Lebanon’s Art World at Home and Abroad (LAWHA): Trajectories of artists and artworks in/from Lebanon since 1943

LAWHA (lawha/لوحة means painting or canvas in Arabic) investigates the trajectories of Lebanon’s artists and their works since its independence from France in 1943. The global art canon and history have largely been centred on Europe and North America. LAWHA aims to contribute to decentring this by identifying new methods on how to interrelate context and artistic production to serve as a model for revisiting art histories in contexts where institutionalised local art histories have largely been absent. The research project, funded by the European Research Council under grant agreement 850760, is led by Nadia von Maltzahn and hosted by the Orient-Institut Beirut of the Max Weber Stiftung. It runs for five years from October 2020.

The project proposes a shift of perspective in approaching Lebanon’s art world by placing emphasis on the multi-dimensionality of artists’ individual trajectories. It investigates (1) the forces that have shaped the emergence of a professional field of art in their local, regional and global contexts, (2) how to rethink the impact of the political, social and economic environment on the art world and its protagonists, (3) how artists are represented in relation to the nation, and (4) how the trajectories of individuals shape the field. The focus will be on artists in and from Lebanon using the forms of painting, sculpture and new media art. 

The specificity of Lebanon’s history after gaining independence from France in 1943 makes it particularly worthwhile to study the power-relations between artists and institutions at home and abroad. It is a nation that is regularly portrayed as a country with weak public institutions but vibrant cultural sector, so it provides a great case study to analyse the driving forces behind its artistic creation. Lebanon has had a high level of cultural production since independence, Beirut becoming the cultural capital of the Arab region in the late 1950s. There is a high degree of circulation and mobility both to and from the country, which is strongly connected to regional and international arenas. In this context, how are artists inscribed into systems of reference, both locally and globally? At the same time, Lebanon is often defined by its experience of conflict, war and violence. How can we re-evaluate the impact of war and forced or voluntary migration on a country’s artistic production by placing war and migration not at the centre of analysis, but within the larger context of artistic production?

Through previous research on Lebanon’s art salons it emerged that two groups of artists are highly visible in Lebanon’s art world, women artists and artists of Armenian origin. One aim of the project is to understand why these status groups that can otherwise be considered marginalised are so well represented. This special focus is part of the general focus of the project that looks at individual artists’ trajectories across three arenas in Lebanon’s art world: artistic education, exhibitions and the art market. These arenas are related to the material that needs to be gathered and analysed. The material is there but scattered and at danger of being lost, often only preserved in private collections and homes. By making the sources available, LAWHA will provide an important research tool and foster future knowledge production about art and artists from the Arab region.

Everything will be brought together in a database and digital platform (DDP). This platform will include data on artists’ trajectories, such as their education, exhibitions and the institutions that hosted them, as well as archival material where possible. LAWHA will create an open-access repository and develop a new tool for revisiting art histories. This tool will allow us to trace patterns and networks, and can be used to answer questions about how discourses, ideas, encounters and the socio-political environment impact artistic production.

The project’s objectives are thus to

(1) develop a new approach to rethink artistic production from a cultural-political perspective while placing the trajectory of artists and their works at the centre,

(2) re-evaluate the impact of war and migration on a country’s artistic production,

(3) build a collaborative digital platform and database to create a central and open-access repository and innovative tool for future research and preserving Lebanon’s cultural heritage, and

(4) connect the scientific cultures of academic research and museums/art institutions.

This blog will accompany LAWHA, introducing the project and its team members, announce events and positions, and share research results.

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