our research, we have written ‘visual analysis’ texts for more than 60 artworks featured at the UNTITLED Abstractions exhibition. We plan on expanding our visual analysis writing to cover all the untitled abstract works, and most titled artworks, that we house at DAF. In essence, this initiative captures the multifaceted mission we aim for at DAF.

Third, we take the feasibility of a research project into consideration, specifically when retrieving primary sources. For instance, we once discussed mounting an exhibition investigating the history of art salons across the region. We had to inquire about prized artworks presented during those salons. We suggested visiting institutions that hosted such salons in countries such as Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, and Egypt, in order to collect archival material. Due to its large-scale logistical and financial requirements, the project was deemed unfeasible, at least for the time being.

However, in other cases, we were able to work our way around some challenges related to location. In one of our projects, we studied artist practices by visiting their workshops and conducting filmed interviews. We then collected archival data that covered and contextualised their oeuvre. DAF reached out to Arab expat artists, mainly those residing in Europe, through videographers present in their respective countries, and we were able to film several artists working in their own studios. We conducted virtual interviews with them, from our DAF offices in Beirut through Zoom. This project, among many, remains in progress.

RN: RESEARCH IN THE ART WORLD CAN VARY WIDELY. WHAT SPECIFIC AREAS OR TOPICS DO YOU FOCUS ON AT THE FOUNDATION, AND WHY ARE THESE AREAS IMPORTANT?

Salem Al-Dabbagh, Untitled, 2015. 200 x 220 x 7 cm DAF Beirut

WR: As the foundation has expanded, our primary objective has been to establish a system to archive and produce well-researched academic publications on our vast collection of artworks.

It all starts with the artworks; they inspire our curiosity and compel us to understand them. We focus on topics that allow us to better articulate the direction of the collection. The DAF collection comprises of a historically comprehensive selection of Modern art covering 15 countries in the Arab world and a selection of bold, iconic Contemporary artworks that reflect current realities in the region. These carefully selected artworks are created by artists who are currently venturing into new mediums and techniques. This helps us better understand how our collection could grow, opening inroads that expand our field of vision when we decide to further acquire art from the Middle East, North Africa, and the Arabian Peninsula. We aim to grasp the zeitgeist of our time. As such, it is necessary to conduct research on topics addressed by Arab artists. We have a vast collection of politically charged artworks.

Our collection reflects recurrent themes that include identity, cultural heritage, colonialism and modernism, political movements, collective memory, loss, exile, migration, and displacement among others. The artworks present themes that discuss the elements of different art traditions such as Islamic art, calligraphy, and abstraction. At DAF we research art history in the Arab world, from Ancient to Classical, Modern, and Contemporary.

To do so, we have to be informed about the art of ancient civilisations like the Pharaonic, Mesopotamian (Sumerian, Babylonian, Assyrian), Canaanite, Roman, Greek, Byzantine, and Islamic art. We also extensively research art movements and groups established by artists from Iraq, Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia, Sudan, to name a few, during modern times spanning between the 1930s and 1970s. Such art movements uncovered the past, and artists sought out and contested national identities.

Here at DAF, we take all this into consideration when conducting our invasive and thorough research, with the intention of archiving art history.

RN: EXHIBITIONS PLAY A CRUCIAL ROLE IN SHOWCASING ART. CAN YOU SHARE INSIGHTS INTO HOW THE DALLOUL ART FOUNDATION PLANS AND CURATES ITS EXHIBITIONS?

Mahmoud Saïd, Le Port de Beyrouth, 1954. 58.5 x 69 cm DAF Beirut

WR: Our exhibitions are planned around our collection. We select and display artworks solely from the DAF collection. When discussing research project themes, we try to unpack the narratives and the historical events that the artworks themselves showcase. Our approach is guided by a thematic framework that helps us curate pieces that could, for instance, present coinciding historical narratives or challenge stereotypes about art from the region.

