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October 31, 2021

Spotlight on Beirut Art Residency

Article by Amar A. Zahr, Nathalie Ackawi & newcube

5 minutes read

We had the opportunity to speak with Amar A. Zahr and Nathalie Ackawi who founded and run Beirut Artist Residency (BAR) in Lebanon. Founded in 2015, BAR is dedicated to supporting the production and dissemination of contemporary art. The program focuses on three main facets; residencies, local exhibitions and public interventions. BAR provides both emerging and mid-career artists with the time and space to work, encouraging them to venture beyond their usual practice while laying the groundwork for future projects. BAR’s exhibition and public intervention programs enhance accessibility to contemporary art. The work BAR presents is often experimental in nature, allowing artists to take a more conceptual approach with their practice. Ultimately, BAR’s activities strive to provide insight on the culturally rich Lebanese climate whilst creating a global network of meaningfully engaged artists.

Amar and Nathalie, we are delighted to be able to speak with you both.
Can you tell us a little bit about yourselves and how you came to enter the contemporary art world?

Amar: I started off wanting to be an artist and used residencies as a tool to strengthen my practice, which somehow led me in a different direction. 

Nathalie: Growing up in Beirut, I never imagined working in art could be a profession. Yet, immediately after my undergraduate degree, I flew to New York determined to tap into the art world and work my way through it. Luckily, things unfolded from there.

Amar, what inspired you to create Beirut Art Residency?

Amar: After participating in residencies in Istanbul and New York as a visual artist, I saw the impact they had on me and my practice. With the mix of freedom to experiment and the nurturing collaborative environment, I was convinced that my next step would be to establish a similar structure in my hometown of Beirut, Lebanon. There were a couple of residencies that already existed within institutions in Lebanon at the time, however there was no model that was purely a residency program as well as a live/work space for artists. The role of BAR was to bridge the gap between international and local artists, through dialogue, exchange and the programming of regular events. 

How has Beirut Art Residency adapted to the changing conditions of COVID?

Amar: At the time COVID hit, we were halfway through our yearly residency collaboration with the Onassis Foundation in Athens in which we hosted Greek artists in Beirut for a period of 2 months. Dimitris Rentoumis, the artist-in-residence back then, had to fly back to Athens because airports were closing worldwide. For a moment, time stood still and all our activities were on pause. Because residencies are about human experiences, it was almost impossible for us to be functional. However we tried to engage our audience by being active on social media and through virtual studio visits we organized with some artists.

Woman sunbathing by the ocean
Summer by Reihaneh Hosseini, Private Collection

How do you find and research the artists that you collaborate with?

Nathalie: For the residency program, it’s actually the other way around where artists usually find us and apply through our annual Open Call. We receive hundreds of applications per call and put in place a selection jury – they meet in Beirut to do the final selection after our own internal pre-selection. As for exhibitions, we usually try to think of artists based on a specific curatorial theme. Over the years we’ve had the opportunity to work and meet with quite a large number of artists who have become part of our network, and with whom we maintain regular contact. 

What advice would you give to emerging artists who are just starting out?

Nathalie: Many emerging artists try to follow what is “trendy” or “happening” in the art world. Our advice is to be true to your personal narrative and the context in which you live, because that would only be unique to you and no one else. If you are depicting that authentically, people will take notice. 

What artist would you love to collect yourselves if you could choose anyone? 

Amar: Today my gaze is turning more towards socially engaged artists, those who address difficult topics namely about current events in the Middle Eastern region, and the world as a whole. Things are changing rapidly and the way we look at them is changing even faster. 

Nathalie: I am interested in collecting emerging artists whose works and practice appeal to me, with a specific tendency for contemporary Lebanese artists. However, if I could choose, I’d love to own a work by Etel Adnan one day!

Fabric glued together in neon green, blue, yellow, and black with text
Doubt Consumed You by Molly Kent
Shantel Miller, How Long Does It Take To Heal, 2018. Private Collection, Los Angeles.
Woman seated in the back of a car holding sunglasses while looking out the window
Untitled by Brandon Elijah Johnson, Private Collection
Rainbow text against a black background
Pedro Ruxa, With Silence We Speak, 2020
Fabric glued together in neon green, blue, yellow, and black with text
Doubt Consumed You by Molly Kent
Shantel Miller, How Long Does It Take To Heal, 2018. Private Collection, Los Angeles.

What would your predictions be for the art world in the next 5 years?

Amar: The art world has already experienced rapid changes in the past year, with the introduction of NFTs as well as the slow yet steady diversification of collections, most of which are becoming more inclusive. We’re definitely headed in a direction that is more up to speed with the current times, with the art world acting less independently, but rather more in tune with what is happening in the world. More and more collectors will also be buying art online in the years to come.

Any exciting upcoming projects you’d like to share with us? 

Amar: At the moment, we are exploring residency opportunities for Lebanese artists with partners around the world. One of these residencies just took place in Rome with two local partners (OTTN Projects and Materia Gallery): three Lebanese artists spent one month working in artist studios in the Italian capital. 

Nathalie: As a side project, we have been curating online exhibitions such as the one in collaboration with the NY-based platform Artfizz. The exhibition titled “One Night Only” dealt with fetishism and intimacy through the gaze of 5 Lebanese artists.

That all sounds like so much fun! Thank you Amar and Nathalie for your support of young artists. And we look forward to discovering your upcoming projects!

Back view of a nude woman stepping into her bathtub
LukeWarm, by Shantel Miller

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Lukewarm
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Brandon Elijah Johnson

Brandon Elijah Johnson

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Amar A. Zahr & Nathalie Ackawi

Beirut Art Residency

Many emerging artists try to follow what is “trendy” or “happening” in the art world. Our advice is to be true to your personal narrative and the context in which you live, because that would only be unique to you and no one else. If you are depicting that authentically, people will take notice.

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