The Art Scene in Lebanon By EASTORY!


As Lebanon's living conditions deteriorate, the art scene defies all odds to stay afloat. With reopened galleries and diverse exhibitions, it has successfully attracted foreign and local interest in both emerging and established talent.

A significant step forward

Manar Ali Hassan, a 42-year-old budding curator, dreams of making a name for herself in Lebanon's vibrant and diverse art scene. She initially studied to become a graphic designer with a bachelor's degree in art education and a master's degree in visual arts. Many of her works express outrage against the government and reflect the prevailing frustration of Lebanese society.

"As of 2019, my art has evolved to include destructive themes, reflected in torn and burned art materials, in parallel with the destruction that Lebanon is enduring," Ali Hassan tells Eastory.

Lebanon is mired in an endless series of crises triggered by the 2019 economic collapse. The national currency has lost more than 99% of its value, and Lebanese who entrusted their savings to banks have lost access to their deposits. attracted foreign and local interest in both emerging and established talent.

To top things off, an explosion on August 4, 2020, at the port of Beirut, which killed more than 200 people and injured thousands, leveled several structures in the capital's central districts. Battered by the catastrophic explosion and crippling economic crisis, private art institutions have been forced to close or relocate out of the country.

Deteriorating conditions and lockdowns paralyzed the art scene until the government eased restrictions related to the COVID-19 pandemic in 2022, and funds began pouring back into art projects.

The art scene has revitalised and attracted foreign attention to local talent, confirming Lebanon's role as an artistic hub in the Middle East. "Lebanon may have taken ten steps backward, but we, as artists, have taken significant steps forward," Ali Hassan points out.

A brief history of the art scene in Lebanon

The artistic flair of the Lebanese can be traced back to the pre-independence era through the work of Daoud Corm, a painter who became famous for painting a portrait of Pope Pius IX in 1874.

Corm is said to have introduced the Western approach to Lebanon, resulting in a departure from the traditional style. However, during the French Mandate (1923-1943), there was a yearning to revive neglected artistic traditions. As a result, depictions of Lebanese culture and landscape art increased. Some of the art pioneers of this era were Salib, Douaihy, Mustafa Farroukh, and Omar Onsi.

Having entered the golden age of the 1960s, artists adopted techniques and styles steeped in local and international inspirations that rebelled against established standards. The avant-garde scene was warmly welcomed by local galleries and museums, such as the famous Sursock Museum, which championed the abstractionists.

Sumerian, Mesopotamian, Phoenician, and even Islamic inspirations were evident in works from that time. However, with the outbreak of the Civil War (1975-1990), the art scene was utterly dismembered.

The brutal years of segregation and sectarian strife destroyed the artistic infrastructure: cinemas, galleries, and ateliers. So artists poured their pain onto canvases for years to come and treated the ingrained trauma as their muse.

In 2019, the artists, though for different reasons, found themselves in a similar situation.

Modern trauma and emerging artists

Bullets and missiles are no longer a threat that imbues fear into the fragile fabric holding Lebanese society together. These days, inequality and violence are fueled by dire social and economic conditions.

To cope, some have resorted to art.

During the revolution on October 17, 2019, people took to the streets, calling for the toppling of the system. Artists who walked alongside the protesters documented these historical moments in their works.

"The artists were creating art during the protests, but lockdowns and the explosion in Beirut's port halted the scene's activity," Dzovig Arnelian, a gallery owner and experimental artist, tells Eastory.

The tragedy was a blow to the entire society and became a cause of national trauma.

"Many artists live in the affected areas of Gemmayze and Mar Mikhael, so the image of the destroyed silos became ingrained in their minds. That's why the explosion and the chaos that followed became a recurring theme in art in the months that followed," Arnelian emphasizes.

The northern part of the silos collapsed in late August. The government promised to preserve the remaining portion as a memorial to the tragedy, but no action has been taken so far.

"One of my works is titled 'We will Rise Again, as a tribute to the destroyed structure. I believe that if the silos can still stand, so can we," Ali Hassan says.

Today's art scene

After the lifting of restrictions put in place due to the COVID-19 pandemic, galleries, and exhibitions have begun attracting foreign tourists again.

"Recently, we have been experiencing more foreign interest in Lebanon's cultural life and art scene. So despite the difficulties, artists are showing that there is still life beyond political instability and economic crises," Arnelian stresses.

"The current circumstances make documenting current events even more important. We are not only archiving them for future generations but also showing Lebanon to the whole world," she points out.

Arnelian, who worked in a gallery near the site of the explosion and then moved to Dubai, says she doesn't want to let the current conditions destroy her dreams. That's why she decided to launch Arneli Art Gallery, a digital platform showcasing artwork by emerging Middle Eastern artists.

Since Lebanon's central bank cut fuel subsidies in mid-September, gasoline prices have skyrocketed to record levels. As a result, transportation has become almost a luxury for many Lebanese.

"That's why providing digital access to art is so important. Customers can view it in their homes, and artists can showcase their works without having to hold exhibitions," Arnelian says.

Entering the digital world

But 2022 was also a good time for traditional galleries. Maroun Hakim returned to the scene after a four-year absence. His exhibition comprised a collection of 36 paintings and 13 sculptures from 2016-2022.

American-Lebanese visual artist Magda Chaaban has already had six exhibitions in Beirut this year, featuring 40 paintings, several wooden sculptures, and books in Arabic.

Emerging artists put their work on display in group and solo exhibitions. Ali Hassan notes that this abolished the monopoly galleries enjoyed until three years ago.

"Before 2019, well-known galleries only exhibited the works of a few established artists. This monopoly has been broken by recent initiatives that have prioritized new talent," she said.

A trend that has been embracing art in recent months is non-fungible tokens (NFTs), which certify the acquisition of original works. Ali Hassan believes that NFTs and digital art are essential for Lebanese artists to keep up with the digital revolution in art. 

"I am working with one gallery on a project centered around emerging artists, which will display digital art materials, videos, or animations," she emphasizes.

"In this way, artists will have the opportunity to explore questions of identity concerning recent developments in the country. Each generation of artists sees the country differently, so it will be interesting to see what the younger generation comes up with."

Despite the art scene's resilience and ability to survive the ongoing slump, challenges continue to impede progress. Because of the decline in the value of money, artists are forced to ration materials, sell at low rates and work several jobs to earn a decent living.

"The art scene allows people to be themselves without restrictions. Expressions of sexuality, repressed feelings, and taboo topics are accepted in our spaces. Our complex narratives and stories make our craft unique and important to the whole world, not just Lebanon," Ali Hassan points out.

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