“What’s in a name?” the star-crossed Juliet remarks in Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet.” “That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”
The art fair formerly known as MENASAART (Middle East North Africa South Asia ART) appears to have taken this sentiment to heart. For its third go-round, the event will go by the moniker Beirut Art Fair (BAF).
“The identity of Beirut Art Fair is already attached to the city where it takes place, Beirut, the millenary crossroads of all civilizations,” BAF art director Pascal Odille said in a recent press release. “This is why we changed its name ... It is indeed a ‘fair destination,’ which couldn’t take place in any other city.”
In person, Odille gives a somewhat simpler explanation. “When we used to say MENASAART it was a bit complicated to explain,” he admits. “And afterward they didn’t know where it was. This ... is Beirut Art Fair.”
The name change heralds several other, perhaps more significant, changes to the yearly event. The number of galleries participating has almost doubled, increasing from 25 in 2011 to just over 40 this year. Among these are seven European galleries representing artists from the MENASA region.
“When we started MENASAART we were really attached to this geographic point,” says Odille, “territories coming from Morocco, going through the Middle East and finishing with Indonesia.”
It seems this geographical focus is becoming broader. This year Sudan has been added to “North Africa,” and Vietnam added to “South Asia” – contradicting the U.N.’s classification of the region.
BAF doesn’t consider Armenia to be part of MENASA, meaning that only Armenia artists with Lebanese citizenship can exhibit at the fair. This seems an odd decision, given Lebanon’s reputation as a center for Armenian art and the support afforded Lebanese artists by the Boghossain Foundation – the Belgium-based Lebanese-Armenian foundation which aims to build East-West cultural links.
Though BAF considers Turkey part of the Middle East, Armenia – a Caucasian state conventionally considered “Asian” – is designated part of modern Europe.
“We must be attached to contemporary geography,” explains Odille. “We don’t draw the map. We don’t take the decision to change the place of a country. We cannot do it. It’s not our fault.”
That said, rules, it seems, can be bent when useful. A recent addition to this year’s BAF, finalized in June, is the Portuguese Galeria Cordeiros. An exception has been made for the gallery (which will represent work by non-MENASA artists), Odille admits, because they agreed to exhibit a rare 1980s portrait by Andy Warhol.
“She’s coming with more important modern, contemporary, international art,” says Odille. “For the first time in Lebanon you will have exceptional painting by Miquel Barcel? and a beautiful portrait by Warhol ... Not a Mao or not a Marilyn – a beautiful portrait.
“We wanted to be sure that the gallery came with this specific piece,” he continues. “This will give [BAF] a more international ... feel, and say to people outside that something really happens in Lebanon. Because when a gallery like this takes the risk to come to Beirut to show a masterpiece – that is absolutely exceptional, it means that everybody believes that Beirut is really the place for art.”
BAF has also expanded its definition of what constitutes art. For the first time design galleries are invited to participate in the four-day event – this is not to be confused with Beirut Design Week (25-30 June), which represents itself as a completely different event.
The Tunisian Musk and Amber lifestyle concept store is as yet the only international design entity attending. It will be accompanied by eight Lebanese design galleries, among them the SMO Gallery and the Carwan Gallery, both of which participated in Design Days Dubai – which ran in parallel with ArtDubai last March.
Odille stresses that BAF remains an art fair, not an art-and-design fair.
“Design is art,” he posits. “There is no question about it. A good designer is a good artist ... A great design is a sculpture, but you can live with it and use it.”
Though design pieces typically fetch less than artworks, he stresses that they will be featuring mainly limited-edition designs.
“What is happening now in Beirut is really exceptional,” he says. “You have really young and great designers with beautiful work that you cannot find everywhere – or anywhere really.”
A series of “roundtable” talks will be held to discuss issues relating to contemporary art production and dissemination. The formula echoes that of ArtDubai’s Global Art Forum, but Odille says they will have a more practical outlook.
“These are talks with real and important questions about the situation for the artists, about creation, about what is the foundation,” he explains, “with very specific points and very important people ... We want talks, but not ... just to talk. We want proposals ... We want answers. We try to have a result.”
BAF will also have a “non-profit” section, “The Cultural Journey Program,” which this year focuses on non-traditional contemporary art forms such as comics, graffiti and VJ-ing (live audio-visual manipulation).
“In Europe, comics are a real art market, [but] not in the Arab world,” says Odille. “For the moment they don’t have the feeling that comics [are] art. Why? I don’t understand ... Comics are a possibility for artists to express themselves on different subjects – political and social ... So comics had exactly the same evolution as the rest of the art. That’s why we want to show original drawings.”
“For the street art,” he continues, “I’m not interested in graffiti on canvas. Street art must stay in the street ... That’s why we decided to do a retrospective of the last five years’ more beautiful graffs [in] photographs. Outside you will have a wall, four meters long, with a collective of three young Lebanese artists [who will] work on it. And every night you will have a VJ ... to make people understand that creation can be inside, in the street. It can be attached to music. There’s a lot of connections,” he adds.
Also new for 2012 is the first Byblos Bank Award for Lebanese photography, which will become a yearly fixture. The bank will select 40 young photographers, 15 of whom will be exhibited at BAF. The winner, to be announced on the final day of the fair, will have a solo exhibition in the bank headquarters, and their work published in a catalogue.
This year’s Beirut Art Fair promises to be bigger and bolder than its previous incarnations, with more galleries, a new design element and a more varied program. As the team cements their direction, this year’s BAF will suggest something of the fair’s future shape.
The 2012 Beirut Art Fair takes place at the Beirut Exhibition Center from July 5-8. For more information please see http://www.menasart-fair.com