Artists work to rebuild their devastated sector after a series of crippling blows
The once-bustling streets of the Gemmayze and Mar Mikhael neighborhoods in Beirut now lay in waste. Many of the homes, businesses, studios and galleries that played host to Beirut’s thriving culture scene over the last decade are left abandoned, or completely or partially destroyed.
50-year-old Lebanese-Canadian author and composer Sami Basbous described the scenes as “devastating”.
“It was almost like living in a chimeric dream of an afterlife. It was horrible,” he recalled after seeing the ruins of the neighborhood where for years he would meet with others from Lebanon’s arts and culture sector, attend events and visit studios.
Now all he has are memories of a life that no longer exists, with people who have long left the country. Basbous fears that the explosion could be the final straw for many of Lebanon’s artists and cultural practitioners, causing them to leave and deprive Lebanon of its reputation for a vivacious cultural hub, boasting some of the region’s most renowned cultural institutions and events, as well as a thriving underground scene.
“Once the art leaves the country, it’s a major loss,” he said. “You can’t put a price on it. You cannot teach it. You cannot recreate it. It’s almost like a death.”
A starving sector
Prior to the August 4 explosion, Lebanon’s art and culture sector had been struggling due to the worsening economic crisis that has plagued the country for well over a year.
Due to the crisis, Noor Haydar, a 35-year-old independent art curator and artist, says many artists were struggling to even afford the basic supplies needed to create their art.
In addition to this, galleries were struggling to stay open and the exhibitions and events that artists rely on to get by were increasingly being canceled due to the unstable political situation, financial collapse, and then the COVID-19 restrictions.
“The financial crisis had already put galleries and art collectives on the brim of the cup where they were struggling to make ends meet,” Haydar told NOW. “To make sure that artists have a livelihood through exhibitions and so forth and buyers were, at the time, and collectors were tight-fisted and couldn’t access their finances easily.”
The explosion helped to push the already dire situation over the edge. Many of the cultural institutions, already struggling with the consequences of the financial crises and COVID-19 lockdown, were dealt a fatal blow.
“The fact that the explosion happened has sort of closed a door momentarily for the art scene, especially since Gemmayze and Mar Mikhael were a hub for these art galleries and for artists,” Haydar said.
Almost immediately after the dust started to settle, players in the cultural scenes at home and abroad mobilized to try and salvage the sector by crowdsourcing funds online, raising money to rebuild studios and homes and to support affected artists.
A united front
Cynthia Merhej, 31-year-old fashion designer and founder of the brand Renaissance Renaissance, is one of those who organized an initiative to crowdsource funds for three of her friends whose cultural businesses were destroyed in the blast.
“As a creator myself I know that often what we need is money to keep our businesses afloat,” Merhej told NOW. “I couldn’t sleep thinking of what happened. So I reached out to three friends who I know have been really committed to keeping their businesses in Lebanon and have undergone every obstacle imaginable to do so and didn’t leave.”
The fashion designer noted that many of those in the art and culture sectors were already struggling to keep their businesses open and that the explosion appeared to be the final nail in the coffin for many creators.
“It completely has upended their lives, their life plans. Remember these people were already suffering due to the financial crisis in Lebanon,” she said. “So the bomb basically destroyed whatever was left.”
These places were devastated by the blast and lost many of their products and equipment.
Merhej was on the ground helping with the clean-up following the explosion and while she appreciated all of the funding and effort that was coming in from both locals and abroad to help, she noticed that the vast majority of this aid was going towards helping people find shelter, get food and fix their houses all the while ignoring businesses.
“I was thinking for the long term if we want to truly rebuild, we need to help these people as they were literally the ones working to build up our culture and they need to have a fighting chance,” she explained.
Soon after thinking about this, she set up a GoFundMe page to help these three friends to rebuild their studios with the goal of raising $30,000 so that she could give each of them $10,000.
In the end, Merhej was able to raise enough money to give each of her friends around $14,000 to help them start the rebuilding process.
While businesses and institutions needed help rebuilding their spaces, many individual artists lost equipment critical to their practices.
In the days following the blast, Tunefork, a production studio that has been a fixture in Lebanon’s alternative music scene since 2006, looked to raise money for around 30 individual musicians whose equipment had been destroyed, as well as two concert venues that were in the heart of the devastated areas.
Initially, they had hoped to raise enough funding to at least give their beneficiaries half of the money that they needed but were quickly able to surpass this goal.
According to Tunefork’s studio manager, Julia Sabra, they were able to raise over $50,000 for their cases despite having no experience in crowdsourcing funds.
With Beirut’s cultural scene all but decimated by the financial collapse, explosion and lockdown, many musicians were already unable to work, and certainly would have been unable to replace damaged equipment, Sabra explained that everyone that they helped was extremely grateful for the assistance.
“At least they have the money to reequip themselves if they need to and to restart the creative process somewhere,” Sabra said.
