Virtual Views

Beirut at a Crossroads

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Saloua Raouda Choucair. Composition with Pebbles. 1959. Oil on panel, 13 1/2 × 17 1/4" (34.3 × 43.8 cm). The Riklis Collection of McCrory Corporation (by exchange)

Almost immediately after the explosions that ripped through Beirut, Lebanon, on August 4 of this year, a video went viral showing a young bride preparing to be photographed for her wedding. One moment she is posing for the camera, the next she is blown to the ground, smoke, dust, and debris filling the scene. It is a harrowing image: In a matter of seconds one of the most beloved cities in the world is left in tatters.

It is impossible to calculate how many lives were disrupted, how many businesses were damaged or destroyed. But what is certain is that, for a city that has endured, and survived, civil wars, corrupt governments, sectarian strife, and political uncertainty, this was a devastating moment. In many ways, Beirut is a city like ours—a cosmopolitan melting pot of cultures, scrappy and sophisticated, urban and urbane. Many of us at The Museum of Modern Art, and elsewhere around the world, have close friends in Beirut—artists, collectors, curators, and museum directors, among others—and in the wake of the explosions we were left grieving for the almost 200 people who died, the 6,500 who were seriously injured, and the several hundred thousand who were left homeless. How could this have happened here? How could such an enormous cache of ammonium nitrate have been left untended for so long? How much tragedy can a country endure?

Cultural institutions were among those critically damaged by the explosions. The Arab Image Foundation saw its offices shattered, the artist center Ashkal Alwan was also heavily damaged, as was the Sursock Museum, and many other places, including commercial art galleries, that had been part of Beirut’s vibrant artistic and intellectual life. For Beirutis, and Lebanese in general, whether living at home or abroad, and for the rest of the world as well, it was a calamity beyond imagination that will take generations to repair. To rebuild the city will require enormous resources and the political will to overcome decades of ineffective government; it will also require a great deal of imagination and determination, and an ability to rise above the horrors of the moment.

All of us have a stake in Beirut’s future, for it is much more than just a city, it is one of the oldest centers of civilization in the world, an enduring symbol of the power of culture and civic enterprise to overcome the harsh realities of the world, a place where dreams are nurtured and art is created. Join me in conversation with Christine Tohmé, founding director of Ashkal Alwan, and Zeina Arida, director of the Sursock Museum, as we talk about what is happening in Beirut today and how cultural institutions are coping with the aftermath of the explosions that have crippled the city.

–Glenn D. Lowry, The David Rockefeller Director, MoMA

  • Curator Ruba Katrib and artist Lawrence Abu Hamdan in conversation on October 1, 2020, as part of the Drop In with Artists program
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