Amal Traboulsi, a gallery owner, curator, and Middle Eastern art expert, sits down with me for an extensive interview covering her experiences in the Middle Eastern art world. In 1979 Ms. Traboulsi opened the Epreuve D’Artiste Gallery, which kept the art scene alive in Lebanon throughout the country’s Civil War. In July 2006 Ms. Traboulsi started a new working strategy: she now organizes exhibitions and art events throughout the region. She is also highly sought after by many of the world’s leading institutions and art organizations due to her vast knowledge of the region’s art scene.
(In the following interview, T=Taymour, A= Amal Traboulsi)
T: Ms. Traboulsi, can you give me a bit of background information: where were you born? Where did you grow up? When did you first start getting into art?
A: I was born and raised in Lebanon. I studied art before I got married and then went back to AUB to take further, more important studies concerning the history of art during the first few years of the war. I studied with Dr. Martin Giesen, professor of art history at AUB. I took courses mainly in lithography, etching, and other appliances of art.
T: And when did you first start thinking you wanted to make a career in the art field?
A: Well I always dreamt of owning a gallery. I got married to a man who worked in fashion, so I studied art at the Universal School of Paris and specialized in fashion at that time. I had my background and I turned it back during the time of war to art. Dr. Martin Giesen, a German, had to leave the country (Lebanon) because the (Civil) war was getting more and more intense, and his contract with DAAD was over, so we combined our dreams and opened a gallery together. It was a way of keeping him in Lebanon, as many people were leaving. In ’79 we opened the gallery, which was a big challenge for both of us during those difficult times. During the years of war art became very important to me and made me remain strong.
T: And with the gallery were you able to hold events throughout the war? Were some years worse than others? Did you ever have to close?
A: It was very difficult, especially after Dr Giesen had to leave. I decided to go on by myself. I had to close many times, move many times. I moved a total of five times! When the shelling got near, we had to move to a quieter place. And then again, depending on who was fighting with whom.
T: Was it difficult to find works throughout the war? Were Lebanese artists leaving the country?
A: Not really. We even invited artists from abroad when it was quiet for some time. Some of the Lebanese artists stopped creating, the war was too heavy for their sensitive nature. The opening of a new gallery in those times was a breath of fresh air which gave them some hope (because most galleries were closed), and they started to create again. It was very interesting. But it was not always the best of each artist’s work. War was not really something that gave them motivation.
T: Do you remember who the first Middle Eastern artist was that sparked your interest? Do you remember the first Arab artist that you really liked?
A: Arab you mean not a Lebanese?
T: No, Lebanese as well.
A: Many Lebanese were in Lebanon at that time and were coming to propose themselves for exhibition, and one of the first was Mouna Sehnaoui while she was still very, lets say, present in the art scene, so I think she was one of the first artists we exhibited at that time. Them came Aref Rayess, Amine el Bacha, Jamil Molaeb.
T: As a gallery owner, what do you look for in an artist? What specific things do you like in an artist?
A: When we started, the main idea was to give the Lebanese who remained in the country an aspect of what was happening outside of Lebanon. We thought we should show them the aspects of the 70s at that time. So we travelled and bought a lot of art, mainly prints, etchings by the famous Klaus Bottger, lithography by Wunderlich, Bruno Bruni, Asada, etc. This is why the name of the gallery was Epreuve d’artiste. We wanted to specialize in the techniques of printmaking such as etching, lithography, woodcut, linocut, and silkscreen. It was what we liked very much. But it didn’t work out really well because what was done in the West did not interest the Lebanese at that time. They felt a big gap between their emotions and the rigid concept of the contemporary western art. We slowly started to show more contemporary art including installations. We were actually one of the first galleries in Lebanon to exhibit installations. We had very interesting moments during the war, then a fantastic explosion of interest when the war stopped, and then suddenly we went down again because the economic crisis started. For many reasons there was a lot of money coming in from all over the world during times of war; people could spend money for their own pleasure, and buying art was a real need for some of them just to feel like being alive. We had an urgency to live and when we bought art it was never for investment; how can anyone think of investment when no one knew what tomorrow would bring? Suddenly when the economic crisis happened people started to think of their futures, they began arranging their houses, repairing the damage. They woke up and started to think differently.
T: What years did this economic crisis take place in?
A: In ’93, ’94 it people started reacting to art very differently.
T: You eventually decided that you no longer wanted to own a gallery?
A: No, the gallery remained, and lots of galleries opened their doors, it started to get difficult for me to deal with art purely as business. I was feeling differently during the war. I decided to stop in 2006 and took a different approach, launching a new working strategy: organizing artistic events in Beirut and other cities. Then I had the chance to be chosen by Art Paris to collaborate with their Art Fairs in Abu Dhabi.
T: So these days you organize exhibitions, you curate, you do various things?
A: Now I do different things. I curated the first exhibition in Abu Dhabi during the first edition of Art Paris. The fair was a big success. The first exhibition was on calligraphy and its movement and relations to the West. That was in 2007. In 2008, we had a show called “The desert and the sea”. In 2010, with the association APEAL, I was in charge of curating a Lebanese show in the Katzen Museum of the American University of Washington. Then I curated exhibitions for artists at the Audi Foundation in Lebanon, and many projects are still to come
T: And in your opinion why do you think there’s been an explosion of interest in Middle Eastern art since 2005.
A: Money is becoming the important key for big art. Don’t think of anything else. Money can bring some of the most important galleries from around the world, like Gagosian and Pace Gallery from New York. The Abu Dhabi people are buying art in the millions for their museums. All the curators of the world are now present at any important event in the Arab World. At the Mathaf opening in Qatar, no one was missing. Specific subjects and big names are selling. It becomes very difficult to try to convince people to buy an unknown artist in the fairs of the Arab World. I wonder what to say to the artists I am defending. To be in a museum you have to follow the tendency and the image. I think that the museum should follow the artist, not the artist follow the museum. This is a big problem now. Some artists are changing their styles completely just so doors will open for them at museums.
T: So in your opinion do you think the art scene in the Middle East is heading in the right or wrong direction?
A: The fairs are very important. They are showing fantastic works. But when we see what is sold it’s either very big names or images that are in the taste of the public.
T: And what do you think of the Lebanese art scene today? Do you think it’s fully developed? What needs to be done to enhance it?
A: What I regret is that neither the government nor the Lebanese public are really supportive of their country’s art. If you go to a Christies’ auction when an Iranian artist is selling, all the Iranians are bidding. It does not mean that Iranian artists are necessarily better than any others, it’s just that there are ten, twelve Iranians bidding because the artist is Iranian. It is very important. I give the example of Iranians but it is the same with Indians, Turks, and Egyptians. I rarely Lebanese people supporting their country’s art abroad. The main problem is that we have never had a real museum that would allow people to become confident of their artists and their values. This is something I really regret.
T: What do you think of the new generation of Middle Eastern artists? What advice can you give them?
A: Don’t copy the West. Do not use their tools, you have your own. As people, as Lebanese, as Orientals, we are still emotional, we have our own creativity. We have to use it to our advantage. The interaction is very important but we have to control it.
T: And what did you think of this year’s Menasart?
A: Well, this year was the first official year of the fair. Many galleries cancelled their participation because of the unstable situation. We are maybe not ready yet but we have to start somewhere. The organizers believe, they really believe, that Beirut will take back her place in the art world. So every year they will get more and more interesting galleries and artists participating. It is very difficult for the organizers to stop because they had engaged lots of money so they went ahead with the fair.
T: Did you think the turnout was strong? Do you think it could have been stronger?
A: Yes of course it could have been stronger because we had very important galleries that were supposed to come, but they cancelled.
T: And what do you think of Art Dubai? Do you find what they’ve done successful?
A: It’s a good fair.
T: In Dubai there is a lot more buying of art than in Beirut, do you think that it’s because there’s more money in Dubai?
A: It is the main reason, but please do not forget our years of war. We went far behind, survival was our first aim, art is luxury. In Dubai, Christies has helped the market very much. It gave faith to the buyers and they are successful because they know their clients and know how to please their public. No doubt that if you do not have a crowd behind you, you cannot get high prices. It’s not magical. You need somebody behind the strong prices. So the Lebanese of the Gulf are not supportive. Maybe they are not as rich as the others, but they are not supportive.
T: Thank you Ms. Traboulsi!
A: You’re Welcome!