A symbiotic relationship
While there has been a lot of effort made by artists to help rebuild their sector, art and culture have also worked as a means to help rebuild Beirut, with residents, the Lebanese diaspora and even foreign efforts organizing performances and product sales to raise money for initiatives helping to rebuild people’s homes and support victims of the blast.
The Rebuild Beirut Benefit was a four-part concert series that was organized by people in Lebanon, the UK and the US in order to raise money for various NGOs and other organizations that could help those that were in desperate need.
“After the blast, I was looking for ways to support organizations doing work on the ground,” Will Thomson, a 29-year-old environmental scientist in the US and one of the organizers for the concert series, told NOW. “And quickly a team of us came together and we decided to make it a four-part series to keep the attention on Beirut for as long as we could.”
The concerts saw artists coming together in their homes or makeshift shelters to perform in a show that was then broadcast through the internet. The organizers were even able to get a guitar from the American metal band, Iron Maiden, to auction off.
The goal was to raise money for organizations that were not getting much attention when it came to international donations, but the concert organizers still believed were essential to support those in need.
“Organizations like the Lebanese Red Cross, while a very important cause, were getting a lot of funding,” Thomson explained. “So, we wanted to make sure to highlight and give support to smaller organizations and organizations supporting the most vulnerable in Beirut like refugee communities, domestic workers, LGBTQ folks.”
For Basbous, who took part in the concert series, this was an opportunity for him to give back to his country and to use his talents to help people.
Through four concerts streamed online over four weeks, they were able to raise $11,000 that they then distributed equally among their beneficiaries. But they are not done yet.
The Beirut Editions print sale was another attempt by creators to help Lebanon’s explosion victims and reconstruction. Organised by Tala Safie, a Lebanese art director who moved to New York several years ago, she wanted to do something to help her home country and found that her friends in the United States were more than willing to help.
“We decided to do a print sale since a lot of my friends are illustrators,” Safie told NOW. “It started because a friend of mine has a printer and she offered her services when the explosion happened so it gave me the idea to partner up with different printers who also offered their services for free. We matched illustrators with printers to create original prints.”
Safie and her small team quickly became overwhelmed with the nearly 1,100 order requests for 2,400 prints that they received and ended up spending most evenings and weekends working to fulfill the requests.
In the end, Beirut Editions was able to raise around $50,000 for three organizations that support marginalised communities, including the Anti-Racism Movement and Haven For Artists, as they would not be on the priority list of organizations for aid.
“There was a lot of relief efforts and we wanted to support some of the NGOs that weren’t in the first line of help,” Safie explained.
Such crowdfunding events provided a direct line of relieft to institutions and organisations in need. Even though he does not believe that music and art can solve the country’s problems, Thomson argues that initiatives like the concert series did help to call attention to the catastrophe, highlighting, for him, the importance of their work.
“We did get a lot of messages from people in Beirut being like ‘Thank you. We appreciate you just bringing attention to it’ because while it was headlined for a week, those headlines quickly faded, but the damage from the blast was much longer standing,” he said.
An uncertain future
Both Haydar and Basbous are concerned about the future of art in Lebanon. They both know people who have left, and many others who are planning on leaving.
While some artists have found success in platforming and selling their work and services through social media, it is still not enough and many have not been successful in these endeavors.
“A lot of artists have left and a lot of them are looking to leave because there is no work,” Basbous said. “The last thing people think about buying now is art. So, things have moved, in a way, on social platforms and that didn’t translate into success..”
In order to continue surviving, some artists have looked for work outside their practice, to pay for their rent and other bills. But this could potentially put their art careers at risk.
“With these exhibitions getting canceled, no one can really sustain themselves,” Haydar explained. “They [artists] are having to do other jobs and that jeopardizes their dedication to their artwork.”
Basbous added that unlike in other countries where the government gives more support to the arts, creators in Lebanon have to fend for themselves with their work “definitely not going to be [sold] in Lebanon,” forcing them to look abroad.
In addition to this, as long as the economic situation continues to deteriorate, it will make it increasingly challenging for artists to continue doing their work.
“There are projects happening and there are people being creative,” Haydar said. “But at the end of the day, if there is no real support or money being pumped into this field, especially from the government, it’s just not going to move forward.”
However, Haydar and Basbous believe that there is hope for a revitalized art and culture sector in Lebanon.
Haydar is currently working on an exhibition with other artists at Beit Beirut.
While she does not know when it will premiere yet and she is still in the organizing phase, the artist remains optimistic and believes that this exhibition is a sign that artists are continuing to push forward.
For Basbous, he sees this tragedy as an opportunity to move the art and culture scene forward with a further focus on human rights and “portraying this reality through art.”
“I believe that there is going to be something quite incredible,” he stated. “Because there are so many great artists here and this is such a wake-up call on the senses to produce something that is meaningful.”