Academic journal article
By Dagher, Sandra; David, Catherine; Salti, Rasha; Tohme, Christine
Art Journal , Vol. 66, No. 2
The following roundtable conversation, conducted via e-mail during November 2006, assembles a group of curators to consider the stakes and conditions of the national and international exhibition of Beirut-based practices. The participants all bear hands-on experience working in Lebanon and enter into dialogue from unique perspectives: Sandra Dagher, who directed the gallery Espace SD for seven years, is developing a new nonprofit contemporary art space in Beirut and, with Saleh Barakat, is organizing the first Lebanese pavilion at the Venice Biennale (2007); Catherine David, artistic director of Documenta X, is the organizer of the longterm project Contemporary Arab Representations. Rasha Salti, an independent curator and freelance writer based in Beirut and New York, oversees New York's CinemaEast Film Festival; and Christine Tohme directs the Beirut-based Ashkal Alwan (Lebanese Association for Plastic Arts) , which, among its many activities, organizes Home Works, a semiannual series of symposia and exhibitions inaugurated in 2002 and dedicated to Middle Eastern cultural practices.
Since 1975, Lebanon has suffered through a decade and a half of civil war and encountered innumerable crippling setbacks-notabtly the devastating bombing campaign waged by Israel during summer 2006-on its path to a nevertheless startling, if ever- fragile postwar recovery. What becomes clear in the course of the following exchanges is that Beirut's artistic culture, despite the unfavorable odds, has struggled to fulfill its aspirations of creative expression, thoughtful commemoration, and intellectual rigor and honesty. Facilitated by a few ambitious curators and a handful of energetic institutions, cultural production in Beirut is ever vibrant and terribly relevant-no doubt because, as Dagher, David, Salti, and Tohme make clear, it proposes an arena in which the conflicts that beset the city can be addressed at the level of representation, as objects of critical analysis and creative experimentation. Distant though it may be geographically from European and American cultural capitals, Beirut nevertheless emerges here as fully central to the most pressing questions-political, aesthetic, ethical, institutional-that animate artistic and curatorial practices today. - T J. Demos
T.J. Demos: Beirut has undergone massive economic development and cultural growth since the 1990 signing of the Taif accords brought an end, if precarious, to fifteen years of civil war. With the Israeli military campaign during the summer of 2006, Lebanon has suffered destruction on a massive scale, throwing the country into a condition of crisis not seen for a decade and a half. Riven by sectarianism, its infrastructure massively degraded and class divisions starkly apparent, Lebanon is now precariously positioned between competing international pressures from Iran, Syria, the United States, and Israel, with no easy resolution in sight. Given this regression and the resulting political instability, what is the situation of curatorial practice in Beirut today? What do you see as the current challenges and imperatives of curating art in Lebanon in this period of crisis?
Sandra Dagher: It is true that Lebanon has undergone both economic and cultural growth since 1990, but it has not been a stable evolution. The country has never enjoyed peace. Although the heavy fighting may have ended in 1990, during the past sixteen years Lebanon has lived through successive states of tension at different levels (Israeli and Syrian occupation, Israeli attacks, the assassination of political figures) . Of course the Israeli military campaign last summer created even more tension. But the political insecurities and the sectarian divisions were already there and never resolved. So the question would be how to deal with art and curatorial practices in a country that lives in constant change and regular insecurity, where you often live in the present and can rarely anticipate the years to come. …