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Beirut and the Golden Sixties: Finding Resonance

13 June 2023

Interview by Loubna Zeidan

How does the current exhibition exploring Beirut’s artistic legacy connect with Mathaf’s broader vision? Director Zeina Arida explains.

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Beirut and the Golden Sixties: A Manifesto of Fragility, on view at Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art until 5 August, explores the vibrant art scene of Lebanon in the 1960s. Curated by Sam Bardaouil and Till Fellrath, the critically acclaimed exhibition is drawing record numbers of visitors to the museum. We spoke to Mathaf’s director, Zeina Arida, to discuss the special resonance that the exhibition has with the public as well as with the museum’s permanent collection and her vision for the future.

Q. This exhibition was previously presented in Lyon and in Berlin. Why was it important to bring it to Doha — particularly Mathaf?

Arida: There are several compelling reasons why the exhibition is being presented at Mathaf. First, there is a personal connection between myself and the exhibition, as well as with the artworks, the art scene and my own story. Many of the artists featured in the exhibition were part of the Sursock Museum collection, where I previously served as director, and I was involved in conversations with the exhibition's creators during my tenure. As a result, there are some loans from the Sursock Museum included in this exhibition.

Another reason why this exhibition is particularly interesting for Doha and Mathaf is that it aligns with my vision for working with the collection and engaging the audience. The exhibition adopts a multidisciplinary approach and presents multiple narratives, placing a strong emphasis on the stories behind the artworks. This focus on storytelling is crucial and relevant to the exhibition's impact.

Furthermore, the exhibition holds a particular resonance because it is curated by Sam Bardaouil and Till Fellrath, who curated one of Mathaf's inaugural shows, Told | Untold | Retold (30 December 2010 – 13 February 2011). This groundbreaking exhibition invited 23 artists to create new works, making it a reference point not only for Mathaf but also for the Arab world.


Zeina Arida, Director of Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art. Photo: Hamad Yousuf Al Hamar

When I took on the directorship of Mathaf in 2021, it presented an opportunity to reassess and reposition the museum, and I strongly believe that Mathaf's original mission and vision are even more relevant today than they were 12 years ago. Bringing back Sam and Till sends a powerful message that Mathaf's mission and vision remain as significant as they were from the very beginning.

Most of the artists showcased in Beirut and the Golden Sixties are part of Mathaf's collection, even if the exhibited artworks themselves do not originate from our collection. Therefore, Mathaf is the natural venue to host this exhibition. By presenting this exhibition, Mathaf reaffirms its commitment to preserving and promoting the rich artistic heritage of the region, and providing a platform for meaningful cultural dialogue.

Q. How does this exhibition serve or support Mathaf's goals?

Arida: The exhibition aligns perfectly with Mathaf's vision and collection. Lebanon, along with Baghdad and Cairo, played a significant role in the artistic landscape of the region, particularly in the 1960s. Unfortunately, these cities have experienced turmoil and profound transformations over the years. It is crucial to delve into the history and shed light on these foundational art scenes, ensuring that younger generations are informed about their cultural significance.

This exhibition serves as a declaration of what I envision for Mathaf and how I hope to engage with our audience with future exhibitions and programmes.

Zeina Arida, Director of Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art

Contrary to nostalgic experiences solely rooted in past history, this exhibition offers a heartwarming experience through the various approaches and numerous small stories that speak to us about the art scene of that era. It is not about dwelling in nostalgia, but rather about exploring different perspectives and engaging with the multiple narratives presented. This exhibition serves as a declaration of what I envision for Mathaf and how I hope to engage with our audience with future exhibitions and programmes.

Q. Can you speak more specifically about the connections between the loaned works in the exhibition and the permanent collection at Mathaf?

Arida: The direct connection between Mathaf and the exhibition is remarkable, as 90% of the featured artists are part of Mathaf's collection, including Helen El-Khal, Saloua Raouda Choucair and Saliba Doueihi , currently on display in the first-floor galleries. This creates an intriguing interplay between the exhibition and the collection display, allowing visitors to explore the artworks and narratives in both contexts. However, it is important to acknowledge that there are artists missing from Mathaf's collection, and their roles are also crucial to understanding the art scene of that period.

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Gallery view of Beirut and the Golden Sixties. Left wall (background): Reproduction of a photograph of Helen El-Khal at an exhibition opening at Galerie Manoug, Beirut, May 1968. MACAM - Modern and Contemporary Art Museum; (foreground): Helen El-Khal (1923–2009), Homage to Rothko, 1975. Oil on canvas; 100 x 80 cm. KA Modern and Contemporary Art Collection, Beirut. Right wall: Fateh al-Moudarres (1922–1999). Untitled, 1966. Oil on canvas; 125.5 x 225 cm. Courtesy of Barjeel Art Foundation, Sharjah. Photo: Ali Al-Anssari, courtesy of Qatar Museums ©2023

For this iteration of the exhibition at Mathaf, the curators have selected 10 works from Mathaf's collection that were not included in the previous venues in Lyon and Berlin. This addition brings a new dimension to the exhibition, offering a distinct experience for visitors.

