Beirut a Cultural Hub (1955-1975)
In the eyes of: a patron, an artist, a professor, and a gallerist - Mona Saudi. Courtesy of the Dalloul Art Foundation.
The Dalloul Art Foundation (DAF) presents a four-part documentary series on the evolution of the art scene in Beirut during the 1950s-1970s. The series is based on life-history interviews which were conducted and filmed by DAF in 2020. The interviews chosen for this exhibition cover the social transformations that transpired during the three decades following Lebanon’s independence in 1943. The four protagonists in the series include an art patron, Cesar Nammour; a sculptor, Mona Saudi; a professor, David Kurani; and a gallerist, Odile Mazloum. Each of these characters lived during Beirut’s heydays, otherwise known as the “golden sixties,” and experienced first-hand the booming cultural scene of the city. Most importantly, they participated in making that scene.
Through personal narratives, this four-part documentary series narrates a key feature of the golden sixties: the blossoming of Beirut’s art scene into a vibrant and diversified cultural hub. It also narrates the story of the dispersal of that cultural hub after the onset of the Lebanese civil war in 1975. Artists relocated and cultural spaces shutdown during the war, including art galleries and art institutions, forcing many to cope and adapt to a new social reality. In a state of fragility, a mélange of passion and despair shines through each personal narrative.
During Lebanon’s formative decades of state-building (1952-1970), Beirut was becoming the cosmopolitan center of the Arab world. The financial sector thrived within the country’s free-market economy. Educational institutions and instructional spaces ballooned alongside publishing houses, galleries, and museums. Most notably, a café society flourished, part of which was the famous Horseshoe café that attracted many intellectuals and artists. Lebanon’s diverse social fabric, religious pluralism, and laisser-faire economy attracted investors, thinkers, writers, and artists from all around the Middle East, Europe, and the United States. Knowledge production and freedom of expression became a staple of Beirut’s golden era. For most of the Arab world, Lebanon became a safe haven of free expression and free association.
However, this period of state-building was also one of political contestation over Lebanon’s place in the Arab World. The Lebanese political scene was heavily affected by regional and international political antagonisms. The country’s political environment was caught up in a fierce political struggle between adherents of pan-Arabism versus Lebanese nationalism and leftist movements versus right-wing politics. In addition, the Arab-Israeli conflict, and the relocation of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) to Lebanon in (1968-1982) heightened political tensions. After a series of political struggles, the Lebanese civil war broke out in 1975. Cosmopolitan Beirut was at an impasse.
The violence of the war divided Beirut into West and East Beirut. As a result, several art spaces shifted away from central Beirut and relocated to other regions in Lebanon. Key art patrons, artists, and innovators of the pre-war era adapted to a new disruptive reality that shaped the art scene in the post-war years.
Mona Saudi – ‘An Artist’ (1945-2022)
Mona Saudi was a Jordanian sculptor, born in 1945 in Amman. As a young woman, Mona dreamt of traveling to Paris to study art. So, she left home in secret at the age of seventeen and spent a year in Beirut, (1962-1963) frequenting poets and artists in a city culturally alive with artistic innovation in the heydays of the early 1960s.
She befriended modernist poets and writers in Beirut such as Yousef El Khal, Onis El Hajj, and Adonis, in addition to renowned Lebanese artists like Paul Guiragossian, Alfred Basbous and Michel Basbous. Sculptor Michel Basbous took her under his wing, teaching the young artist all he knew about form in art. Also, Artist Halim Jurdak opened the doors for Saudi to Beirut's burgeoning cultural scene. Throughout her life career, Saudi collaborated with Palestinian artists Vladimir Tamari and Kamal Boullata, and both became lifelong friends.
Saudi's first exhibition took place in 1963 at the Café de la Presse in Beirut on Hamra street. A few sales of her work were enough to buy her a ticket to sail to Paris where she joined the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts. After Paris, Saudi left for Jordan in 1968, and in 1969 she returned to Lebanon. She lived between Lebanon and Jordan until she eventually settled in Lebanon in 1993 at the end of the Lebanese civil war. She kept moving between Beirut, Amman, and London where her daughter artist and designer Dia Batal lived. Saudi lived and worked in her remarkable house and workshop on Clemenceau street in Beirut; she passed away in 2022 at the age of Seventy-Seven.