In the largest show of Lebanese art in London thus far, the exhibition Lebanon | Untitled puts a spotlight on the country's modern and contemporary artists.
Organised by Janet Rady Fine Art and Artscoops – an online platform for Mena art which holds pop-up exhibitions – the event is running until Sunday at Cromwell Place. More than 50 artworks by 33 artists, within the framework of Cromwell Place’s Middle East curated moments for June.
The exhibition includes paintings, mixed media pieces and sculptures by renowned artists such as Willy Aractingi, Laure Ghorayeb, Hussein Madi, Etel Adnan, Alfred Basbous, Helen Khal and Nadia Saikali.
Lebanon | Untitled marks Artscoop's first physical show outside of Lebanon, with plans for new shows in the UK, UAE and Saudi Arabia. The platform was founded by mother and daughter May and Raya Mamarbachi.
“We want people to see that Lebanon doesn’t only have bad news coming out of it, but that we also have art. This is what has been supporting Lebanon all this time,” May Mamarbachi tells The National. “If you go down to Beirut now we have plenty of new galleries opening and people are turning to arts.
“Life is coming back to the country and it's not only catastrophes, but it’s not only now this has happened, which is why the modern art half is important,” she adds. “We’re giving a comprehensive look – from the very famous artists to some newer, smaller-scale ones.”
Notable highlights include Aractingi’s painting The Crow and the Fox, from his well-known series illustrating the fables of Jean de La Fontaine. The showing is rare, as the Aractingi Foundation, run by his daughter, only releases three fables per year into the market.
“We're also showing a Huguette Caland. It's a totem painting from 1994, which is very rare to find, you have to find them from people's private collections, not on the open market,” Raya Mamarbachi says.
“Another personal favourite is I Love Beirut, a painting by Jamil Molaeb, which symbolises the architectural roots of the city, showing all the important [locations] of Beirut. As we're doing the show on Lebanon, it’s great to have a cityscape of something related to its landscape.”
On the contemporary side, prize-winning artist Zena Assi shows her first foray into ceramics, with two works titled Beirut I Love You and My City on a Green Brick Wall, adorned with busy sketches of buildings, people and Beirut imagery glazed on to the vases using transfers.
“I made them the old fashioned way with the handmade coil techniques, to get them as close as possible and give the feel that it’s an artefact that has been excavated,” says Assi. “Vases and plates have always been used to tell stories about cities, heroes, wars, gods and mythology, and I chose to tell the story of Beirut and its people.
“The piece Beirut I Love You is inspired by a tag spray-painted on the walls. This piece is all about how the people are expressing themselves on the walls of Beirut, which reflect everything the city is going through,” she adds. “The other piece has a chandelier painted at the top in the sky [of the city]. For me, the chandelier is a symbol of my home, so the piece is about migration and the baggage that you carry with you when you move from one place to the other.”
Meanwhile, composer and visual artist Zad Moultaka, who represented Lebanon at Venice Art Biennale in 2017, presented Acqua Alta I, a new canvas painted in blue, turquoise and gold that references the beauty of Venice, where Moultaka lives part of the time.
Two older works related to Lebanon’s landscapes – especially the views in Tannourine – are also exhibited. They use the fragility of paper to build layers when soaked in watered-down paint. The torn and crumpled wet papers are then left to dry, forming a landscape.
“I had an experience when I was in the mountains in Lebanon, and I saw that the landscape was without any perspective or horizon that day,” says Moultaka. “I felt like there could be something behind what I was seeing, like a veil, and that if I punched through this landscape, maybe I would find something behind it, which is why the layers are so important.
“The layers also signify layers of memory, how we can peel back layers to see what’s in the past,” he adds.
Lana Khayat, who held her first solo show in 2022 at London’s Saatchi Gallery, often creates artworks related to nature and inner contemplation. Her painting Wilderness uses swirling brunch strokes to create expressionist artworks that allude to forest canopies or untamed landscapes.
“Each painting I create is a conversation I have at the certain time with nature,” Khayat tells The National. “In my work, there is also an undertone of calligraphy, because I come from a family of artisans who works on Syrian Ajami rooms, taking a wood panel and turning into a beautiful piece of sculpture.
“I was inspired by those rooms and I grew up seeing my dad and grandfather creating them” she adds. “I wanted to make my mark as the first female artist in the family and through trial and error created my own artistic language.”
Artscoops prides itself on being able to offer affordable art as well as high-end pieces, by having a range of prices for all, which is reflected in the Cromwell Place show. Alongside the well-known modern pieces and established contemporary artists are also emerging talents.
“We're an inclusive platform, so we start at $100 all the way to $100,000, so we don't alienate people not wanting to spend thousands on a painting,” Raya Mamarbachi says. “In this show, we have pieces starting at $1,000 because we thought it was very representative of what we stand for.”
The next physical show from Artscoops is set to take place in Beirut from June 27 to July 8, showing a rare collection of vintage Air France business class menus from the 1980s that have been illustrated by Aractingi, depicting more of Fontaine’s fables.