“Lebanon’s Art World at Home and Abroad (LAWHA)” – Interview with Nadia von Maltzahn

In October 2020, the five-year research project “Lebanon’s Art World at Home and Abroad: Trajectories of artists and artworks in/from Lebanon since 1943” will begin. The project will investigate the trajectories of Lebanon’s artists and their works since its independence from France in 1943. It is led by Nadia von Maltzahn and funded by a prestigious ERC Starting Grant. The research project will be hosted by the Orient-Institut Beirut (OI Beirut) of the Max Weber Stiftung. We talked to Nadia von Maltzahn about her new project, what it will investigate and which new questions it might raise.

Your new project is starting this month: Can you give us a short overview what it will be about?

LAWHA – which means painting in Arabic – is about the forces that have shaped the emergence of a professional field of art in Lebanon within its local, regional and global context, against the background that Lebanon is regularly portrayed as a country with weak public institutions but vibrant cultural sector. The project proposes a shift of perspective in approaching Lebanon’s art world by focusing on the multi-dimensionality of artists’ individual trajectories. LAWHA aims to identify new methods on how to interrelate context and artistic production, to serve as a model for revisiting art histories in contexts where institutionalized local art histories are largely absent. In Lebanon, 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? 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 the development of a database and digital platform (DDP) that brings together the different sources on artists and their works, the project team hopes to create an important tool that allows one to make connections and trace patterns and networks. Personal documents such as letters, correspondence, diaries, notes or photographs form a core part of the data to be collected and analysed.

How did you start conceptualizing your project, what were the initial inspirations? Were there any experiences with Lebanese art or findings from past research that led to the genesis of LAWHA?

Visitors at the 9th Salon d’Automne 1974-1975. ©Courtesy of the Nicolas Ibrahim Sursock Museum.

Several things inspired me to propose LAWHA. In my research at the OIB over the last few years, I worked on cultural policies in Lebanon and the relationship between political frameworks, institutional actors, cultural players and society. One of my case studies was the Sursock Museum, Beirut’s main museum of modern and contemporary art that used to be known for its Salon d’Automne. I became fascinated by this group exhibition of artists in and from Lebanon, and together with Monique Bellan I launched a project on the emergence and role of the art salon in the Arab region. Through my research on Lebanon’s art salons it became clear that the salons played a role in the development – or at least the documentation – of what could be termed a “canon” of Lebanon’s art. In LAWHA we will rethink the validity of national and other canons, by examining how and by whom a canon of art is constructed in Lebanon. Related to this, through my research 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 LAWHA is to understand why these two status groups 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. In parallel, I stumbled upon old exhibition catalogues and private correspondence between an artist and a writer in a private estate. The artist was Palestinian, and his letters were so insightful about his outlook on life that was reflected in his work. At the same time, I heard about more and more archives and personal collections related to Lebanon’s art world that were there, but needed to be tracked down. It seemed to me vital to gather and analyse these sources to bring to light the artists’ ideas and networks that shaped their careers. Without producing new research, the same limited knowledge about artists and their works is reproduced without questioning its validity, and without opening new paths to understanding the evolution of the artist’s work and the context in which it is produced. In Walid Raad’s exhibition at Beirut’s Sfeir-Semler Gallery in late 2017, Better Be Watching the Clouds, Raad and architect Bernard Khoury presented their project “A Portrait of a Beirut site Museum”. In its “Preface (2016-2026)” they ask: “Are we and have we been attentive to the ideas, forms, lines, volumes, temporalities, colors made available to us by modern and contemporary art and artists in Lebanon? Our answer is: Not yet.”  They criticize the building of art institutions – which was booming in Lebanon at one point – while lacking reflection on art and artists. I had already conceptualized my project when I saw the exhibition, but it strengthened my resolve that this research was really needed.

Your project description mentions influences from “home and abroad” – how noticeable is the influence of non-Lebanese artists in Lebanon and Lebanese artists abroad on the Lebanese art scene? And what potential role do post-colonial influences play?

Selection of gallery exhibition catalogues
from the 1960s and 1970s.

LAWHA investigates Lebanon’s art world since its independence from France in 1943, so very much in a post-colonial context. Following independence, links with the former colonial power were still firm, in particular regarding the cultural elite who was in charge of some of the early cultural institutions in the country. At the same time, Beirut was a hub for intellectuals and artists, becoming the cultural capital of the Arab region from the late 1950s onwards. Many Palestinian, Iraqi and other artists made it their intellectual home at a time of growing conflict and repression in their home countries. During the civil war (1975-1990) some artists left the country, mostly to Europe where many of them had been and continued to be educated. Throughout, Lebanon’s art world has been marked by a high degree of mobility both to and from the country. Circulation and networks are thus central to understanding it. That’s why I talk about Lebanon’s art world and artists in and from Lebanon, rather than using the term Lebanese when talking about the scene. Lebanon’s artists abroad have generally kept close ties to Lebanon, and remain important players of the art scene at home. Etel Adnan, living in Paris and well into her 90s, is extremely well informed about the latest news from the art community, and continues to be a reference. A wonderful exhibition curated by Carla Chammas and Rachel Dedman at the Sursock Museum earlier this year, At the still point of the turning point, there is the dance, highlights the importance of friendships and exchange, such as that between Chafic Abboud (living in Paris) and Helen Khal (in Beirut).

What influence would you hope your project to have on research concerning the Lebanese artists and their work in the future? Which role will digital tools play in there?

Carlton Hotel archives rescued by UMAM Documentation & Research in 2017, the Carlton Hotel being one of Beirut’s early exhibition places. ©Courtesy of UMAM Documentation & Research.

Until today, art history in Lebanon is mainly taught through European art history and few scholarly resources are available on art in Lebanon, especially when it comes to the period before the end of the civil war. Some institutions have recently started to organise and build up archives related to Lebanon’s art and artists, but these are generally related to artists and artworks of their own collections. LAWHA seeks to build a collaborative digital platform that locates written sources, creates records of artists’ dossiers and links up to sources and initiatives that already exist in established archives, creating both a database and collective platform. The aim is thus to 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. As I have mentioned above, 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 hopefully foster future knowledge production about art and artists from the Arab region.


Nadia von Maltzahn
Picture by Nabil Ismail.

Nadia von Maltzahn joined the OI Beirut in 2013, first as research associate (2013-2018) before being appointed deputy director (2018-2020). She is the author of “The Syria-Iran Axis: Cultural Diplomacy and International Relations in the Middle East” (I.B. Tauris, 2013/2015) and holds a DPhil and an MSt in Modern Middle Eastern Studies from St Antony’s College, University of Oxford. She received her BA Honours in Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies from King’s College, Cambridge. Nadia co-edited “The Art Salon in the Arab Region: Politics of Taste Making” (Beiruter Texte und Studien 132, 2018), “Divercities: Competing narratives and urban practices in Beirut, Cairo and Tehran” (Orient-Institut Studies 3, 2015) and “Inverted Worlds: Cultural motion in the Arab region” (Orient-Institut Studies 2, 2013). Her research interests include cultural policies, artistic practices and the circulation of knowledge.


Citation: “Lebanon’s Art World at Home and Abroad (LAWHA)” – Interview with Nadia von Maltzahn, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 06.10.2020, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/25037.


Max Weber Stiftung

The Max Weber Foundation promotes global research, focused on the areas of social sciences, cultural studies and the humanities. Our research is conducted at ten institutes in various countries across the globe with different and independent fields of focus. Through our globally operating institutes, we are able to contribute to the communication and networking between Germany and our host countries or regions. By promoting academic dialogue and merging academic and non-academic employees from several countries with different cultural backgrounds, the Max Weber Foundation is able to strengthen the internationalization of research.

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