A gallery isn’t just a shop where you can buy paintings. There is no shortage of spaces around Beirut (or anyplace else), where you can go to buy a piece of something to hang on a wall or set in the corner of a room. One of the things distinguishing professionally run galleries are the services they provide artists in representing them and their work in the marketplace – at auction, for instance, and international art fairs.
For some years now art works from this region – whether “this region” is termed “the Middle East,” the “Arab World” or “MENASA” (Middle East North Africa and South Asia) – have become significant commodities in the oddly resilient art market. Given this resilience, it seems worthwhile to ask Beirut-area gallerists how they go about representing their artists and what changes they’ve noticed in how they and their work have been received, and perceived, abroad.
Ayyam Gallery was founded in Damascus in 2006 by Syrian-born Khaled Samawi, who made his name in international banking. Ayyam has since set up sister spaces in Dubai and Beirut and apparently plans to establish more in London and New York.
In promoting this region’s artistic practice, Ayyam’s initiatives include an incubator program for young artists (The Shabab Ayyam Project), a Middle Eastern art imprint (Ayyam Publishing) and Ayyam Auctions.
The Ayyam galleries collect and exhibit established Syrian artists and also represent several contemporary artists from Syria and elsewhere in the Arab world working in painting, sculpture and photography.
Samawi communicated his thoughts on his work to The Daily Star via email.
Q: What Lebanese artists do you represent? How many of them actually live in Lebanon; how many of them live wholly or part of the year overseas? Do you represent any non-Lebanese artists?
A: Ayyam Gallery represents around 25 Arab artists and we have another 25 in our incubator at any given time. We represent Nadim Karam who resides in Beirut, Pierre Koukjian who is based in Bangkok, and Walid El Masri and Asaad Arabi who live in Paris. We also promote three young Lebanese photographers who live in Beirut. We also represent artists from Syria, Jordan, Iraq and Palestine.
Q: How long have you been representing Lebanese artists abroad?
A: Ayyam Gallery has represented Lebanese artists abroad for five years.
Q: What are some of the prominent venues that your artists have been exhibited? Presumably the more prominent the venue the more likely the work will be sold. Is this always the case?
A: We have exhibited our artists in many art fairs such as Art Dubai, Abu Dhabi Art, Art Paris, Art Hong Kong, Scope Basel, as well as in the Ayyam galleries in Damascus, Beirut and Dubai.
Q: Do you have any exhibitions planned for the coming year? Which artists are involved? Are these solo shows or group shows?
A: We predominantly hold solo shows in our spaces while group exhibitions are held during art fairs or at the auctions we have. We will be introducing a very talented Lebanese conceptual artist/photographer in Beirut at the end of April by the name of Mohamad Badr.
Accompanying the general solo exhibition program we have at the galleries in the coming year will be several auctions in Dubai and Beirut, which highlight the most talented art from the Middle East, and our participation in Art Beirut and Abu Dhabi Art Fair.
Q: What’s the value of participating in international art fairs?
A: Art fairs are a great place for us to study the state of the contemporary art world. It allows us to examine a variety of galleries and artists, and also allows our colleagues to examine us. It is a great barometer of where a gallery and its artists stand in the global hierarchy of the contemporary art world.
Q: Do you find you make more sales at the fairs or at free-standing (solo and group) exhibitions?
A: Sales are made whenever an art collector falls in love with a work. That could happen anywhere.
Q: How do you decide which works by your Lebanese artists are worthy of international exhibition?
A: I believe all Ayyam’s artists are worthy of international exhibitions. I believe the top Lebanese artists are as talented as their Western and Eastern counterparts and given a chance, possibly more talented.
Q: Can you make any observations about what kind of art collectors are looking for nowadays? Are collectors still interested in “Arab art,” or have they become more interested in art from “Asia,” for instance?
A: Collectors have always and will always look for art that moves them and speaks to them, regardless of its origin. That said, Middle Eastern art is now on the radar of global collectors so we are fighting with other regions to get our fair share of exposure.
Q: Do you consider your artists to be Arab/Lebanese artists first? Or artists first?
A: They are humans first. People that are artists from this region.
Q: Do you think collectors consider your artists to be Arab/Lebanese artists first? Or do they consider them as artists first?
A: Collectors will say, “Yes, I know Nadim. He is from Lebanon.” or “Yes, I know Safwan. He is from Syria.” So, I guess collectors are interested in the country.
Q: Is it possible to generalize about the characteristics of “Lebanese” or “Arab” art that makes it distinct from work being made elsewhere in the world nowadays?
A: Most Arab artists live in an environment of censorship. In order to put their message across they have to be discreet without diminishing the power of the message. The balance is what drives their creativity and distinguishes them from their Western, more open colleagues.
Q: How has the market for Lebanese artists changed over the years?
A: It has just been discovered in the last decade and as more great art comes out of Lebanon the market will continue to grow which benefits all.