BEIRUT, LEBANON— When Iman Hasbani first arrived in Beirut last November to do a month-long artist residency, she didn’t know if she had any art left in her.
Ms. Hasbani, a Damascus-based installation and performance artist, had not done any personal work for the past two years, instead focusing on using art therapy to help children who had been affected by the war in Syria.
“In the beginning I just wanted to relax and lay in the grass,” she said, sitting in the large open-plan living room of Artist Residence Aley in the hills above Beirut. “It was very important for me to reconnect with myself, and slowly I was able to get an idea for a performance piece about my relationship to the earth.”
For many Syrian artists like Ms. Hasbani, Beirut has been a place to reconnect with their art and to get a respite from the violence tearing apart their homeland.
Beirut has become the de facto capital of the Syrian contemporary art scene since the war started there three years ago. Mohammad Labash, a painter and alumnus of the Aley program who splits his time between Beirut and Damascus, estimates that 80 to 85 percent of galleries and art venues in Damascus have either closed or are not currently doing any programming.
His artistic colleague Yaser Safi, a painter and etcher based in Damascus who travels often to show in Beirut and internationally, agreed. “Artistic activity in Damascus is nonexistent today,” he said. “Even the few artists who remain in Syria who are working and producing are not exhibiting in Damascus. They are producing for outside the country.”
Beirut has seemed like the natural place to go. Raghad Mardini, a Beirut-based Syrian civil engineer who founded the Aley residency in 2012, said that Jordan had “closed its doors,” that Egypt did not give visas and that Turkey was also complicated for artists seeking to move.
“Beirut is the closest thing to Damascus; there is a big community of Syrian artists here, so it has become the hub of Syrian art,” she said.
Along with many artists who have moved to Beirut, either full time or part time, some Damascus contemporary art galleries have also moved some or all of their operations to the Lebanese capital. Samer Kozah, whose gallery was opened in Damascus in 1994, closed it two years ago and moved full time to Beirut; he has not reopened his gallery there but works on various projects focused around Syrian art, including founding the Syrian Contemporary Art Fair Beirut, which will take place again this November.
“Really, Beirut is like the oxygen for Syrian artists,” he said. “This is why most come to Beirut.”
Before the war started three years ago, the contemporary art scene in Damascus was small but growing. With a rich history of painting and manuscripts and strong art schools, including one at Damascus University, Syrian art was impressing collectors across the globe.
“Syrian art has benefited from a significant following for decades,” Maymanah Farhat, the artistic director of Ayyam Gallery, which has outposts in cities including Damascus, Beirut and London, wrote in an email. “Between 2004 and 2011, however, the Damascus scene exploded with the efforts of several commercial galleries and nonprofit art spaces, which piqued the interest of international curators and collectors.”
“For two years I did not do any paintings, but last year I decided it was time to do something for myself and for my contact with the world,” said Saad Yagan, a painter from Aleppo. “You can see wherever you are in Beirut galleries showing Syrian artists. I see Syrian artists doing well there.”
“There has definitely been an upward trajectory in terms of prices and the desire to collect Syrian art,” said Aileen Agopian, senior international specialist of contemporary art at Sotheby’s in New York. “But I think that has to do with the quality of what is out there. The politics maybe shines a bit more of a light, but the art speaks for itself and people understand how important many of these artists are to the contemporary art world.”
Artists like Diana Al-Hadid can command tens of thousands of dollars for their works; at a recent Sotheby’s auction in Doha, her piece “Self Melt” went for $42,500.
Beirut galleries, seeing the international interest in collecting Syrian art, have jumped on the bandwagon. “Syrian art has become such a staple there now and a focus,” Ms. Agopian said. Fine art galleries like Ayyam, Mark Hachem and Art on 56th all represent several established Syrian artists as well as up-and-comers.
“In terms of our programming, we now represent more Syrian artists than Lebanese,” said Lynda Aboukhater, the director of the Beirut outpost of the Mark Hachem Gallery, which is based in Paris and London. “It has nothing to do with that I wanted it this way but because what is coming out is so strong and good. Sometimes I do hear comments like, ‘Ah, another Syrian show,’ so it can be a little bit of jealousy and a bit of, ‘Why am I not pushing and promoting the Lebanese scene?”’
Khaled Samawi, the founder of Ayyam Gallery, said he was proud to see so many Syrian artists showing in Beirut. “The Syrian art scene is probably more vibrant today in Beirut than it ever was in Damascus,” he said. From June until August his galleries in Beirut and Dubai will host “Syria’s Apex Generation,” showcasing six contemporary artists.
“It is good to see something nice coming out of Syria,” Mr. Samawi said. “While all the history is being demolished and wiped out, the culture is actually being maintained by galleries and collectors throughout the world.”
Artists say that they have felt very welcomed into the Beirut art scene, with Lebanese artists, galleries and museums interested in their stories and their work. Houmam Al Sayed, who will have a one-man show at the Beirut Mark Hachem Gallery from June 13-30, said that Lebanese and Syrian artists were in sync on many things. “We go out together, we discuss, we meet,” he said.
Mr. Sayed said he left Damascus almost two years ago because he felt he was suffocating from the violence. “But of course, as in any country — but especially in Lebanon, which is a diverse country with different political opinions — there are people, though a minority, who react in a negative way,” he said. “One famous Lebanese artist came to the opening of one of my exhibitions and I extended my hand to him and he refused to shake it.”
Ms. Mardini set up the Art Residence Aley in part because she wanted to introduce young Syrian artists to the Beirut art scene. Not only do the Syrian artists use the beautifully renovated residence as a workspace, but Ms. Mardini also holds exhibitions: A show entitled “Art of Resilience,” which will showcase the work of the most recent Aley residents, will open in early July. She also introduces them to organizations, galleries and players on the Beirut art scene.
Since its founding two years ago, almost three dozen young Syrian artists who passed through Aley’s doors have produced more than 250 art pieces. A few of the artists, including Ms. Hasbani, have been invited to participate in recent shows in Berlin and at the World Bank headquarters in Washington.
“Most of these artists had to leave Syria, because otherwise they would be forced to join what is going on,” Ms. Mardini said. “So it is a gateway to a new life.”
Photo 1, from ARA; Photo 2, Mark Hachem gallery in Beirut