CALIFORNIA- The blast in the Beirut port this August was recorded as being felt from 150 miles away but in truth, the blast was felt by the millions of Lebanese diaspora across the globe. It has moved the art community to action, inciting fundraisers ranging from mask sales to online performances all in the name of helping Beirut.

Christine Safa, Les Cyprès de Mar Mitr III, Oil on Canvas, 18x12x4 cm, 2020.

artmejo reached out to the two women who joined forces to help Beirut by raising funds through an online art auction Saria Sakka and Natasha Arselan. Sakka, a Syrian-Lebanese transplant born and raised in London, was quick to respond when she learned the area hit would have devastating impacts on the artists and creatives in Lebanon. She felt a sense of duty to help preserve the Lebanese creative spirit that inspired her and found Natasha Arselan, founder and CEO of AucArt, to collaborate on this effort. AucArt is an auction house that began in 2017 specializing in graduate art but has since added more established names to its collection and exhibitions. Sakka and AucArt created Beirut Ma Betmout or Beirut Never Dies, an online auction highlighting Lebanese artists and their connection to Lebanon. Themes explore the cultural, social, and historical fabric of Lebanon, according to the exhibition description. Part of the proceeds from the exhibition will be donated to Impact Lebanon, a non-profit organization that brings the community together to pursue initiatives that deliver impact for Lebanon. 

Lara Tabet, Le Langage des Oiseaux, Untitled #3 (edition of 5), Archival Pigment Print, 54x84x1 cm, 2012

Sakka highlights nostalgia and memory as a recurring theme when speaking to the artists in the exhibition, “a longing, or critical investigation into the glamorous Lebanon of the ’60s and early 70’s” and simultaneously fatigue caused by “a life of instability”. With the effects of Covid-19, the ongoing protests, and the explosion it seems instability has become a perpetual part of life in Lebanon. What does this mean for the art keeping the stories and spirit of Lebanon alive? 

Karine Wehbe, Aug 1973 / Baalbek Blues 5, C-Print, 18x30x1 cm, 2009.

For Christine Safa, an artist featured in the exhibition, her art seeks to “eternalize memory and sensation of her experiences in Lebanon” through her paintings of the Lebanese landscapes that feel invincible against time and the persistent conflict. Lara Tabet, just one of the artists in the exhibition, sees the current instability in Lebanon as “a continuation of the postwar landscape” that does not change the stories her art tells but rather “only gives it the visibility of currentness, a visibility that I wished was there without it being triggered by a major traumatic event”. Tabet, who is a medical doctor and visual artist challenging the creation of memory and space, has several photographs in the online exhibition that blur public spaces and private bodies — specifically queer and naked bodies — within an aura of familiarity and ghostliness. These are photographs created from 2012 and 2016 and yet the story they tell about the spaces in Lebanon and the memory of its people continue to be pertinent in the frame of current events because of this postwar continuation she describes.

Sirine Fattouh, Arab Artist (Edition of 3), Neon on a Black Wooden Box, 50x169x4 cm, 2019.

Continuity in Lebanon is explored also through the Karine Wehbe series which features a couple kissing at various locations in 1973 – a period which Sakka describes as often being the period of nostalgia or “golden years”, held most closely by generations that experienced war. In many ways, the love in these photos has been reproduced in modern love stories and the spaces have remained, perhaps with signs of age or creation. What has changed between then and now is the context surrounding spatial memories. Sirine Fattouh shared that the relationship she has to her pieces in the exhibition from 2019 has changed because of the context of Lebanon’s current state, “Drawings I am exhibiting depict happy moments with my friends, I am not saying things will not improve, but for the moment, everything changed…Happy and carefree days seem far away”

Ayla Hibri, Friend 2, Ink and Watercolour on Tea Paper, 29.7x21x1 cm, 2020.
Alain Vassoyan, Funky Boy 1, Mixed Media on Fiberglass, 45x20x11 cm, 2017.

This is a common sentiment in Lebanon at the moment which makes artists all the more crucial. Sakka sees the role of artists as healers and community builders, “In the case of Lebanon, artists deliver perspective, community, healing, contemplation, and hope!”. Healing can come from separation from reality, as is the case for Ayla Hibris paintings of creatures that transport viewers to distant worlds and push our imagination with its vibrant use of color and distortion. Alain Vassoyan, an artist based in Lebanon, also uses imaginary colorful characters to explore love, war, and sexuality through fiberglass sculptures. Imagination will be key to building a stronger Beirut and these artists remind us of the limitless possibilities.

Alicia Jalloul, Englaland Forever, Linocut, hand embroidery and machine freehand embroidery on fabric, 114x45x1 cm, 2020.

Beirut Ma Betmout. Beirut never dies. The title of this exhibition could not be more fitting for a collection of pieces that challenge our understanding of Lebanon’s life in relation to our own. Alicia Jalloul and Tala Worrell explore their identity an Lebanese diaspora. Worrell uses her colorful and chaotic pieces to explore her identity, “what it means to be both an insider and an outsider” as a Lebanese American artist. Alicia Jalloul, based in the UK, defamiliarizes sayings and phrases to explore “paradoxical sensations of celebration, anxiety, and doubt within collective culture, multiculturalism and national identity”. Through these artists we see that Beirut lives in America, in the UK, and in all of the people who hold onto Beirut wherever they may be.

Tala Worrel, Kiss, Oil on Canvas, 101x76x4 cm, 2019.

AucArt’s Natasha Arselan attests to the ways art, exhibitions, and auctions bring together people globally, “I see the future of exhibitions and auctions continuing to bring people from all around the world together, offering insights into the worlds and lives of others – giving us the opportunity to enjoy, share, and collect art on a global scale.” Beirut Ma Betmout is one of the many important ways artists are participating in shaping Lebanon’s future. With eight incredible artists sharing what they understand to be their Lebanon, Beirut Ma Betmout exposes what is at stake is more than a port or a city – its the spirit of Beirut.