A Tale of Two Cities: Beirut and Damascus
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Beirut and Damascus have been linked in many ways throughout the last century. The distance – only 92 kilometres – between the two cities positioned Beirut as an obvious first destination for any Syrian artist, and a quick list reveals some of the most famous names of their age: Pioneer painter Toufic Tareq moved to Beirut and died there in 1941. Michel Kurché was a frequent visitor because of family relationships. Through Guido de la Regina, the Italian professor who taught fine art in Beirut and Damascus, artists like Mahmoud Hammad and Nassir Chaura, who were La Regina’s students, started showing their works in Lebanon as early as 1962. Hammad even married Beiruti artist Dourria Fakhoury. The Sursock museum hosted a major exhibition of Syrian art in 1964 – a show that included the most active artists of that epoch. Fateh Moudarres was a regular exhibitor at Gallery One since the mid-1960s. Elias Zayat and Saad Yagan also had their first shows in 1970 and 1972 at Gallery One. Louay Kayali had two seminal exhibitions in the house of his doctor Alaeddine Droubi in the early 1970s. Nazir Ismail started frequenting the Horseshoe Cafe and the Beirut gallery scene as of 1968. The half Iraqi-half Syrian gallerist Waddah Faris opened his notable Contact gallery in 1972. While Syria was embarking on a socialist economic regime from the 1960s onwards, it was rather obvious that Beirut would become the market platform for many Syrian artists, especially with the wealthy Syrian business community relocating itself there after the nationalisation of the 1960s.

The Lebanese Civil War came to disrupt these organic relationships, with the closure of many galleries in a soon divided Beirut. Many Syrian artists nonetheless kept strong ties to Beirut, like Moudarres and Ismail, but it was only with the reconciliation process after the Ta’if agreements of 1991 that Beirut once again started to play an influential role in the Syrian art scene. A major exhibition titled Atelier Syrien was held at the Unesco Palace in 1999. Organised by Atassi Gallery, in collaboration with the Agial and Janine Rubeiz galleries, it shed light on the prominence of the Syrian art scene at the turn of the century. The unfortunate events of 2011 pushed many artists to move to Lebanon, like Humam Sayed, Anas al Braehe, Semaan Khawam, Ramia Obeid, Saad Yagan, Zouheir Dabbagh, to name just a few. 

The intensity of the relationship between the two cities is bound to remain strong in spite and against all odds. The focus of this article was on the city of Beirut with regard to Syrian artists, leaving no space to talk about the relationship of Lebanese artists to Syria in general and Damascus in particular, hoping it could be the subject of a future article, or even a thematic exhibition on Syria through the eyes of Lebanese artists. 

Saleh Barakat, October 2019