The Reopening of the Nicolas Ibrahim Sursock Museum, Beirut
After almost three years of forced closure, a beacon of art and culture in Beirut is set to illuminate the city once again. The Nicolas Ibrahim Sursock Museum, known for its rich history and profound artistic contributions, is preparing to open its doors to the public on May 26, 2023.
This long-awaited moment marks a significant milestone for the museum, and the anticipation surrounding its reopening is palpable. As the excitement builds, Selections had the privilege of sitting down with the museum’s newly appointed Director, Karina El Helou. In this exclusive interview, we delve into the mind of this visionary leader, exploring her passion for art, her aspirations for the museum, and the transformative journey that lies ahead.
Join us as we embark on a captivating exploration of art, culture, and the remarkable renaissance of the Nicolas Ibrahim Sursock Museum under the guidance of Karina El Helou.
Rima Nasser: Karina, we are very excited about the reopening of the museum this week. You have been appointed as director at the Sursock Museum as of October 4th, 2022. Tell us about how you landed on this job and what your first shows are.
Karina El Helou: What inspired me to take the role of director of Sursock Museum was primarily the desire to be part of a movement following such a traumatic event on August 4th, 2020, and to contribute to the rebuilding process. It’s a healing process to be involved and stand alongside the people of my community.
The first exhibition had already been commissioned by Zeina Arida, the previous director of the Museum. Je Suis Inculte ! The Salon d’Automne and the National Canon is focused on the permanent collection, curated by Natasha Gasparian and Ziad Kiblawi.
Then curator Marie-Nour Hechaime worked on the contemporary art exhibition, Earthly Praxis with works by Marwa Arsanios, Ahmad Ghossein, and Sabine Saba.
Given the challenging period, I felt it was necessary to showcase the Museum’s history and tell its story, after such a difficult period. It’s a beautiful tale of resilience in a country that has faced numerous trials and tribulations. The idea of Beyond Ruptures, A tentative chronology came from there.
With Ejecta, I felt the need to re-explore the empty halls restored through an audio-visual installation, representing our collective experiences as a symbolic gesture to showcase the Sursock Museum’s rebirth. It symbolises the renaissance of art and the Museum, getting back on track after the explosion we experienced.
RN: What are your goals and visions for the Museum under your leadership and are you planning to have collaborations and partnerships with other institutions?
KH: Given its 60-year history, it is crucial to maintain continuity while adapting to the present reality of Lebanon. Reinforcing the educational aspect is paramount to me, with a focus on internships, fellowships, and research programs. The Sursock Museum possesses abundant resources that we can share with more students and universities. Additionally, we aim to delve deeper into research on Lebanese modern and contemporary art and emphasise solo exhibitions in our programming.
It’s too early to talk about any collaborations with other institutions at the moment but we have a few projects in the pipeline.
RN: In what ways will the museum serve as a platform for showcasing and supporting local and emerging artists?
KH: The Museum’s Twin Galleries will exhibit works by young emerging artists. Our public programs will also play a significant role, along with the Esplanade, where we can showcase performance art. We aim to develop artist and researcher residencies, allowing them access to our resources, collection, photographic archives, and more. These are the three main programs we have in mind.
RN: Are the residencies intended for Lebanese or foreign artists?
KH: The residencies primarily target Lebanese artists, enabling them to delve into thematic research, topics, and the Fouad Debbas collection. We aim to foster dialogue between the Fouad Debbas collection and photography through commissioned works.
RN: Are you planning on expanding the Artworks collection of the Museum?
KH: Starting from 2025, we do plan to acquire artworks by Lebanese artists. Expanding the collection is part of the museum’s support for the contemporary art scene.
RN: Could you elaborate on the chronologies explored in the exhibition Beyond Ruptures, A Tentative Chronology? The Sursock Museum history, its exhibitions, and the significant local socio-political events? How do these intersect with the artistic production of the country?
KH: The exhibition Beyond Ruptures, A Tentative Chronology comprises three chronologies: the museum’s history, the artists’ history, and the impact of local socio-political events.
It aims to dispel the notion that art is an elitist bubble and instead emphasises that artists are citizens who have experienced what their fellow citizens have endured. Artists like Samia Osseiran created works reflecting the Qana massacre, Said Akl had his work destroyed during the Damour massacre, and Akram Zaatari took photographs of the Israeli army during their invasion of the South.
These events have shaped and impacted the artists. Our museum, being at the heart of these events, endured significant challenges. It was crucial to demonstrate that the museum and its artists are an integral part of the Lebanese community. We also remember individuals like the galerist Samia Tutunji, who was killed in the 80’s, and others who underwent painful experiences, such as Samir Khaddaje, and Jean Khalife, who was held hostage in his studio. Paul Guiragossian’s work was exhibited despite being damaged by a bomb shelling, and the accompanying video showcase the artist’s immense courage. As a visitor, witnessing these stories, provides strength and reminds us not to take the art world for granted.
RN: The exhibition highlights six interruptions in the museum’s existence. Could you provide more details about these interruptions and their impact on the museum’s development?
KH: When we talk about interruptions, it’s important to note that not all interruptions are negative. In fact, there have been a few positive interruptions in the history of our museum.
The first significant disruption occurred when Camille Chamoun changed the decree regarding Nicolas Sursock’s will and repurposed it as a Palais des Hôtes. Our museum can still be considered as one of the earliest modern museums in the world, for example the Modern art Museum in Paris only dates back to 1947. Although the Sursock Museum was originally intended to open in 1952, it finally opened its doors in 1961, nearly ten years later. The Museum holds a unique avant-garde position, especially when considering the context of the 1960s. Comparing the different timelines, our museum’s establishment was truly ground-breaking.
The second interruption was related to architect Gregoire Serof’s extension works in 1974. The Museum’s committee decided that the building was still considered a villa and not yet fully adapted as a museum. Thus, it underwent extensive renovations for four years, during which it remained closed. Eventually, it reopened with additional exhibition halls, but shortly after, the Civil War broke out. This marked the longest period during which the museum didn’t hold any exhibitions. It operated sporadically, opening, and closing, not functioning consistently like it did in the 1960s, which saw a plethora of exhibitions between 1961 and 1970. After the war, the Sursock Museum reopened in 1982 but closed again in 1989 until 1991.
The Museum finally returned to normalcy in 1991 until 2007, when building expansion works began. Although this expansion marked a positive change, it is worth noting that the museum was absent from the art scene for seven years, which was a period of considerable growth for other institutions. The Museum’s reopening only lasted five years, highlighting the fluctuating nature of its operations. When observing the timeline, one can truly grasp the frequent shifts between moments of hope and expansion and moments of closure due to war or legal issues. This concept of ruptures in the artists’ experiences and the chronological significance is an intriguing aspect to explore through the timeline, artists from different generations, such as Akram Zaatari and Paul Guiragossian or Nesrine Khodr and Laure Ghorayeb, can be connected.
RN: Ashraf Osman is credited as the researcher and writer of the timeline; can you discuss the research process involved and how the timeline was constructed to provide a comprehensive historical account?
KH: The timeline, which encompasses the various ruptures, periods of opening and closing and other non-rupture periods, was assigned to Osman, a PHd candidate and researcher from the Orient Institute – Beirut. He conducted research in the Sursock Museum archives for his own Ph.D. study. Given his expertise and ongoing research, it was only fitting that he writes the timeline. Osman collaborated with our archivist, Rowina Bou Harb, and produced an extensive research document.
RN: As a curator, what do you hope viewers will take away from the exhibition, beyond the understanding of ruptures, chronology, and the impact it has on the appreciation and understanding of artistic production and cultural resistance in Lebanon?
KH: I want viewers to reflect on our history, recognising that creativity and productivity can be challenging amidst difficult circumstances. We should celebrate the resilient artists who continue to produce and contribute to our society. The exhibition aims to reveal the incredible human resources present in Lebanon’s rich society.
The timeline might appear painful, given the numerous challenges faced, but it is a testament to the remarkable art that emerges from these circumstances. It is crucial for visitors to grasp the dichotomy and contradictions within our art world.
The Reopening of the Nicolas Ibrahim Sursock Museum
Duration: May 26, 2023