This exhibition marks Lebanon's inaugural participation in the Venice Biennale. Because Lebanon is joining the biennale's national pavilions 112 years into the history of the event - late in the game, as it were - and because it is doing so at a time of grave political crisis in the country - when the concept of the nation has once again been called rather roughly, even violently into question - this exhibition does not seek to represent Lebanon by showcasing a single Lebanese artist but rather attempts to probe the intimacy of lived experience by bringing together five artists from Lebanon.
Lebanon's induction to the Venice Biennale was conceived by a group of individuals with the official support - but without the financial support - of the Lebanese government. This exhibition has been made possible, in lieu of public funds, by private donations from members of the Lebanese community itself. As such, it shows the country's cultural life very much as it is - improvisational but vital, unusually organized but determined nonetheless. A cogent, critical contemporary art scene has been developing in Beirut for the past decade or more through similar such efforts. And, in fact, the lack of state support for the arts is liberating in the sense that artists, curators, dealers and more tend to operate without political interference. The same can be said for Lebanon's first outing at Venice.
The theme of this exhibition is meant to be taken loosely and encompasses a number of artistic practices - personal narratives, acts of bearing witness, collecting testimonies, and cutting through the skin of political turmoil and historical events to hit the bone of intimate expression. This collective exhibition is fitting, given Lebanon's reputation, clichéd as it may be, as a mosaic, a country of coexistence, a hothouse of multiple communities living together in a tangled mix of languages and religions. Indeed, the artists commissioned for the Lebanese pavilion come from different backgrounds, work in different media, and are at varying stages of their respective careers, from emerging to established. More than that, however, they are all, each in their own fashion, questioning the formation and experience of self, individualism, and citizenship in ways that are illuminating well beyond Lebanon's borders. They are doing so while sitting atop one of the world's most protracted political conflicts, at a time when the Lebanese "polity," itself vague and ill-defined, is shot through with the speed of global capital but at the same time taken by the romanticized possibility of true, meaningful resistance.
What goes on in the lives of those buried beneath news headlines that speak of war, ceasefire, strife, stalemate, and inevitable showdown? What occupies the minds of those who find themselves bereft in a widening gap between opposing "sides"? Where is the break between public and private experience? What does it mean to be the subject of a nation or the representative of a state in the early 21st century, anyway, and particularly at a time when those notions of nation and state are open to ever more considerable debate, and in a context where it is not at all certain that a small, tumultuous country like Lebanon currently has any capacity to claim, celebrate, or even speak for its artists? How does one find a beginning, a starting point, for the story one wants to tell? This exhibition in the first-ever Pavilion of Lebanon presents five distinct yet related bodies of work that mark different attempts to answer a similar set of questions - all of which revolve around a more general query, where to begin?
Parallel to the exhibition are projections on the mezzanine level, which pull together a collection of works in video that have been created in Lebanon over the past fifteen years. An opportunity to throw open the theme of personal testimonies, lived experience, and intimate narrative even further, these videos themselves bear witness to the cultural vitality that remains at play in Lebanon despite prevailing conditions that would seem to suggest otherwise.
Saleh Barakat is an art expert based in Beirut specializing in the contemporary art of the Arab world. He has curated several pan-Arab exhibitions (Ateliers Arabes for the IX Francophonie Summet, Arabian Canvas for the World Bank Summit). He has written many articles in his specialty for books and journals, and coauthored a book on contemporary Lebanese art commissioned by the Arab League Education, Culture and Sciences Committee. Projects he has initiated for the preservation of 20th century art of the Arab world include Agial (1991) and Maqam (2006), specialized institutions for the beginning of images in the Levant area since 1870. He is a founding member of Kinda Foundation (2000), specializing in the promotion of the contemporary Arab art (with special focus on the 1950/1960 period) and the American University of Beirut Art Center (2001). He was nominated as Yale World Fellow in 2006.
For the past seven years curator and cultural organizer Sandra Dagher has played a leading role in developing the Lebanese artistic scene, uncovering local talent and promoting Lebanese artists.
In 2000 she opened the prominent artistic and cultural space Espace SD in the heart of Beirut to serve as a living, dynamic reflection of the Lebanese scene. Since that time Espace SD has exhibited local artists across multiple mediums including the plastic arts, literature, music, dance, audio-visual art, theatre, fashion and design.
During her years in charge of Espace SD, Dagher curated over 100 exhibitions.
She is currently involved in establishing a non-profit public space and platform in Beirut for contemporary art. At the same time she is planning several projects in and outside Lebanon to promote the country's cultural and arts scene.