Saifi village brings cultural life to downtown Beirut
Text by Nada Al Awar (Canvas Art and Culture from the Middle East and Arab world – Volume 1 Issue 4 July/August 2005)
Saifi Village, in the heart of downtown Beirut, is set to become one of the region’s hottest art destinations with galleries, antique shops, design studios and specialist boutiques dotting its picturesque streets. Inaugurated in December 2004 by Solidere, the company responsible for the reconstruction of the Beirut city centre, Saifi Village’s Quartier Des Arts is fast developing into a meeting place for an eager public and artists from around the world.
“If you look at Saifi Village, you’ll see that it is a residential district with a traditional Levantine character and is designed to contain gardens, small squares, fountains and pedestrian and seating areas where, around every corner, there is something new to see”, says Randa Armanazi, Public Relations Manager at Solidere whose role also involves developing cultural and artistic projects that will attract visitors to the city centre. “So when we thought about what would be suitable to include in Saifi in terms of small businesses, we decided we wanted more than the usual florists or small supermarket. We wanted something that would enhance the area’s special character rather than diminish it.”
The idea to bring activity back into the downtown area and to create a kind of life there that is not available elsewhere, continues Armanazi, has been in the making for many years; and Saifi, with its quiet village-like atmosphere that makes one forget one is in the middle of bustling city, is the ideal location for an art quarter. “This is the one place in town to come to buy art where you can park your car and meander through the village and go from one gallery and specialist boutique to the next”, explains Armanazi. “And here, rather than struggle on their own in isolated locations around the city, art dealers, designers and artists can all benefit from the specialist clientele that come to visit the area.”
The company is also taking measures to encourage retailers to stay on by offering them five-year contracts and promoting the area, both in Lebanon and abroad. A yearly program that includes art exhibitions, lectures, workshops, musical performances and other activities has already begun with an emphasis, says Armanazi, on enhancing the city centre’s cultural profile, while at the same time bringing business to Safi. “Among the many activities we’re planning in the future is, for example, a fortnight of activities around the art of poetry. We’ll also have contemporary artists show paintings, installations and crafts in the squares and gardens of Saifi, both in group and individual exhibitions.”
An artist-in-residence program that will see painters, sculptors and designers from around the world spend time working and living in a studio in Saifi designed by Solidere especially for that purpose, is also set to begin this summer.
“Many art galleries are unable to afford the expense of bringing world-renowned artists to Beirut so we will do it for them”, Armanazi says: “Once they’ve completed a certain number of pieces, the resident artists will have their work exhibited in Saifi and we will invite the Lebanese and Arab public to come and see it. We will also be responsible for advertising the exhibitions as well as producing catalogues for them.”
Marwan Kassab Bachi, one of the Arab world’s most important contemporary artists with an impressive international reputation will join the Quartier des Arts’ artist-in-residence programm this July. Born in Syria in 1934, Bachi left his native land many years ago to settle and work in Germany. He is a professor at the Academy of Fine Arts in Berlin who has gained critical acclaim for his unique and poignant vision of the human experience and his work is exhibited in permanent collections in countries around the world. Some 50 pieces of Bachi’s work will be exhibited in the city centre and the artist will also give a lecture and hold a workshop that local artists and the general public will be able to attend. Piece Unique, an art gallery in Saifi that is owned by Solidere was opened last April and has been earmarked as a venue for exhibitions by visiting artists. Its first show last spring displayed the works of French sculptor and painter, Niza Chévènement, whose stunning pieces of hundreds of detailed figures in bronze attracted many visitors to the area.
For Nada Debs, furniture designer and owner of Nada Debs Works in Saifi Village, the art quarter ensures good exposure for her work. “I wouldn’t have thought of any other area in Beirut to set up shop in because it is popular with people who are in the know and who appreciate art and are in search of it”, she says.
Debs, who returned to Lebanon six years ago, after studying and working for many years in the United States and England, also has an office in the same location where a number of projects for custom-made furniture of her own design are run. With a colorful background that includes a childhood in Japan, from where she gained a love for the clean lines that are evident in her designs, Debs says she decided to remain and work in Lebanon because she wanted to demonstrate that local craftsmen are just as good as those that are found abroad. Debs is exactly the kind of tenant that the initiators behind the Quartier des Arts are eager to promote and her unique pieces continue to attract clients from around the region to Saifi. “I like this area”, she says. “Over here, rather than compete with each other, we help each other and benefit from each other’s clientele. I believe Saifi has real potential to grow in the future.”
Galleries in the quarter include Alwane, Epreuve d’Artiste, the V&A and Rochane art galleries, as well as others that are set to open in the near future. The neighborhood also houses artisanal shops such as Tourath from the Chouf, and antique stores such as Tresors d’Annie antiques, Istoria antiques and Le Chineur, among others.
Saleh Barakat, owner and founder of Agial Gallery in Ras Beirut, will also open a new gallery in Saifi soon. One of the initiators of the Quartier des Arts project, Barakat feels that the art quarter will help make Beirut a prime destination for art and design for visitors from around the region. “These sorts of areas exist all over the world”, says Barakat. “London has Bond Street, Paris has the Rue de Seine, New York has Chelsea and Santa Fe has Canyon Road. It only makes sense that any city that is looking to sell its art to non-residents has to think about creating a central location where they can come and wander through the various galleries and make their purchases.”
Cooperation between the different galleries and shops in the quarter, continues Barakat, can extend into simultaneous openings so that members of the public who come to view one show will inevitably visit other shows at the same time. Another future venture will involve a monthly journal that lists shows in the entire quarter with each of the galleries and shops given the opportunity to promote their own events. “You know, in the past in Beirut people were used to coming downtown to find what they needed in specialist souqs like the gold souq and the food souq and the textile souq”. Barakat explains. “There were hundreds of shops in those old souqs that sold almost exactly the same merchandise but they all made good business because people knew they would be able to find exactly what they wanted in this one place. It’s the same idea in today’s shopping malls.”
The cafes and restaurants now open, and which are set to open, in Saifi will also add to the attraction of the quarter, continues Barakat, and will give visitors the opportunity to spend long periods in the area. “If, for example, all the gallery and shop owners decide to open on Sunday afternoons, then Saifi will be a great destination for people who are looking for something to do on the one day in the week when they are free and can wander around at a leisurely pace.” Barakat is also confident that visitors to Maqam, his gallery in Saifi, will b encouraged to go to Agial as well, and believes the art quarter as a whole will entice patrons into finding out what art is available in other parts of the city. “The Quartier des Arts will not eliminate other galleries that exist elsewhere, rather it will open doors for them”, he says. “During the inauguration of the Quartier Des Arts last December we were all mesmerized by the wonderful ambiance that was created and the crowds that came to attend the events and the openings. Most importantly, I also believe that the area will raise Beirut’s profile and will demonstrate to visitors from other parts of the region that this city is a cultural hub where people have taste and where wonderful works of art and of design can be found.