Beirut’s Sursock Museum and the Art of Resilience

After nine long years, Beirut’s Sursock Museum reopened this weekend.

Opening night at the Sursock Museum

Opening night at the Sursock Museum

The museum houses modern and contemporary art in a setting as elegant as the artwork within: an Italianate villa located in a well-heeled district of Beirut.  First opened in 1961, the Sursock was long the reference point for contemporary art in Lebanon, hosting an annual salon, or exhibition of emerging artists, as well as a permanent collection of renowned painters from the region. The museum managed to stay open through most of Lebanon’s 15-year civil war, but closed in 2008 to undergo seven long years of renovation.

Emblematic of the resilience of the Lebanese themselves, the museum reopened this weekend, amidst a garbage crisis, a political crisis, and a refugee crisis of historical proportions.

Fittingly, the museum’s director, Zeina Arida, has curated opening exhibitions that share a theme of identity.

In “Picturing Identity” photographs summon the past of the Lebanese people.

"Muslim Sheikh", from The Fouad Debbas Collection

“Muslim Sheikh”, from The Fouad Debbas Collection

In “Regards sur Beyrouth” paintings evoke the history of the local landscape.

View of Beirut, 1893 by Henry Andrew Harper

View of Beirut, 1893 by Henry Andrew Harper

And a multimedia exhibition entitled “The City in The City” explores modern-day Beirut. The piece that most struck me in this exhibition was a map created by Mona Fawaz and Ahmad Gharbieh pinpointing visible security deployment in Beirut in 2009: it was cluttered with symbols for checkpoints, army tanks, military vehicles, barbed wire, road spikes and more. (If you can’t make it to the museum, the map and its background essay can be accessed on the website Academia.edu, with free registration to the site.)

Head of programs, Nora Razian, has designed a robust public program of tours, talks, walks, workshops, films and family programs to accompany this last exhibition. I was lucky enough to get a spot on a night walk entitled “The Streets Beneath the Streets,” led by the writer Lina Mounzer. The stories she narrated on Friday night, as she led our group from one hidden corner of the Ashrafieh neighborhood to the next, centered on the famine the country faced during World War I, which killed an estimated 100,000 to 200,000 persons in Mount Lebanon alone, 500,000 in Greater Syria. According to the BBC, “As a proportion of the total population, more people died in Greater Syria than anywhere else in the world during the First World War.”

Commonly attributed to a blockade by Allied forces seeking to cut off supplies to the Ottoman empire, the reality of the famine was a far more complicated scenario, also involving environmental factors (such as a locust invasion that carpeted the countryside, some say knee-deep), wartime mismanagement and war profiteering. (This article touches on some of the heart-rending details that Lina shared with us, accompanied by equally harrowing images.)

Foreign influences, environmental degradation, profiteering….

Lebanon’s present has disturbing echoes of its past, and serves as a reminder that only by studying history can we grasp how things might change or remain the same.

All of which circles me back to the reopening of the Sursock Museum, its exhibitions and public programming. Yes, the garbage crisis remains unresolved, with hills of refuse blighting Lebanon’s landscape and clogging its riverbeds. It’s true, Lebanon’s longstanding political crisis (including a 15-month-and-counting presidential vacuum) has deepened the garbage crisis. And while the number of officially registered Syrian refugees in Lebanon has dropped in recent months, there remain more than one million, for a staggering statistic of 1 in 5 people in Lebanon is a Syrian refugee. Much of the system in Lebanon seems to be held together with aging Scotch tape, threatening to peel off at any moment.

Yet the Sursock Museum, Zeina Arida, Nora Razian, Lina Mounzer, and all the others involved with the Sursock’s reopening and public programs, are the embodiment of resilience. They remind us to step back to see more clearly who we are and where we came from, so that we can better see where we want to go next.

Culture is not a luxury.

Culture is part of us. It’s what constitutes a person, it links generations and gives meaning to history. Knowing one’s culture is knowing one’s self. Identifying and preserving one’s heritage allows reaching out to the others.

-Zeina Arida, to the Prince Claus Fund

For details about the Sursock Museum and upcoming events, visit their Facebook page at www.facebook.com/SursockMuseum

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