Art Design Lebanon merges art and history in a monastery


Art Design Lebanon’s latest exhibition is a tribute to Lebanon’s rich archaeological and artistic history. Located in the Maronite monastery Deir al Kalaa, the multidisciplinary showcase is proof of Lebanon’s enduring cultural heritage.

The site of a thousand-year-old temple may seem like an unusual place to discover modern art. High in the mountains of Lebanon, the former monastery of Deir al Kalaa in Beit Meri brought together the works of a multidisciplinary team of collaborating artists and designers to create “Lost in the Right Direction”the last exhibition of Art Design Lebanon (AD Leb).

Founded in 2021, AD Leb is a cultural platform created by Lebanese gallerist Annie Vartivarian. Originally designed by designer Gaïa Fodoulian, her daughter, Vartivarian took over the project after Foudoulin was killed by the Beirut port explosion on August 4, 2020.

“We wanted the artists to have a platform here, and to attract people to come back and discover the archaeological site. Everyone is, in a way, the guardian of his past, and when we know the importance, we can better keep it. “

“It was Gaia’s idea to have the exhibits in places where they have character and history,” Vartivarian told The New Arab. “In the beginning, [we wanted] perform in an open space. This is [taking the] heritage of Lebanon and linking it to nature.

“Each [piece] has a different inspiration, either from the story [or] the landscape,” she added. “We just shed some light on it, to bring all of our designs together; the story; archeology; architecture. That’s the point. »

Deir al Kalaa began as a Roman temple, before the Maronite Monastery of Saint John the Baptist was later built on the same site. The various other remains and ruins found around the site bear witness to diverse generations of inhabitants, demonstrating the richness of Lebanese history.

‘Future Was A Year Ago’ (left) in situ with the Roman ruins of Deir al Kalaa [credit: Robert McKelvey]

“The site is a [combination of] Roman and Byzantine sites,” explains Tania Zaven, director of Mount Lebanon North at the General Directorate of Antiquities (DGA).

“It was a [small] industrial establishment. You have olive presses, a church, public baths which were used in Roman times and continued into Byzantine times, and villas.

“With all the problems we had in Lebanon [and] the explosion, the soul of Beirut [has been] destroyed, because the soul of Beirut is the artists [and] creative industries that are dwindling day by day,” she added. “We wanted the artists to have a platform here, and to attract people to come back and experience the archaeological site. Everyone is, in a way, the guardian of his past, and when we know the importance, we can better keep it.

Aided by the French Institute and the DGA, the 37 creative participants were brought to the site and visited by archeology professor Assaad Seif. The resulting collection of 18 contemporary works, exhibited in and around the ruins, creates a fascinating interplay between the ancient past and the present, inspired by notions of memory, history, time, migration and loss.

A Roman olive oil press [credit: Robert McKelvey]

Fiber artist Adrian Pepe, in collaboration with a group of Lebanese craftswomen, has created an embroidered “star map” – inspired by how ancient shepherds used the stars to guide themselves – in an organized space filled with other textile creations, all made from Awassi wool, a staple of the Levant region for thousands of years.

“I discovered that a lot of craft practices were dying,” Pepe explained. “Today, there are around 1,000 tonnes of wool produced in Lebanon, and all of it is thrown away because the processes related to it are no longer there. In research [for] the last remaining artisans, we began to build a narrative, taking the snippets of information we were gathering [and] reinsert them into the material.

“The material was so right in this exhibit, because it’s all about direction,” he continued. “Finding greener pastures with this sentience – the supplier you partner with – and traversing arid landscapes to support the animal and, therefore, yourself; the contrast between this nomadic material and these large rocks that form the dwellings is quite interesting.

A Roman milestone in the ancient mountain monastery of Beit Meri [credit: Robert McKelvey]

In contrast, “Future Was A Year Ago” – a collaboration between architect and designer Roula Salamoun and visual artist Ieva Saudargaitė Douaihi – explores the notion of copy and replications versus originality that connects both the physical world and the digital world.

“The first time we went to the site, one thing that really caught our eye was all these very brightly colored stones, which are wonderful in the range of colors they have,” Roula said.

“We borrowed a stone from the site – with the agreement of the DGA – and we recreated it with [resin], using these colors that we have seen and that have inspired us. We then took a photo of the copy, in situ, [and] using photogrammetry, we have created a 3D object, which we will file as an NFT.

“I think Lebanon – and Beirut in particular – was really a center for design in recent years,” she added. “I think that changed with the economic collapse and the revolution, etc. I think it’s really important to show that there is still a thriving culture of art and design,” concluded Roula.

Visual artist Nathaniel Rackowe produced the sculptural and abstract piece ‘Drop By Drop’, influenced by Fodoulian’s preparatory drawings for a work imitating the stalactites and stalagmites of The famous Jeita Grotto in Lebanonmade of stainless steel beams fitted with miniature lights, pointing to a hopeful future.

“These are his designs, but they haven’t been produced before,” Vartivarian said. “I wanted to give importance not only [to the designers]. They cannot do their work if there are no craftsmen. I also wanted to give importance to these people and the work they do, finishing the work of the designers. So I asked [Rackowe] to cover the collaboration with the design of Gaïa.

As part of the exhibition, the non-profit heritage association Silat For Culture will take visitors on guided tours of Deir al Kalaa.

Wiring installations have been added to illustrate the missing pillars, revealing the Byzantine church’s original layout, while notable elements – such as a Roman olive oil press and the ruins of the public baths – have been partially refurbished with new wooden features to better represent how they would have looked when still in use.

Robert McKelvey is a British freelance journalist and culture writer based in Lebanon.

Follow him on Twitter: @RCMcKelvey


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