Q. What do you think the visitor will take away from the exhibition?

Arida: The exhibition shares many similarities with the city of Beirut itself. It is a vibrant and bustling exhibition, filled with layers of complexity, emotions and contrasting elements of sadness and humor. I hope that visitors will recognise and appreciate the richness of the exhibition experience, realising that visiting an art museum and exploring an exhibition can be incredibly enriching. Whether through learning or enjoyment, the exhibition offers a glimpse into the multifaceted nature of life itself, with its multiple experiences, complexities and various layers of interpretation.

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Gallery view of Beirut and the Golden Sixties. The exhibition includes several documentary videos and multimedia elements, as well as archival materials such as posters, publications and leaflets. Photo: Ali Al-Anssari, courtesy of Qatar Museums ©2023

Additionally, I hope that visitors will understand the deep connection between art and culture. The inclusion of audiovisual archives in the exhibition, showcasing galleries and documentary footage from exhibition openings, serves as a reminder that artists are an integral part of society. Through their artworks, contemporary artists have the ability to capture and reflect the unique aspects of their own time. Their works often address pressing issues and provide valuable insights into the historical context in which they were created. Exploring artworks produced during a specific era can be an incredibly informative experience, shedding light on that particular period in history. I hope that visitors will take away this understanding and appreciation for how art can be a powerful lens through which to view and understand our shared history.

Q. How does the structure of the exhibition align with what you hope to do in Mathaf generally?

Arida: The inclusion of videos, particularly the documentaries showcased in the atrium, adds significant value to the exhibition. These videos, produced by the Beirut-based Dalloul Art Foundation, provide visitors with the opportunity to delve deeper into their understanding of the Beirut art scene. By offering additional perspectives and insights, the exhibition encourages repeated visits, allowing visitors to further expand their knowledge and engagement with the subject matter. This emphasis on multiple visits is important to us, as it fosters ongoing exploration and continuous learning within the exhibition space.

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Gallery views of Beirut and the Golden Sixties. The exhibition continues to draw record attendance since its opening in March.

Q. The exhibition is receiving a high number of visitors. What does this reveal about what audiences in Doha are looking for?

Arida: As a museum director, I believe that our role, along with artists and curators, extends beyond simply determining the story we want to tell. It is equally important to consider how we can actively engage visitors in that story and ensure that our work remains relevant to them. This aspect holds great significance in our work. I am delighted to see that the exhibition is attracting more visitors compared to previous ones. I like to imagine that this is because we are effectively making the stories behind the exhibition accessible. Accessibility plays a crucial role in creating a welcoming environment within an art museum. When visitors feel at ease and welcomed, it encourages them to return.

The feedback from visitors has been overwhelmingly positive. For those familiar with Mathaf, its collection and who hold an affinity for the museum, the exhibition provides a refreshing approach to temporary exhibitions. The seamless connection with the museum's collection adds an unexpected and delightful element to the experience. Visitors have also expressed keen interest in the archival materials presented within the exhibition, such as posters, publications, leaflets and invitation cards, which offer insights into the history of galleries. The inclusion of 12 to 14 videos throughout the exhibition has also garnered significant attention. Furthermore, the diverse range of mediums showcased — including paintings, works on paper, tapestries, ceramics and three-dimensional objects — has contributed to the overwhelmingly positive and enthusiastic feedback.

Inner pages the Beirut and the Golden sixties publication featuring an artwork in the exhibition.

A two-page spread from the exhibition catalogue for the Doha presentation of Beirut and the Golden Sixties: A Manifesto of Fragility. Pictured: Farid Aouad. Metro scene, 1960–1970. Oil on canvas; 195x390 cm. Courtesy Hala Wardé. Photo: Noushad Ahammad, courtesy of Qatar Museums Publications ©2023

Q. What about the exhibition’s legacy?

Arida: One of the most significant legacies of the exhibition is its accompanying publication. Initially published in French for the Lyon iteration, it has been adapted and released in English, incorporating works from Mathaf's collection that were added to the exhibition. Additionally, an Arabic version is currently being printed. This publication will hold great importance even after the exhibition closes, as it will serve as a reference for the art scene in Lebanon during the 1960s, solidifying its significance.

Loubna Zeidan is a Senior Editorial Specialist at Qatar Museums.

Plan Your Visit

Beirut and the Golden Sixties: A Manifesto of Fragility, is on view at Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art until 5 August 2023. Admission to Mathaf is free and includes entrance to the exhibition and the permanent collection galleries. Reserve free tickets in advance to select your preferred time slot.

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