Seeking to end 2020 on a more positive note, Dar El-Nimer is offering their first full exhibition of the year, “Cabinet of Curiosities: Ultimate Un-necessities,” which blends nostalgia, wonder and an inquisitive spirit.
Gathering 250 items from around the world – mostly from the personal collection of Dar founder Rami El-Nimer – the show’s exhibits range from the macabre to the marvelous with objects dating from the 1700s to present day.
“After the year we’ve had, people are sad and are not at all interested in heavy stuff, the same thing over and over again: Art showing the disaster,” Nimer told The Daily Star. “There are pieces of art, but at the same time there are curiosities, which will make people smile.
“Maybe they’ve seen some of the things in their grandparents’ house and awake the child in them,” he added. “Many people collect things and not everything is very expensive or fine art, and this gives a representative sample of what people can collect.”
Items displayed around the space include everything from decorative curios, scientific instruments since replaced by modern technology, religious items, cinema and theater posters, to photographs, souvenirs, toys and many more obsolete handcrafts.
The pieces are well researched and organized into sections based on common themes or functions, making a seemingly random collection of oddities into a finely curated show.
The first room is dedicated to death, with exhibits including a death mask attributed to Abraham Lincoln, an intricately carved cow’s head from Bali (paying respect to the animal’s sacrifice), and a 17th-century grandfather clock with a skeleton popping out every hour (reminding everyone that death comes for us all in the end).
Two paintings of shipwrecks sit side by side – marking significant historical disasters just off Lebanon’s coast that most people have forgotten.
“This painting is of a very famous French ship, Le Champollion, which sank in 1956 near Khaldeh on the way to Bethlehem. It was a very important, luxurious ship. We have the menus of what was served on the ship in the ’30s,” Nimer said. “Next to it we have a painting of the British ship Victoria, which had an accident near Tripoli in 1893 when it collided with another ship. This was the biggest number of causalities for the British Navy in history – 358 people died – so we wrote the story about it, as people don’t really know about this event related to Lebanon.”
A small exhibit on the region’s historic bridal traditions takes up one corner, displaying things like a bejeweled 18th-century Greek engagement belt, an Ottoman bridal chest and a photo of a Druze bride wearing a marital headdress, taken by French photographer Felix Bonfils.
One of the largest sections is devoted to film and theater paraphernalia, including vintage movie posters, theater play ads and the seat map of Theatre du Liban, which could seat over 1,300 people in the ’50s.
“There are leaflets of the first Arab films, advertising which coffee houses they would be showing at as far as back the ’20s,” co-director Lama Koubrously told The Daily Star. “The first four erotic Arab movies came from Lebanon and we have posters of them, as well as general things about Lebanon’s night life, like this photo of Chez André, a famous Hamra Street bar that never had a bathroom and only 11 seats, but was very popular.
“There is a painting of Al-Mutanabbi Street, Beirut’s red light district, and a portrait of Marika Spiridon imitating Modigliani’s ‘La Belle Romaine,’” she added. “She was a famous madam in Lebanon. Before she died, she donated all the money she had ever made to her local church, to die a pious woman.”
Another section featured everyday knickknacks, like ads for Laziza (once Lebanon’s best-known beer), old travels guides for Lebanon, Middle East Airlines boarding passes and lottery tickets. An entire display is devoted to elaborate smoking pipes and beautifully decorated Ottoman cigarette rolling papers.
Vintage toys form another corner, across from religious items like a Sufi rosary and a holy water container from Palestine. The almost life-size 19th-century wooden replica of a Tang Dynasty horse is odd enough to stand alone.
“We’re trying to lighten up the mood by bringing in works from every generation,” Koubrously said, “without having to think too much or get philosophical about everything. We just want people to enjoy it.”
“Cabinet of Curiosities: Ultimate Un-necessities” is showing at Dar El-Nimer, Clemenceau, until June 12, 2021.