For example, the first ‘video exhibition’ we produced was titled Leads and Artistic Cues from the Arab World. This was my first exercise conducting in-depth research about the semiotics, signs, symbols, and iconic figures familiar to the visual lexicon of most Arab artists. I chose to curate a video

exhibition with the artworks physically mounted in our gallery spaces and conduct presentations around seminal and informative paintings. We hoped it would be a tour around the symbolic shapes and visual patterns common to our region. The ‘cues’ led the viewer through the exhibition, slowly unfolding the story behind each visual narrative. Artistic cues included the reduced shapes of a palm tree, the Hamsa hand, the evil eye, the crescent, the sun, an olive tree, a cactus, a dove, a rooster, and a headdress. They simultaneously reflect commonality and diversity in our region’s cultural heritages.

In essence, the DAF collection is at the heart of its exhibitions, providing viewers with an immersive journey through the rich tapestry of Arab artistic expression.

RN: WHAT QUALITIES DO YOU LOOK FOR IN CURATORS WHO COLLABORATE WITH THE FOUNDATION ON EXHIBITIONS? HOW DO YOU ENSURE THAT THE CURATORS ALIGN WITH THE FOUNDATION’S MISSION AND VISION?

WR: We ensure that the works we are loaning align with the curators’ thematic vision. We prefer to deal with reputable, well-informed curators who understand the region and the dynamics of its art scene. Prior to approving any loan request, we conduct several meetings with the curators to discuss their proposed themes and assess if their curatorial proposals are of interest to us. We must ensure that the exhibitions they mount are relevant to our region, and do not conflict with our ethical stances. DAF also encourages new and upcoming curators who propose innovative themes.

For instance, we worked with art historian and curator Mario Choueiri, who co-curated the exhibition Picasso et Les avant-gardes Arabes at IMA Tourcoing in 2022. The show drew parallels between Picasso’s artistic practice and that of many modern Arab artists. Besides showing the similarities in style between Picasso’s work and some of his Arab artist contemporaries, Choueiri explained that the show was an opportunity to highlight Arab artists who had been unjustly overshadowed. Moreover, the exhibition explored themes of emancipation and anti-colonialism while hoping for a better and just world. Indeed, the exhibition theme and the exploration of modern art styles resonated with DAF’s vision and objective.

There are numerous other examples, where we were happy to collaborate with curators organising exhibitions in the region. To list a few, I would include Sam Bardaouil and Till Fellrath, curators of the Beirut and its Golden Sixties exhibition, which toured from the Gropius Bau Museum in Berlin, Germany, to the Musée d’art Contemporain (MAC), in Lyon, France, and lastly to Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art in Doha, Qatar in 2022.

The show included 19 works on loan from DAF’s collection and a four-part docuseries Beirut: A Cultural Hub (1955- 1975), produced by DAF.

Another recent example is working with anthropologist and professor Kirsten Scheid, who curated the exhibition Partisans of the Nude, currently showing at the Wallach Gallery, Columbia University, in New York. The exhibition featured 12 seminal artworks on loan from DAF depicting Nudes. Moreover, we are collaborating with the curator of the Venice Biennale, Adriano Pedrosa, who visited us to select works from DAF.

RN: COULD YOU PROVIDE AN EXAMPLE OF AN EXHIBITION OR A PRODUCTION YOU WERE PARTICULARLY PROUD OF REGARDING ITS CURATION AND SUBJECT MATTER? WHAT MADE IT STAND OUT?

Jumana Bayazid El-Husseini, Untitled, 1970. 115 x 89.5 cm DAF Beirut

WR: There are two projects that come to mind. One was titled The Nude: Between Divinity, Sexuality, and Conflict, (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3), (Videos are available on the DAF Website www.dafbeirut.org) and the other is a docuseries film titled Beirut: A Cultural Hub. Both were by-products of the initial video exhibition we had worked on.

