Marfa', Beirut

Having been an art collector in Los Angeles, Joumana Asseily became a gallerist in Beirut, where the art scene is blossoming and in need of spaces to develop after many years of turbulence. For her gallery, Asseily chose the city’s port area, which has already inspired some of her artists.

Marfa', Beirut

Who is the founder of the gallery? What is your background?

Joumana Asseily is the founder of Marfa’. After studying art and architecture in Paris, at Academie Julian, Penninghen, she lived in Los Angeles where she started her art collection and witnessed the emerging contemporary art scene in California. In 2006 she moved to Beirut. Since then, she has collaborated and supported non-profit art organizations such as Ashkal Alwan, where she was a board member, the Beirut Art Center, and the Arab Image Foundation.

Joumana Asseily

When did you found the gallery, and what did motivate you?

The gallery was founded in October 2015. Marfa’ is an art gallery based on the idea that the blossoming art scene in Lebanon is calling for new spaces. The idea of creating a new gallery in Beirut emerged from conversations with curators and artists in Lebanon and abroad. In a way, I can say that it has been a collective decision. The gallery and its projects are indeed built upon a desire of dialogue and collective thinking. We are looking for innovative ways to engage diverse audiences through the work of contemporary artists.

How has the art scene in Beirut developed since you have been working in it? And in which direction is it evolving?

I opened the gallery the same week as the Sursock Museum reopened, and the Aishti Foundation was inaugurated, and that is a clear indicator of the dynamism of the art scene in the city. It has indeed been flourishing and many initiatives are being developed, such as art residencies, exhibitions, conferences and talks, etc. More and more people are showing interest in the arts, and a lot more effort is being put into education and mediation.

Caline Aoun, Datascape, 2016, Exhibition view, Courtesy of Marfa'

How did the turbulent situation of Lebanon in the past years influence contemporary art?

Lebanon has been through a lot for the past 40 years, and contemporary art has always been nourished from the events and the political and social situation. While artists from the post-war generation were clearly tackling issues related to the war and its consequences, artists today are taking a more personal direction, exploring their personal lives and interests within of course the local and regional context.

Ahmad Ghossein, Obsession, 2017, Exhibition view, Courtesy of Marfa'

What kind of art do you represent? What is the fil rouge that connects your artists? Can you make some examples?

We have only been open for a year and a half, so we are still building the identity of the gallery, and the process is quite organic. For now, I can say that we are showing local artists and conceptual, idea-based projects, and are sort of operating between a project space and a commercial gallery, although we are purely commercial. Caline Aoun for example was inspired by our location (the port) for her first solo show in Beirut, making use of the port’s objects such as shipping containers’ floors and data to re-imagine the ways in which we interact with space and materiality around us. Saba Innab’s show was about rethinking building and dwelling in temporariness, as she showed models and sculptures that evoke memories, and fragments of spaces with regional references.

Stéphanie Saadé, The Second Space, 2017, Exhibition view, Courtesy of Marfa'

What kind of space have you chosen for your gallery and why?

The gallery is located in two garages near the customs house in the Marfa’ neighborhood, which means port in Arabic. Beirut’s port has long been one of the foundations of the city’s economic life, a key transit point for goods and information between Lebanon and the world. It’s a neighborhood that not many people know as it’s mostly occupied by shipping companies and businesses related to the port’s activities, so being located here became a reason for people to come to this part of town, which despite being central and at the entrance of the city, is rarely visited.

Ahmad Ghossein, There Is No Right Or Wrong Here, 2017 

A positive and a negative memory of you career as a gallerist?

The best memory I have is the opening. Many other events were taking place in Beirut around that time, and the entire art world was in town and got to be here when we opened Marfa’, which was great! As for the bad memory, it’s probably still early to have one.

If you could choose to exhibit any artist, even from another era, who would you pick?

Agnes Martin, Cy Twombly.