“The support we got from the international art scene helped us continue,” says Joumana Asseily, founder of Marfa Projects, a gallery and project space nestled between customs offices in the Beirut port area.
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The gallery represents some of the city's leading artists, but it was completely demolished by the August 4 blast. Thankfully for Asseily and her team, the space was closed on that deadly afternoon, because of the pandemic. “I went in the next day to check on our neighbours. There was this abnormal heat. I felt like I was in a movie,” she recalls.
A year on, she is still coming to terms with the damage. “I have this huge incomprehension for what has happened, which turns to rage. I can’t stop thinking of the people who lost their lives, their homes, their jobs or parts of their bodies.”
But closing down or relocating was not an option. “I knew I wanted to be back in the port and to continue what I’d started with Marfa,” says Asseily, who spent weeks clearing debris from the space. “It took months to find the right moment to restart. It helped that the entire art world had closed, too, because of the pandemic.”
Rebuilding under Lebanon’s economic crisis has presented enormous challenges for this independent gallery. “We had no support from the government or local bodies." She says restrictions on movement and the value of the Lebanese currency also delayed their efforts. "Prices were fluctuating all the time, and we had to buy all our equipment from scratch."
Then, other galleries overseas reached out to support. Wrong Marfa, a gallery in Texas (not related), donated 10 per cent of proceeds from one of its sales to help rebuild the space. “I used the money to support the artists,” says Asseily. In January, a group of 20 international galleries invited Marfa to be part of a collective exhibition project. “I was so touched that they invited me – I was among the youngest gallerists there.”
This prompted the gallery to reopen in May, with the group exhibition Water, which was part of the committee’s Galleries Curate: RHE joint programme of exhibitions. Among the works in the show was Vartan Avakian's Short Wave, Long Wave, a 2010 film about the Beirut port, which was presented in an underground parking space adjacent to the gallery.
What moved Asseily most was the reaction from locals to Marfa’s reopening. “One visitor, a collector, told me that she felt alive again,” she says. “The people working in the customs offices around us came and encouraged us. They wanted us to bring the area back to life. We also got support from the bakery around the corner.”
These experiences, Asseily says, allow her to hold on to her dream of running this port venue. “It was so heartwarming; it made me want to continue.”
Today, her venture faces new challenges linked to Lebanon’s economic and political crisis. The gallery was forced to close during Eid Al Adha, owing to electricity shortages. “We’re living day by day,” she says.
Asseily is also struggling to support her artists. “For artists, the biggest challenge today is finding production material. Also, with the fuel crisis, they can’t travel far.”
Nonetheless, the gallery plans to still take part in the international art fairs circuit. Asseily is currently preparing for a solo presentation of new work by Avakian for Art Basel, as well as participations for Frieze London and Fiac, the contemporary art fair held in Paris. In October, she will launch a solo show at Marfa Projects for Stephanie Saade, an artist who left Beirut after the blast.
Asseily insists she will stay in the city. “Unless there’s no internet and we’re cut out from the world, I won’t be leaving Beirut. The country can’t breathe without its cultural outlets. If this dies, then what’s left?”