In the first collaboration, we aimed to challenge underlying assumptions about art across the region. I proposed to tackle the subject of nudity and nude art, which we saw our collection speak to. I wanted to tackle an issue that challenged preconceived assumptions. We looked into Modern and Contemporary artistic practices, from the Arab world, that included nudity. Surprisingly, we found more than 90 artworks at DAF addressing nudity and the Nude as a genre of art. As such, I decided to curate an exhibition focused on the notion of nudity and the Nude, titled The Nude: Between Divinity, Sexuality, and Conflict. The history of Nude art reflected the discourse of modernism in the 1930s and 1940s, in the Arab world. We learned and compared the symbolic nature of the nude figure in Classical, Modern, and Contemporary art practices. Working with the medium of video and film for this exhibition was very interesting and challenging. It transformed the viewing experience away from a physically special one, to becoming a mental and imaginative one that played with the factor of time. The format allowed you to integrate many elements simultaneously, including visuals, performance, text, sound, light, graphics, voice, and so on.

This experience encouraged us to venture into another project that I am very proud of. It was a four-part docuseries titled Beirut: A Cultural Hub (1955- 1975) featuring four characters: Cesar Nammour, Odile Mazloum, David Kurani & Mona Saudi. (Videos are available on the DAF Website- www.dafbeirut.org ) It shed light on the evolution of the art scene in Beirut during the 1950s and 1970s – that is, Beirut during what is often called Lebanon’s “golden era”. The series was based on DAF’s life-history interviews with actors that constituted the cultural hub. We planned to mount an exhibition on this subject in collaboration with the Sursock Museum. However, the collaboration never materialised due to the tragic August 4 blast in 2020. The Sursock Museum closed, and many left the country.

Biennale de Lyon

Later, in late 2021, we were approached by Sam Bardaouil and Till Fellrath, who were selecting artworks for their exhibition, Beirut and the Golden Sixties, for the Lyon Biennale of Contemporary Art: Manifesto of Fragility. They requested to borrow several works from the DAF collection to be showcased while asking us to propose a collaborative work for approval. I suggested we transform some of our filmed life-history interviews into a documentary series with narrative and archival footage.

On an academic level, I was delighted to curate a comprehensive exhibition on Modern art from the Arab world. The show was arranged chronologically within a time period that spanned from the 1910s to the 1970s. It featured 180 objects, including paintings, works on paper, and sculptures, created by Modernists from across the MENA region. The inspiration of this exhibition came in 2021, when Professor Kirsten Scheid requested to show her Anthropology and Art History students a selection of Modern art from the MENA region as part of her MENA: Modern art course that she was offering at AUB.

RN: RESEARCH OFTEN UNDERPINS THE CREATION OF EXHIBITIONS. COULD YOU DESCRIBE THE PARTICULARITIES OF THE RESEARCH CONDUCTED AT THE DALLOUL FOUNDATION THAT MAKE THE FOUNDATION UNIQUE?

WR: Our research is quite inspiring and our collection has a lot to say. Starting with a close look at the DAF collection, our pieces invite us to delve into the history and context they reflect. During our research, we unfold exciting topics that make us want to share with our audience. Given the collection’s diversity, we can amass a substantial selection of artworks that reflect nearly most of the topics addressed in the region.

WR: Yes. we are interested in further investigating digital art. Although the attention around digital art and NFT has subsided, nonetheless, the art market continues to explore the incorporation of digital art and blockchain into its activities. AI has created ripples in the art world, as well. There are different ways of using AI in art, such as in prompt art that generates images through text. In short, we are keen on experimenting with innovative trends and showcasing more of our contemporary art collection. With regard to different art forms, we would like to investigate street art, installation art, and public art.

RN: CAN YOU DISCUSS THE ROLE OF CROSS-CULTURAL AND INTERDISCIPLINARY RESEARCH IN THE FOUNDATION’S WORK? HOW DO YOU APPROACH RESEARCH THAT SPANS DIFFERENT ART FORMS AND CULTURES?

