Lebanese Stories of Heartache, Art Dreams Crumble

Lebanese Stories of Heartache, Art Dreams Crumble

“Gaya had big dreams, big projects,” recalled Stephanie Ghougassian. “She just started her own business line and was waiting for the economic crisis to stabilize, to start production.”

Ghougassian worked at Hamra’s Letitia gallery, which opened in early 2018. Its youthful director Gaya Fodoulian helmed an ambitious program of contemporary art exhibitions featuring local and international artists, but the economic decline preceding Lebanon’s current crisis forced Letitia to suspend operations in January 2020.

A week ago Fodoulian and Ghougassian were on the east side of town, at the home of Letitia co-founder Annie Vartivarian.

“The house has a glass balcony with a sea view,” Ghougassian said. Fodoulian had been standing there, gazing at the smoke billowing from Beirut Port, when the first explosion erupted. The second massive blast threw her back inside.

“We rushed her to Mustashfa Roum [St. Georges Hospital] but the hospital itself had been hit by the blast. Several nurses were killed.”

The hospital’s interior had been so badly damaged, she recalled, the wounded were lying on the ground outside.

“They tried to take her into one of the operating rooms but there was no light and the ceiling had collapsed. At this point Gaya still had a pulse but wasn’t responsive.

“Her sister. Oh my god. Her sister was sitting on top of her trying to revive her. I will never forget that scene.

“We found an ambulance but it was filled with injured people. So many. They went to five hospitals until they got to Abou Jaoudeh Hospital in Zalka. They put her in the morgue without trying [to revive her]. They said there was nothing they could do.”

Ghougassian related her story via WhatsApp, but her grief transcended the media.

“I was saved by Gaya’s dog,” she recalled. “She didn’t let me go to the window after the first [explosion]. She saved my life.”

Beirut’s art galleries tend to be scattered about the north of the city. High-profile exhibitors form a littoral extending from Raouche’s Galerie Janine Rubeiz (where Selim Mawad just wrapped a show of thawra-inspired canvasses) to Karantina’s Sfeir-Semler Gallery, with notable spaces dotting Hamra, Clemenceau, Sassine, Downtown, Gemmayzeh and Mar Mikhael. Arrayed in the amphitheater tumbling down to the coast, Beirut’s galleries share the terraces with residences and businesses, all gazing to the sea, and Beirut Port.

When the Port exploded late on the afternoon of 4 August — its shockwave magnified by a cache of ammonium nitrate estimated at some 2750 tons — the galleries were shattered alongside the residences, their people among the 170-plus killed, the thousands injured, the hundreds of thousands reportedly displaced.

Before recounting the story of Gaya Fodoulian’s death to The Daily Star Sunday, Ghougassian confirmed that Firas Dahwish, who helped hang the gallery’s shows, had just succumbed to wounds he’d sustained in the blast.

A resident of Wata Mosseitbeh, born in Burj al-Shemali camp, Dahwish was probably best known for his work with Saleh Barakat, proprietor of Hamra’s Agial Gallery and Clemenceau’s Saleh Barakat Gallery.

“While structures can be rebuilt, human lives cannot be brought back from the dead,” Barakat said in a statement issued Aug. 9. “Today we mourn our dear friend and colleague Firas Dahwish. He was killed by the negligence, corruption, and sheer stupidity of the band of criminals who dare to call themselves our politicians.

“Firas was for the last two decades the logistician and art handler of Agial and Saleh Barakat Gallery, but those who knew him will remember that his role in both galleries far exceeded any job description. His kindness, good humor, and generosity engendered a sense of community among members of the team and visitors. Firas is an irreplaceable member of our family, and his untimely death must be avenged.”

“We will find the money and do the repairs,” Barakat told The Daily Star. “We have a mission to defend Lebanese art. We will carry it on no matter what, in spite and against all odds.”

Since late 2019 this publication has contacted many makers and exhibitors of visual art, performance and film around Beirut, coaxing them to reflect upon the impact of the economic crisis, financial meltdown and pandemic upon their work. Inquiries about how exhibitors are faring since Aug. 4’s explosion have met a muted response.

Sfeir-Semler Gallery took to social media on Aug. 5 to share photos of its Karantina space — with traces of Etel Adnan’s “The Uprising of Colors,” its most-recent show, visible amid the wreckage.

“Our hearts are full of sorrow and we mourn for Beirut,” Sfeir-Semler declared. “We only have material damage to report, and our team is safe and sound.”

Gallerist Andree Sfeir-Semler did not respond to The Daily Star’s subsequent inquiries.

At Sassine Square, halfway between Karantina and Hamra, Alice Mogabgab’s reflections upon the future of her eponymous gallery sounded at once skeptical and determined.

“Our space has been seriously damaged and few artworks completely destroyed,” she told The Daily Star. “In such disaster, there is no hope to get any money from any insurance policy. Some of the office damages may be arranged, but bankers and insurance brokers are cut from the same cloth.

“There is a lot to do and to say through contemporary art,” she added. “Art revolutions were produced during the darkest times and places through history, and not in secured ones. Truth will always prevail over crimes. It’s the same for art. This is why I will always be there.”

Sassine looks down upon Gemmayzeh and Mar Mikhael, neighborhoods which themselves gaze over the Port district. Bustling communities known for their pubs and restaurants, hipsters and expats, and those who tolerate them, they are peppered with little galleries and art spaces – staggering beneath economic and public health crises.

Beirut Art Residency and Art on 56th gallery both issued statements reporting personal injuries and property damage, expressing shock at what happened, grief at what’s been lost, and calling for resilience and reconstruction.

Nelsy Massoud, curator of the non-profit 392 Rmeil 393 Gallery, told The Daily Star that, as she was injured in the blast, she’d been unable to inspect the space personally. No staff had been on site when the blast struck, however, and they’d “got the paintings out to a safer place.”

She was uncertain as to how to proceed.

“We’re numb at the moment,” she said. “The problem is that even if we fix up the glass and stuff, the whole street is in ruins. There are buildings opposite us that look like they’re about to collapse.”

Two days after the Beirut Port explosion, veteran gallerist Naila Kettaneh Kunigk returned to the remains of Galerie Tanit, located the West Village Building, alongside the now hollowed-out Electiricite du Liban building in Mar Mikhael. Abed al-Kadiri’s exhibition “Remains of the last Red Rose” had just opened on July 27.

“We tried to get the paintings off the floor,” she told The Daily Star by phone. “We have no doors. We have no windows. But people have been helping.”

Five residents of West Village were killed in the explosion, Kettaneh Kunigk said, including Jean-Marc Bonfils, the dynamic architect who designed her building.

The son of another distinguished architect, Bonfils has been involved in projects around the city since the 1990s, and taught architecture at AUB and Alba, the Lebanese Academy of Fine Arts.

The French national was descended from a noted family of pioneering photographers whose 19th-century depictions of the MENA’s landmarks have become part of the region’s patrimony. When the shockwave of Tuesday’s second explosion tore through the building, Bonfils was live streaming his view of the fire after the first blast.

“He’d been teaching his classes from home, like everyone else these past months,” Kettaneh Kunigk said. “He was blown away from the window and the roof collapsed on him.

“I told [Kadiri] that if he wanted to make an homage to Jean-Marc with a mural on one of our exposed walls, he is welcome.”

Kettaneh Kunigk intends to rebuild the gallery.

“We will rebuild,” she corrected, “not try to rebuild. In the short term we will have Abed’s mural. Then I will start thinking about whether we’ll resume a program with artists. I’m not sure if I’m ready.”

As the port district has been undergoing gentrification over the past several years, it too has come to host art spaces.

Among these is the Mina Image Center, situated in the monumental Stone Gardens Building. A non-profit devoted to photography and art, Mina was founded in 2019 by Fouad Elkoury, one of this region’s most-recognized photographers.

The day after the explosion Elkoury informed The Daily Star that he’d escaped the blast that completely destroyed his flat. He was still too shocked to inspect the Mina.

Also in the port district, and taking its name from it, is Joumana Asseily’s Marfa’, which since 2015 has been situated among the rows of low-rise structures across the street from Charles Helou transport terminal.

The gallery’s stock in trade has been solo shows by the country’s younger contemporary artists.

Marfa’ was shut the week of the explosion. Asseily returned Wednesday morning.

“I realized I’m attached to the Port,” she told The Daily Star in Gemmayzeh a few days after the blast. “The people, the energy. The guy who sells mankoushe on the corner. Those Customs guys yelling. The family living next to me. My concierge, Ahmad. The energy, the atmosphere there, it was vibrant.

“We’re basically 500 meters from the blast. If there hadn’t been that grain silo, we’d have been completely erased.”

“We did a tour of the port during Caline Aoun’s exhibition,” she recalled. “We organized parallel events there because Caline’s exhibition was about the port. We took 20 people in with us, even closer to that 2750 tons of ammonium nitrate. It’s surreal.

“It’s beyond criminal,” she muttered. “It’s Kafka.

“I had this tradition, every time we have a show, I’d go sit with my concierge, Ahmad, and explain it. Ahmad used to be a sailor. If he gets it, everybody’s gonna get it. … He was on the roof when it happened. The blast knocked him back, but he saw it all.”

She pulled up a photo on her phone showing Ahmad slumped, shirtless, amid the rubble, with a bottle of Black Label nearby.

“Luckily it was at 6 p.m. so there were few people there. Normally the port closes at 2. The Syrian refugees next to me with five or six kids, are in hospital. They used to help me — my contacts at the port. Now I’m helping them.

“Now I think that’s most important, to help, first of all. A lot of Lebanese need help. A lot. We all need help, I think, and it’s gonna take a long time.”

Asseily recalls returning to Lebanon with her husband Henri in late 2005. Gibran Tueni has just been assassinated. In early 2006 the Danish Embassy was attacked because of a caricaturist’s controversial depiction of the Prophet Mohammad. That summer, Israel launched its 34-day war against Lebanon.

“We stayed anyway,” she said. “Then I met all these great people, like Zeina [Arida, now director of Sursock Museum] and Christine [Tohme, founding director of Ashkal Alwan, the country’s pre-eminent contemporary art institution].

“I saw all their work in the arts sector,” she smiled. “I was like, ‘Wow. There’s something happening here, something possible.’ I’m like, ‘Okay, I don’t want to leave anymore.’ This is what made me open my heart. I wanted to be part of this.”

Asseily gazes at the throngs of young volunteers milling about Gemmayzeh, toting brooms and shovels.

“My husband, you know, he’s into technology, so he’s been doing a space in 3D, virtual reality, like a game. But nothing replaces the space itself, not for me. He’s like, ‘You’ll see. Everything will be digital.’

“I don’t believe it. I believe space is important. Location is important. That’s what defines it.” — Additional reporting by Maghie Ghali

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