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Gropius Bau opens 'Beirut and the Golden Sixties: A Manifesto of Fragility'
Beirut and the Golden Sixties: A Manifesto of Fragility, Installation view, Gropius Bau, Berlin, 25.3.2022–12.6.2022. © Luca Girardini.

BERLIN.- Beirut and the Golden Sixties: A Manifesto of Fragility revisits a turbulent chapter in the development of modernism in Beirut beginning with the 1958 Lebanon crisis and ending with the 1975 outbreak of the Lebanese Civil War. The exhibition showcases a heterogeneous mix of artists whose drive for formal innovation was matched only by the tenacity of their political convictions. Beirut and the Golden Sixties traces the antagonism between Beirut’s politicised cosmopolitanism and its surrounding trans-regional conflicts. With around 220 artworks by 35 artists, more than 200 archival documents and a new work by Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige especially commissioned for the show, it is the most comprehensive presentation to date of a pivotal period in the history of Beirut – a city that continues to carry the burden of its irreconcilable ambitions.

“Our programming at the Gropius Bau looks at history from a contemporary perspective while emphasising the inter-relatedness of art to current and past socio-political conflicts. The exhibition Beirut and the Golden Sixties takes a lens on a city in continual redefinition, telling the story of artistic reinvention. As well as opening up the Gropius Bau to underrepresented perspectives, the exhibition stresses the key role of artists in defining common ground and shaping the politics of geography, culture and history.” — Stephanie Rosenthal, Director of the Gropius Bau

Beirut and the Golden Sixties maps out a brief but rich period of artistic and political ferment. A continuous influx of intellectuals and cultural practitioners from across the Middle East and Arabic-speaking North Africa flowed into Beirut over the course of three turbulent decades marked by revolutions, coups and wars across the regions. Encouraged in part by the Lebanese banking secrecy law of 1956, a stream of foreign capital also flowed into the city. New commercial galleries, independent art spaces and museums flourished. Beirut was bursting at the seams, not only with people, but also with ideas. Yet beneath the surface of a glistening golden age of prosperity, antagonisms festered before eventually exploding in a 15-year civil war.

“We are pleased to present Beirut and the Golden Sixties at the Gropius Bau in Berlin. We are fully conscious of the responsibility that comes with tackling such a politically-charged period in Beirut’s modern history at this critical moment in time. Besides highlighting a number of complex factors that underscore many of Beirut’s ongoing struggles, the exhibition speaks to our commitment to challenging the metanarratives of modernism by highlighting centres of artistic production that have often been relegated to the margins of art history. With Beirut and the Golden Sixties, we have approached the period from the vantage point of the multiple crises currently wreaking havoc in Beirut. This contemporary gaze onto the past provides an altogether new point of entry, allowing us to investigate our current moment by looking to the most creative and critical minds of an earlier generation of thinkers, writers and makers.”

— Sam Bardaouil and Till Fellrath, Associate Curators, Gropius Bau (since 1 January 2022 Directors at Hamburger Bahnhof – Museum für Gegenwart – Berlin)

Presented in five thematic sections, the exhibition introduces the breadth of artistic practices and political projects that thrived in Beirut from the 1950s to the 1970s.

Le Port de Beyrouth: The Place

By 1958, Beirut was a hub of intellectual and artistic life in the Middle East. With its longstanding tradition of freedom of expression, it attracted artists and intellectuals escaping autocratic regimes elsewhere in the region. The first section of the exhibition, The Place, explores the fraught notion of belonging among artists from different communities across the region.

The title of this section is taken from the title of a leporello by Etel Adnan from 1974.

Lovers: The Body

The 1960s was a decade of sexual liberation movements across the world. Home to a large number of women and LGBTQIA+ artists, the Beirut art scene was at the forefront of the attendant debates. The exhibition’s second section, The Body, explores the role of Beirut as a site of experimentation and a testing ground against the limits of a heteronormative bourgeois society.

The title of this section is taken from the title of a painting by Mona Saudi from 1963.

Takween (Composition): The Form

A medley of artists utilising and negotiating a wide range of techniques, materials and styles converged in Beirut’s rich art scene. Cultural programming was diverse and involved global actors including Max Ernst, André Masson, Wifredo Lam and Zao Wou-Ki. The exhibition’s third section, The Form, considers the local debates around the articulation of various modernist tendencies in Beirut, paying close attention to the predominance of abstraction in the 1950s to 1970s. It traces the link between artists’ political affinities and their subscription to a style or a school, ranging from oriental abstraction to art informel.

The title of this section is taken from the title of a painting by Hashim Samarchi from 1972.

Monster and Child: The Politics

The fourth section, The Politics, takes a close look at the relationship between art and politics in the years preceding the Lebanese Civil War before sectarianism had taken over all aspects of life in the city. During this heyday of cultural production, artists searched for forms appropriate to their varying commitments – from the utopian projects of Pan-Arabism and postcolonial struggle to the divisive political alignments of the Cold War, the Vietnam War and the Palestinian Cause.

The title of this section is taken from the title of a painting by Fateh al-Moudarres from 1970.

Blood of the Phoenix: The War

The exhibition’s final section, The War, examines the enduring impact of the Lebanese Civil War on cultural production in Beirut. With galleries and independent art spaces shuttered and artists migrating to Europe, the United States and the Persian Gulf (in a foreshadowing of the migration from contemporary crisis-stricken Lebanon), the war took its toll. The devastation that followed revealed the irreconcilability of Beirut’s complex politics, stripping bare the myth of a “Golden Age”.

The title of this section is taken from the title of a tapestry by Nicolas Moufarrege from 1975.

Beirut and the Golden Sixties: A Manifesto of Fragility was developed concurrently to the October uprisings, the devastating explosion in August 2020, Lebanon’s unprecedented economic crisis and the global COVID-19 pandemic. The show is an investigation into a crucial chapter in history, reconsidered from the vantage point of these contemporary crises. A comprehensive multi-media installation is created specifically for the exhibition by the artists and filmmakers Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige, who live and work between Paris and Beirut. It contemplates the transformation of artworks by acts of violence in an immersive installation of screens and performance. In the face of collapse, disaster and death, the work wonders, can we oppose poetry to chaos?

With works by Shafic Abboud, Etel Adnan, Farid Aouad, Dia al-Azzawi, Alfred Basbous, Joseph Basbous, Michel Basbous, Assadour Bezdikian, Huguette Caland, Rafic Charaf, Saloua Raouda Choucair, Georges Doche, Simone Fattal, Laure Ghorayeb, Paul Guiragossian, Farid Haddad, John Hadidian, Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige, Jumana Bayazid El-Husseini, Dorothy Salhab Kazemi, Helen El-Khal, Simone Baltaxé Martayan, Jamil Molaeb, Fateh al-Moudarres, Nicolas Moufarrege, Mehdi Moutashar, Aref El Rayess, Adel al-Saghir, Mahmoud Said, Nadia Saikali, Hashim Samarchi, Mona Saudi, Juliana Seraphim, Cici Sursock and Khalil Zgaib

Beirut and the Golden Sixties: A Manifesto of Fragility is curated by Sam Bardaouil and Till Fellrath, Associate Curators, Gropius Bau (since 1 January 2022 Directors at Hamburger Bahnhof – Museum für Gegenwart – Berlin). The exhibition is organised in collaboration with the 16th edition of the Lyon Biennale of Contemporary Art.

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