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A Virtual Gallery Keeps Culture Alive in Crisis-Hit Lebanon

An exhibition commemorating an artist who was killed in the catastrophic explosion in Beirut last year seeks to convey a message of hope and resilience to Lebanon amid economic crisis and the Covid-19 pandemic.

The exhibition, titled Everyone Is the Creator of One’s Own Faith, is staged at the historic Tabbal Building in the Achrafieh district, a few hundred meters from the port where the blast occurred on August 4. It was created as a tribute by Annie Vartivarian to her daughter Gaïa Fodoulian, a young Lebanese designer was killed before she could complete her project of creating a virtual art gallery.

“The exhibition is an effort to continue what Gaïa has started and could not finish,” Vartivarian said. “It is also meant to keep her memory and presence alive. She wanted to have a virtual gallery without walls, a project she had started in 2019 when the world was still not operating online.”

The exhibition is the inaugural event of Art Design Lebanon, the digital platform and pop-up gallery that Fodoulian was working on when her life was cut short.

A Gallery That Moves About

“Gaïa did not want to set up a permanent gallery but to use different spaces and places,” her mother said. “Even if her life ended, her soul continues to live among us. We did not want to stop what she had started. We insisted on holding the exhibition and to live the moment because we don’t know what tomorrow brings in such a volatile country as Lebanon.”

Vartivarian, herself an art patron and gallerist, added that Art Design Lebanon “is dedicated to supporting and showcasing the work of Lebanese and international visual artists and designers. It is a cultural space that promotes dialogue and supports the creative community of the region.”

The exhibition brings together eight local artists and designers who were asked to create works inspired by the exhibition title. Their responses were expressed through a range of mediums, including illustration, photography, neon artwork, sculpture and furniture.

Scenes from an Exhibition

Two benches designed by Fodoulian are also featured. Proceeds from the exhibition will go to support the Gaïa Fodoulian Foundation, an organization founded in her memory to carry on her passion for animal welfare.

The Artist’s Role in a Precarious World

The exhibition asks what it means to produce and exhibit art amid the daily precariousness people face in Lebanon; how can art and design shape one’s experience of the present moment? What role do they play in the increasingly virtual and crisis-prone world we live in today? And to what extent is artistic creation an act of faith?

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Nathalie Khayat, a ceramist, showcased 208 uniquely shaped clay candlesticks in memory of the 200 plus victims of the port blast, substituting the word “flame” for “faith” in the exhibition title.

“I focused on each person’s inner flame both in the artistic sense and as a symbol of the flame which carries light and ritual,” Khayat said. “You light a candle for a reason, whether in places of worship, in vigils or on the dining table.”

“Clay is my means of expression and a tool for dealing with life’s challenges and tribulations,” she said. “Each piece is different from the other, each had its particular moment and story.”

A series of Polaroid photos by the photographer Caroline Tabet features blurred images of Lebanon’s landscape and scenes of Beirut.

“These are ghost photos reflecting what it was before our life has been blurred and toppled in the past years, more so after the August 4 blast,” Tabet said. “Images of Beirut are more like patchworks of the many places that have changed and which we no longer recognize.”

“Holding this exhibition just months after the calamity that befell on our city is an extremely courageous act,” she said. “It is also of vital importance to reconnect with life and to have a platform for interaction following the pandemic and isolation of confinement.” (See a related article, “Explosion Took a Heavy Toll on Beirut’s Arts and Culture Scene.”)

Preserving Beirut’s Architectural Heritage

Vartivarian said it was no coincidence that the exhibition is taking place in the Tabbal Building, one of Beirut’s endangered heritage buildings dating back to the 1890s.

“The choice of the place was inspired by Gaïa’s love of buildings which have character,” Vartivarian said, stressing that the show attempts to shed light on Beirut’s hidden scars and beauties, concretized in the Tabbal building’s architectural makeup.

In parallel with the exhibition, Art Design Lebanon is collaborating with Silat Culture, a local heritage preservation organization, to organize tours of the building and raise awareness about the importance of preserving Beirut’s architectural heritage.

Everyone Is the Creator of One’s Own Faith continues through Saturday, May 29, in the Tabbal Building in Beirut’s Achrafieh district.


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