Beirut’s informal art spaces

by Isabelle Mayault for Mashallah News (published 02.18.11)
All shots are taken at Zico House by Ismaël Abdallah
Zico House
The massive 1935 ocher house is one of the last remnants of a long-gone architectural era. Historically, it’s also the family house of Moustafa Yamouth, better known as Zico, who turned its inheritance into the most popular cultural and artistic platform in Beirut. The opening exhibition goes back to 1994 when Zico house threw its first exhibition. The crew of artists who first participated in this project (Marwan Rishamoui, Flavia Codsi, Gilbert Hage, Elie Khalife) are now well known figures on the Lebanese art and cinema scene. The name “Zico” first appeared when artist Rafic Majzoub wrote it on one of the house walls for his first exhibit, in order to make the place recognizable for upcoming visitors.

On top of hosting artist residents, a whole variety of events take place at Zico: exhibitions, of course, but also poetry readings, concerts, workshops, dance performances and installations. The space also has a strong social role since it started to host offices of diverse associations. Among them is Helem, the self-declared only openly Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Intersex and Queer organization in the Arab world, Green Line, a pro-environment NGO, and LADE, the Lebanese Association for Democratic Elections. During the 2006 July war, Zico House was quickly transformed into an aid centre for refugees. Two civil associations were born from this period: Samidoun Network and Aid Lebanon.


Sanayeh residence

Opened almost three years ago, Sanayeh residence is the newbie of the Beiruti informal art spaces. Located on the second floor of a charming old building in the Sanayeh district, next to Hamra, the apartment where Mansour Aziz and Ghassan Maasri host artists, students, teachers, workshops, film screenings and other performances looks like the perfect home for creative ideas and emerging talents. The door is open to anyone and it’s rare not to be offered coffee or wine, even when you show up unannounced. The odd furniture, traditional tiles and huge balconies make count for half of its friendly aura. Its tenants, the other half.
Mansour is unsure which summer they started the works in Sanayeh. He only remembers not being very specific with the landlord when asked about the future use of the apartment. Together with Ghassan, he used to organize events at Zico House and they worked on several artistic projects. It was only logical for them to open their own space together. “We found the place by coincidence”, recalls Mansour. “We felt there was a need to create more space, some informal space in Beirut. But we didn’t want something paid for by the European Union and waste all of our time writing applications”. “And we like the whole idea of the private space”, comments Ghassan. “The purpose is not to activate public spaces, but to open new spaces to the public”.
Renting out rooms is what makes the Sanayeh residence financially viable. “We sometimes have groups of people coming for exhibitions and art workshops”, explains Ghassan. “It’s possible to rent a room for up to one month, not more”. Currently, Ghassan and Mansour are hosting a group of Algerian artists for three weeks, after having welcomed students from Australia. The international performance group Club de la Faye will also orchestrate a four-day event, starting yesterday, under the intriguing title of “Embassy of untrue reality”. Ghassan: “It’s a bunch of crazy Scandinavian people, walking around in high heels. It’s very entertaining to have them in Sanayeh”.

Batroun Art Proposal (BAP)

2011 will be the date of birth of yet another art space in Lebanon, far from the city lights of Beirut. Ghassan from Sanayeh, along with Nora Razian and Lawrence Abou Hamdan, found a good location in Batroun, a beautiful coastal village near Tripoli , and they already have a handful of projects ahead. “We’ll have a library, study groups, residencies”, explains Ghassan. “We want to organize reading workshops and work on a radio program. We’ll welcome artists whose work field is close to ours, basically anything urban or artistic”.

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