In the isolated Beirut neighborhood of Karatina, the Sfeir-Semler Gallery occupies a space apart — both literally and metaphorically. As one of Beirut’s most successful and prestigious commercial galleries exhibiting work by some of the region’s most exciting contemporary artists, the Sfeir-Semler is in a league of its own, leading Beirut’s contemporary art scene and making waves both regionally and internationally with expertly curated, powerful and complex exhibitions.
The Sfeir-Semler Gallery is the brainchild of Andree Sfeir-Semler. An artist by training, Sfeir-Semler left Lebanon in 1975 to study film in Germany, remaining there during Lebanon’s 15-year civil war to open the highly successful Sfeir-Semler Hamburg. The Lebanese branch of the Sfeir-Semler opened in 2005 on the 20th anniversary of the Hamburg branch.
As one of the first contemporary art spaces in the Middle East, the Sfeir-Semler has become the go-to gallery for international dealers, curators and museums looking to buy into the Arab art craze that has seen the region’s profile in that field skyrocket in recent years.
Attention and fame didn’t sway Sfeir-Semler to compromise on its commitment to showcasing the most interesting and high-quality work to be found in the region, regardless of commercial potential. In fact, the Sfeir-Semler holds only three shows per year, curated in a distinctive style that is even less commercial than museums. Although all pieces on display are for sale, Sfeir-Semler puts a high premium on the potential of well-curated exhibitions to educate the public about art.
The current exhibitions at the gallery certainly push the limits of commercial art, introducing the viewer to artistic interpretations of the Crusades and off-beat Arab proverbs, among much else. The first exhibition, entitled Contemporary Myths II, was created by Egyptian artist Wael Shawky.
Shawky’s exhibit explores the first crusade (1096-1099) through different media including film, photography, sculpture, painting and drawing, investigating the resonance of the crusades in today’s world and interrogating the concept of religious war in a complex and satisfying display of some of his most iconic work to date.
The centerpiece of the exhibition is a film entitled “Cabaret Crusades: The Horror Show File,” which stars 200-year-old marionettes from the Italian Lupi Collection in a detailed retelling of the events of the first crusade.
In the film, Shawky plays with the idea of “pulling the strings” of history, examining the causes and effects of this period on the present. Accompanying the film and installation is a selection of drawings depicting medieval themes, crusader flags that are equal parts painting and sculpture, and a series of photographic portraits of the intricate puppets used in the film.
A concurrent exhibition, Exhibition No. 17 by famously eccentric Lebanese artist Mounira Al Solh, is a collection of works from three periods of her diverse production.
Perhaps most unique are Al Solh’s “Bassam Ramlawi”. Ramlawi is a fictional character created by the artist, through which Al Solh expresses herself in graphic, energetic paintings and drawings that depict Ramlawi’s surroundings and neighbors, captured as he finds himself waiting for different people and things throughout his day. “Ramlawi’s” works are accompanied by a vivid documentary about the titular character, played by Al Solh.
In a video installation titled, “The Mute Tongue, 19 Short Video Scenes of 19 Arabic Proverbs and Sayings on 19 Monitors,” various proverbs, including some seemingly untranslatable phrases such as “he is cold but he farts blankets” and “he’s even confused by his own balls” are acted out silently and to hilarious effect on camera.
Although Al Solh’s three works vary in content and medium, each exploring the nature of language and the various ways in which it is used and interpreted, they unearth in the process remnants of the past that unconsciously inform our speech and linguistic orientation today.
These difficult, rewarding exhibitions, running through March 19, reflect the largely undiscovered pool of talent in the Arab world, and the potential for expansion of contemporary art platforms across the region.
Tannous Building – 4th FL.-Street 56
Jisr Sector 77 – Quarantine
Beirut 2077 7209 Lebanon
Tel + 961 1 566 550