'Nothing is normal after this': explosions in Beirut leave art scene broken

'This is total devastation' the art scene had already been hit hard by the economic crisis

Galerie Sfeir-Semler in Beirut is one of the galleries impacted by the explosions. Courtesy Galerie Sfeir-Semler
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On Tuesday, Beirut was rocked by two powerful explosions at its port, resulting in the death of at least 135 people and injury of 5,000. It left hundreds of thousands homeless.

Damage from the blast extended for a 10 kilometre radius from the site, leaving the city’s streets filled with piles of debris, broken glass and fragments of metal. A citywide clean-up, which began the day after the explosions, continued on Thursday as hospitals dealt with those needing medical care.

It can elevate us to a state of creative resistance larger than life itself – the more they destroy, the more we create

In addition to homes and once-bustling businesses, Beirut’s art galleries and museums are among the spaces that were heavily damaged. Over recent decades, the city’s art scene has had to thrive on its own, with little cultural funding from the government. The economic crisis and now this devastation have crippled both gallerists and artists.

“It’s a tragedy. I was at the gallery at the time and everything just burst,” says Beatrice Safieddine, director of Mark Hachem Gallery. “All the windows and doors are broken, and some of the artworks have been affected as well.

“We were hiding in the kitchen. It was horrible,” Safieddine recalls, adding that no one in the gallery was severely injured.

“Now we are trying to clean the aftermath and organise ... I don’t want to say ‘get back to normal life’ because nothing is normal after this. It can’t be, given the tragedy of the death of so many people, but we try to keep on going,” she says.

Sfeir-Semler Gallery also experienced material damage, with its glass windows shattered and wall panels ripped off from the impact of the explosion. “Our team is safe and sound,” the gallery said in a statement.

Sfeir-Semler Gallery
Sfeir-Semler Gallery

“Our hearts are full of sorrow and we mourn for Beirut.” The gallery, which also has an outpost in Hamburg, represents established artists such as Etel Adnan and Yto Barrada.

The contemporary gallery Marfa (the name of which translates to port because it is in the vicinity) shared photos of its premises and artworks that are almost completely destroyed. Founded in 2015, Marfa is a non-profit gallery that works to help Lebanese artists build international connections.

Scroll through for more images of Marfa:

The Sursock Museum was also damaged. Its director, Zeina Arida, has said the cost of repairs is likely to fall into the millions of dollars, and that the space will take years to rebuild. While no staff injuries were recorded, a number of artworks were affected. In a statement on Instagram, the museum said that the space has been “severely damaged” and the team are still “in shock” following the explosion.

"Our thoughts and prayers go to the families of the victims, the missing and the wounded," the statement reads.

"Although the museum was damaged severely, thankfully, and most importantly, our staff and visitors at the time of the blast are all safe." 

The Art Newspaper reported that an employee of Saleh Barakat Gallery is currently in intensive care and Galerie Tanit and Opera Gallery in Beirut were destroyed.

What next? 

Artlab, which focuses on up-and-coming artists, told Art Net that reopening may not be a likely option because of the cost of repairs and Lebanon's economic woes.

For artist Nadim Karam, whose large-scale sculptures have filled Beirut’s streets and public spaces, the incident has caused “disarray and confusion”.

"We are still wondering what happened to us," he tells The National, noting the unprecedented scale of the blast.

Karam opened his studio, A.MUSE.UM, to the public in 2019. Connected to his residence, it is where he houses his artworks for people to see.

He says that the main entrance doors of his apartment were blown off and the streets outside of his building are filled with broken glass and parts of people’s homes.

He highlighted the anger felt about Lebanon after what many see as negligence on the part of officials who have known about the explosive material for six years.

“[This is] total devastation, much beyond wars, with which we are ‘familiar’. This is an exceptional proof of corruption, negligence and rottenness of the Lebanese sociopolitical system,” Karam says.

Although his family is safe, he says that he knows nearly 10 people who died in the incident, and he worries that the death toll could continue to rise. “We are trying to put things back together, at least as much as we can.”

Installation view of 'The Archaic Procession', Nadim Karam's large-scale sculptures installed in Beirut's Central District (1997-2000). Courtesy of the artist
Installation view of 'The Archaic Procession', Nadim Karam's large-scale sculptures installed in Beirut's Central District (1997-2000). Courtesy of the artist

He sees the explosion – which is the latest in a line of problems that have confronted Lebanon over years, including an economic crisis and widespread protests – as a turning point for the country.

“Something like this can put a nation at a loss and create a feeling of defeat, or it can have the effect of creating a bigger counterblast: a huge fresh energy that permeates into the system and into each of us,” he says. “It can elevate us to a state of creative resistance larger than life itself – the more they destroy, the more we create.”

Nadim Karam shared these photos of the damage, scroll for more: