Deep down in the basement of the hulking, Brutalist museum of the Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris, new galleries have opened as a gesture of “hope and support” for Beirut.
The project began as a straightforward architectural renovation of the museum’s storage spaces, so that they could accommodate a rotating programme of the extraordinary donation of 1,600 works by Lebanese-French art dealer Claude Lemand and his wife, France. But it became a larger investment into the livelihoods and well-being of designers and craftspeople in Beirut, as they weather the country’s severe financial and social crises.
“I cannot believe they let me do this,” says Lebanese architect Carl Gerges, who led the project. “We wanted to surround the work with the efforts of the Lebanese people.”
The Donors' Room's first exhibition, the Lights of Lebanon, running until Sunday, January 2, celebrates the Lebanese works in the Lemand donation. But Gerges took the celebration one step further and successfully convinced the museum to make all the material for the exhibition – from lighting to plinths to graphic design – in Beirut, shipping it to Paris despite the constraints of working in Lebanon's beleaguered capital.
“I wanted to extend a very strong message for Lebanon,” he says. “Everything for the Donors’ Room, we produced in Beirut.”
The Paris museum approached Gerges, who is also a musician with Lebanese band Mashrou' Leila, a year ago to transform the basement. The museum at the time was envisioning the place as one for satellite exhibitions, such as that of Lemand’s generous gift. Gerges had relocated temporarily to the French capital after his studio and home were severely damaged in the Beirut Port blast.
Initially Gerges responded aesthetically to the site – he describes the first idea as a “humble gesture” in the building, which was one of Jean Nouvel's first major works, from 1987.
Gerges added partitions to the cavernous space so visitors could circulate through exhibitions. He cut against the museum’s industrial feel by painting these walls in warm tones – reminiscent of the earthen material that is the shared building block of ancient constructions across the Arab world.
“I wanted to root the building in the soil of the Middle East,” he says. Gerges worked with technicians in Lebanon to develop a new technique for the paint that literally incorporated the earth from the country, in bespoke consistencies made for the walls, the floor, the plinths and the other parts of the site.
Likewise, he worked with design agency Fabraca Studios for the lighting, Piece Makers for the production and Joseph Chalhoub for the graphic design – all based in Beirut.
It was no small task. Electricity and fuel shortages have made the accomplishments of professional tasks nearly impossible. Rampant inflation and food shortages make even daily living hard.
The final destination of Paris added an increased wrinkle: all the objects had to meet European health and safety standards, and then had to be transported in time for the opening of the exhibition. Gerges and the designers in Beirut packed the works into two 12-metre containers, filled out the forms and hoped for the best.
The Institut du Monde Arabe invited the craftspeople, too, meaning more paperwork, more visas and more logistics. Yet it was worth it.
“For some people, it was the first time they had ever travelled outside of Lebanon,” says Gerges. “But when they got there, it was the most gratifying, emotional feeling. These people worked from their hearts. It is very heavy to live there now. We wanted to bring a bit of hope and change in their lives.”
Gerges also curated the exhibition. Echoing the impulse towards optimism of his architectural design, he embedded this story of hope and change into the show.
It begins with Ayman Baalbaki’s The End, a cold, dystopian painting of a neon sign against an industrial building bearing its eschatological message.
“We started in the 2000s with The End,” he says. “It can’t go any lower than where we are today.”
The exhibition wends semi-chronologically, mixing together younger artists alongside established older artists such as Saliba Douaihy, Etel Adnan and Shafic Abboud. Gerges also paid attention to the context in which the works were made, collaborating with journalist Gilles Khoury at Beirut newspaper L’Orient-Le Jour to hang stories from the newspaper alongside the paintings.
The juxtaposition with the political events of the day give international audiences information about what was happening outside the artists’ studio walls – and also serves as a deflating reminder of the many crises Lebanon has weathered through the years.
“It was incredible,” says Gerges. “The headlines keep repeating themselves. The paper said ‘Apocalypse’ in the 1970s, and then again in the 2020s.”
The exhibition ends with the Golden Age of Beirut, in the 1950s and 1960s. “You can feel the joy of this time,” he says. “The colours are brighter, the mood is lighter. It’s such a contrast to the more aggressive colours of today.”
Lemand, who has lived in Paris since the 1980s, opened the Galerie Claude Lemand in 1988. The site became an important meeting point for the Arab diaspora, and through it he acquired his extraordinary collection of Arab art – which he and his wife generously donated last year to the Institut du Monde Arabe, increasing its permanent collection by 40 per cent in one fell swoop.
The radicality of Gerges’s proposition is a fitting bequest for Lemand, a relative outlier in the rarefied world of French collecting. Born to orphans in Lebanon, he did not come from an upper-class family, but approached art and collecting on his own terms. His eyes were opened to the complexity of Arab art, he has said, when he lived in Cairo in the 1970s. When he returned to Lebanon, then in the midst of the Civil War, he was kidnapped during the fighting, and after that fled his native country for France, where he has remained since.
The project was supported by the Galerie Claude Lemand and the Barjeel Art Foundation, which introduced Gerges to the Institut du Monde Arabe. Gerges was invited to give a guest lecture at the American University of Paris, where Barjeel’s founder, Sultan Al Qassemi, was teaching a course on Arab art.
It was through Al Qassemi that Gerges was connected to the team at the Institut du Monde Arabe. The Barjeel Art Foundation also helped to underwrite the project as it grew in scope – not only to include Gerges’s support for Lebanese craftspeople, but in terms of the museum’s plans for the rooms, which are now also a place for workshops and other educational programmes.
For the next few years, it will remain a place to represent Lemand’s bequest, with a show of his Algerian work in the winter, and it will become a site to exhibit other donations in future.