WR: Conducting cross-cultural research is necessary for us, given that most artists we house acquired their art education or trained in esteemed universities in the West. Some reside there due to exile or by choice. Notably, many Lebanese artists have migrated to the Gulf in the past three years. This diasporic movement of artists emphasises the importance of understanding influences, exchanges, and intersections within artistic creations. We conduct research on artistic productions that span across cultures and capture the growth of a global art ecosystem. One of the objectives of such research is to understand how artists borrow from other cultures and reshape or integrate various art traditions to comprise new contemporary productions we see today. Another objective is finding commonalities, across historical times, among styles and techniques, while contrasting how different cultural traditions have spoken to one another through varying art forms.

RN: WHAT KIND OF IMPACT DOES THE DALLOUL ART FOUNDATION AIM TO ACHIEVE THROUGH ITS RESEARCH AND EXHIBITION INITIATIVES WITHIN THE ART COMMUNITY AND SOCIETY?

WR: One of the primary and direct impacts of DAF’s work is education. We achieve this through knowledge production, innovative readings of artworks from the Arab world, and raising awareness about Arab art in the region. In addition, we find themes that challenge underlying assumptions on art from our region.

RN: AS THE HEAD OF RESEARCH, WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE ASPIRING RESEARCHERS OR CURATORS LOOKING TO MAKE A MEANINGFUL CONTRIBUTION TO THE ART WORLD?

WR: This may sound too poetic, but one should never forget to deal with artworks as canvases of history. We must use them to challenge dominant narratives or introduce nuance to existing ones. I always advocate digging deep into the world of the artist. It can be overwhelming sometimes. Yet, it will make you a better researcher, once you have learned more about their lives, struggles, their artistic production and, in turn, the times during which they lived and created art. I also recommend integrating primary sources such as newspaper clippings, memoirs, speeches, events, marches, images, and histories that these artworks encapsulate. This could also be complemented with excessive literature review and amassing secondary sources that would create a holistic understanding of the artist and their body of work.

RN: ARE THERE ANY UPCOMING EXHIBITIONS OR RESEARCH PROJECTS AT THE DALLOUL ART FOUNDATION THAT YOU’RE EXCITED TO SHARE OR THAT THE AUDIENCE SHOULD LOOK FORWARD TO?

WR: We plan on showcasing a few of our latest Contemporary art acquisitions, featuring artworks by young, promising artists as well as works by artists from the Gulf and KSA. Regarding research projects, we intend to explore the art history of the Gulf and the Arabian Peninsula. Exploration of these areas is pivotal, given that they are important emerging art markets.

In addition, we are interested in learning about Palestinian embroidery and how it relates to mapping identities. It might sound like an already-covered topic;

however, we see potential in it. DAF has many artworks related to this theme. Collaborating with private initiatives focusing on the history of Palestinian embroidery is on our agenda.

I am also looking into carrying out a research project aimed at understanding the diverse ethnic groups within the Arab world. This will be conducted with the intent of detecting how traditions, customs, and material culture is embedded in the art practices of artists from similar ethnic groups.

RN: I UNDERSTAND THAT THERE IS A DOCUSERIES CURRENTLY IN PRODUCTION FEATURING DR. BASEL DALLOUL. CAN YOU TELL US MORE ABOUT THIS SERIES AND HOW IT AIMS TO ENGAGE WITH ARTISTS TO ADDRESS THE ISSUE OF SOFT POWER? WHAT CAN VIEWERS EXPECT FROM THIS SERIES IN TERMS OF ITS APPROACH AND IMPACT ON THE ART COMMUNITY AND BEYOND?

WR: We are working on an ongoing docuseries that aims to investigate the impact of art, namely visual art from the Arab world. Our goal is to highlight “art as a form of soft power” – a tool that can shape human consciousness. Art, as such, allows both powerful and underprivileged nations or peoples to reserve a place for themselves on the world’s cultural map. Via artistic

expression, knowledge is disseminated, and contemporary realities are explored. Through this project, we are looking at the art ecosystem and its key players as an instrument of socio-political criticism and commentary.

I do not want to disclose too much about the project to leave something to the imagination. But it is a promising one.

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