Nearly two years before a cataclysmic explosion in Beirut earlier this month devastated the capital city, a contemporary art gallery in New York and a Lebanese nonprofit started planning an exhibition, slated to open in Tribeca this May.
By mid-spring, the novel coronavirus pulled the plug on the planned New York City art exhibition.
On. Aug. 4 — four days before the exhibition was set to instead open in Aspen — a massive explosion in Beirut’s port area killed hundreds, injured thousands and destroyed the capital of a country that was already suffering an economic and political crisis.
Still, the organizers behind the Lebanese-focused design exhibition, “Haptic Narrative — The Aspen Edition,” hope to play a part in helping rebuild Beirut’s emerging artistic community.
“Haptic Narrative — The Aspen Edition” is an unusual collaboration between two prominent art galleries: R & Company and Lehmann Maupin, in partnership with the Lebanese nonprofit, House of Today. R & Company is based in New York, while Lehmann Maupin boasts galleries in New York, Seoul and Hong Kong.
Set in an expansive, second-floor space at 535 E. Hyman Ave., the exhibition opened four days after the blast, on Aug. 8, and will be on display through Sept. 15. Walk-in hours are from 12:30 to 6 p.m. Friday and Saturday, or by appointment.
With proceeds from the sales directly benefiting Lebanese designers — all of whom lost their studios and/or their homes in the explosion — the exhibition is now more important than ever, said R & Company founder and principal Evan Snyderman.
“Pretty much every person in Beirut was affected by this blast. There really wasn’t anyone’s home or studio that wasn’t affected. It was that severe,” said Snyderman. “But several of them in particular, whose studios were near the blast site at the port — because the port area is actually where most of the art galleries and artists’ studios were; it’s a very hip, cool, neighborhood — literally were completely destroyed, where the buildings are not safe to go back into. Or they’re complete rubble.”
Stephanie Sayar, one of the designers whose pieces are featured in the Aspen show, was critically injured and hospitalized after the explosion. Sayar, alongside her husband, is one half of the young Lebanese design duo known as Sayar & Garibeh. Although Sayar is recovering, Snyderman said this week, the couple’s studio was decimated beyond repair. The Aspen Daily News’ attempts to interview any of the designers featured were unsuccessful due to widespread power outages in Beirut.
“The truth is, it’s beyond even our understanding of the level of damage that was done there in such a short amount of time. And none of us know how long it will take to rebuild,” Snyderman said. “But the Lebanese people are so resilient and have been through so many other things throughout the last 50 years that we know that they will persevere through this.”
Profits from the Aspen exhibition will help the designers rebuild their studios and fund residency opportunities by way of House of Today, whose mission is to support and enrich Lebanon’s design culture.
While Lebanon boasts a rich history of traditional craft within its culture, Snyderman said, the country’s design “has been pretty much under-represented in the global marketplace — so it’s something that very few people have really had access to or have seen.”
A walk through the exhibition proves there is no one style of Lebanese design — as brightly colored, eclectic foamy pieces by Sayar & Garibeh are contrasted with more neutral, traditional Middle Eastern motifs.
Snyderman said he was deeply inspired by the city’s sophistication, energy and artistic culture during a visit to Beirut in 2018 — so much so that he and House of Today founder Cherine Magrabi envisioned the collaboration that ended up in Aspen.
A conversation via Zoom titled “After the Blast: Lebanese Design and the Road to Recovery” — between Magrabi, Snyderman, designers Carlo Massoud and Karen Chekerdjian and Design Miami curatorial director Aric Chen — will take place on Monday at 10 a.m. Mountain Time. The event is free and can be found at bit.ly/3l9eOej.
“This show in Aspen is just the start, and there will be more in the future. This is something we’re committed to. It’s not a one-time thing; it’s not a one-off,” Snyderman said. “It’s really a commitment to a long-term relationship.”