Joumana Asseily’s new gallery Marfa’ brings contemporary art to the Port of Beirut

October was a busy month for the Lebanese art scene. First, on October 8, Beirut’s venerable Sursock Museum reopened after a multimillion-dollar facelift, and then on October 25, the landmark Aïshti Foundation opened on the Jal el Dib seaside road, north of Beirut, in a bid to become the most important destination for contemporary art lovers in the Middle East.

Under the radar, and in between those two mega projects, 37-year-old Joumana Asseily quietly launched her own contemporary art gallery, Marfa’, on October 22, steps from the Port of Beirut. A former Los Angeles resident, Asseily is no stranger to the art world — in addition to her personal art collection and her art and architecture studies in Paris, she’s contributed to various nonprofit art organisations, including Ashkal Alwan, the Beirut Art Center and the Arab Image Foundation.

“The idea of opening an art gallery has been in the back of my mind for a while,” says Asseily. “I believe there is a need for more art in Lebanon.”

Gallery owner Joumana Asseily

Gallery owner Joumana Asseily

Marfa’, which means “port” in Arabic, naturally takes its name from the area in which it lives. Here, in an industrial neighbourhood that is just starting to become trendy (with the opening of stores like Oddfish, Karen Chekerdjian and IF, as well as Lux restaurant), Asseily launched a sleek art space with an aim to encourage artistic dialogue by highlighting idea-based projects. “We are looking for innovative ways to engage diverse audiences through the work of contemporary artists,” Asseily says.

The inaugural exhibition, which runs until December 12 and is entitled Collapsing Clouds of Gas and Dust, features the intriguing work of Vartan Avakian. For his exhibit at Marfa’, the Lebanese artist collected dust on thousands of films found in an abandoned photography studio located inside the Barakat Building, the iconic structure set on Beirut’s former Green Line, and used it to create two artworks. The first is a set of crystals, grown from particles found in the dust, while the second consists of a series of photographs made from silver particles extracted from film debris found in the dust. Both works offer a new understanding of memory, as they create new possibilities and challenges for future archeology.

Although her first few exhibitions will be dedicated to Lebanese artists, Asseily plans to widen the scope of her gallery and showcase international artists as well. “There’s a growing market for local and international art in Lebanon,” she says. “Something is changing, and Lebanese people’s interest in art is definitely growing.” •