The drive to Basel Dalloul’s flat in West Beirut is a boisterous but not unnerving one. Taxicabs and dilapidated vans weave alongside gleaming sports cars; traffic conductor whistles find common cause with errant car horns. One passes, by turns, a Greek-Melkite church anchored under a terra cotta tile roof and, not a mile away, an Ottoman-style mosque with a striking, turquoise dome. Snaking through narrow roads, passersby catch glimpses of eggshell- and rose-colored villas, each perched on a manicured lawn and partially obscured by overgrown ivy or rusted gates.
Dalloul’s apartment is no less resplendent, punctuated as it is by oils and sculptures at every turn. One work, in particular, stands apart. It’s a slick and sinuous painting—one marrying Arabic calligraphy with eager, expressive lines. Blocks of richly hued cobalt and scarlet give way to swift and elegant verse and reveal, upon closer inspection, layers of interlocking, serpentine script. The work (above), by Tunisian artist Nja Mahdaoui, is just one of the 4,000 paintings, sculptures, and video installations to be displayed in the Beirut Arab Art Museum, slated to open in 2020.
On a recent afternoon, Dalloul, an IT entrepreneur and the managing director of the museum’s Ramzi and Saeda Dalloul Art Foundation, is giving a tour of his family’s holdings.
“At first glance, these look like Chinese characters,” Dalloul says as we come upon a lapis painting strewn with bold, ebony brushstrokes. “But look closely. It’s Arabic.”
What emerges at close range is a gossamer-thin lattice of Arabic calligraphy, the white letters like floral accents in a centuries-old textile.
A student of computer science, Dalloul was not much for art museums in school, except, admittedly, those he visited with his mother.
“She was an anthropologist and would tell me and my brother stories of each and every work,” he says, framed, as it were, by an aquamarine-tinged landscape of the Lebanese bay.
“After hearing her stories, you couldn’t keep me away.”
The walls—repositories of his family’s many journeys—are dappled with oils and mosaics, each intricate and intentional, though not imposingly so. Blazing primary colors converse here with layered, labyrinthine designs. Landscapes and figure studies intermingle with geometric forms and supple sculptures.
“Throughout the Middle East, museums showcase the work of their own state: museums in Jordan present Jordanian art, museums in Iraq, Iraqi art,” Dalloul says. “We want this museum to be a pan-Arab display—one that reflects the region’s rich artistic legacy.”
In a neighboring room, we happen upon a painting more foreboding than its peers, depicting human figures and livestock, musical instruments and layered hillsides, articulated here by way of golden and steel-toned brushstrokes. The artist, Syrian painter Ahmad Moualla, is best known for his theatrical verve; where darkness looms, flecks of amber abound.
The works are inviting, inspired, even intoxicating, but it’s the electric Tagreed Darghouth that stops us wholly in our tracks.
A blaze of crimson and a flash of white invites the viewer on and on, from its electric center to its fettered edges, and at last to an arresting stillness, as if under its visceral spell. The work, bearing only the title “Brighter Than 20 Thousand Suns,” is a stark reminder of the conflicts afoot in neighboring Syria and the wider region, to say nothing of the Lebanese Civil War that pitted neighboring sects against each other from 1975 to 1990.
Many are the buildings still scarred with bullet holes, each a reminder of a country turned against itself. Discord still swells in the state of six million people—two million of whom are Syrian refugees. Tensions came to a head on November 4 when Prime Minister Saad Hariri resigned and fled the country, raising new questions about Iran and Saudi Arabia’s vested interests in the state. But, as so often is the case with works as nuanced as Darghouth’s, what is eschewed is the raw and what emerges is the spirited, the life teeming up from deep within it.
Across town, the French Ashrafiyeh district is home to the Sursock Museum. Flanked by palm trees and a double arched staircase, the museum’s brilliant white façade is tempered only by intricate indigo windows—kaleidoscopic recesses in navy, ruby, and gold. The mansion, which belonged to the late art collector Nicholas Sursock, was converted into a museum in 1961. Today the grand residence, which saw itself through the civil war, albeit in a pared down state, is emerging anew following a seven-year renovation.
On this visit, the galleries are filled with the work of self-taught artist Willy Aractingi. Set against stark black walls, Aractingi’s abstract, psychedelic paintings delight with a spirited élan. Robin’s egg blues and blazing reds spar here in his visualizations of age-old folk tales and myths.
Museum director Zeina Arida is busy preparing for the institution’s fall exhibitions. Stacks of books line the walls behind her desk, her office awash in the afternoon light.
“During the renovation, we were careful to maintain the intimacy of the space,” Arida says, referring to the architectural additions to the museum—among them a new auditorium and gallery space—extensions that merge seamlessly with the mansion’s Venetian- and Ottoman-style molding.
“Even with these additions, we want the artwork to have pride of place.”
Upstairs, a group of teens and a woman with her child sit in the museum’s Salon Arabe, an enveloping room of carved wooden walls and marble columns—each topped with cream-colored arches. It was here, under currant-colored stained glass, that Sursock used to greet his guests.
Across the way, a series of faded postcards depict a pre-war Lebanon. One features the famed St. Georges Hotel, a spare, modern structure suspended at the edge of the Mediterranean Sea; another, the Ottoman Bank, an elegant powder blue and cream white building, nestled by the shore.
“Lebanon has a unique quality of light about it,” says Arida, who prior to joining the museum worked at the Arab Image Foundation, a nonprofit committed to the study of photographs from the Middle East, North Africa, and the Arab diaspora. “It’s something elusive and attractive, something you cannot fully understand unless you visit.”
In the afternoon light, the museum’s once sapphire- and amethyst-toned windows shine with a ruby, golden wash, calling to mind another work in Dalloul’s collection. In this painting by Lebanese Armenian artist Assadour, bold and brilliant brushstrokes reveal an intricate interplay of forms. A figure emerges in the foreground, distant objects spiral with alacrity. Light plays off of the scene’s rhythmic contours, the effect by turns chaotic and buoyant.
Angelica Aboulhosn is the public affairs specialist at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage.