Lebanon’s only modern art museum tries to rebuild after crashing explosion

BEIRUT (AP) – The artist meticulously cuts small pieces of yellow and red glass, then poses them in a pattern to recreate the stained glass windows that were the hallmark of the Sursock Museum in Beirut, shattered in the explosion of the port of Last year.

The restorers, bent over with magnifying glasses, fill in the lines of paint loss caused by the explosion with their brushes and weave the tears thread by thread under a microscope. Other workers delicately reconstruct broken shards of ceramic.

“It was very difficult to see my 30 years work on the ground, turn back to sand… But it is important to rebuild the museum,” said Maya Hussaini, the artist who worked on the stained glass during a renovation. major. to the museum which finished in 2015 and is back rebuilding them now,

“I had to go back to my archives to extract my designs and bring them back to what they were,” she said.

Perched on the hills of the Achrafieh district hundreds of meters from the Port of Beirut, Sursock, 60, was the beating heart of Beirut’s creative scene. As the only modern art museum in the country, it has a collection of Lebanese art dating back to the late 1800s.

It has long provided a rare free public space for art, not even having closed during Lebanon’s 1975 to 1990 civil war.

Conservators and artists are working to bring this role back to life after the museum was decimated by the port explosion on August 4, 2020.

The explosion tore through the three-story building, knocking down the doors, destroying everything down to the fourth basement. Windows burst, including the stained glass windows on its facade. The art collection has been hit hard.

At least 57 of the 130 pieces on display were broken or torn, including the portrait of Nicolas Sursock by Dutch artist Kees Von Dongen, who gave the museum his name. The nearby Sursock Palace, a 19th-century monument, one of the most storied buildings in the Lebanese capital, was also wrecked in the explosion.

The massive explosion, which devastated Beirut, also caused a gaping wound to the flourishing creative scene for which the Mediterranean city was famous. Most of the small independent art spaces are in the cosmopolitan neighborhoods hardest hit by the explosion.

A number of galleries and private workshops were destroyed. Some, already in the grip of a growing economic crisis, have closed their doors for good.

For the Sursock Museum, the blow was even harder because in 2015 it had just completed a modernization and expansion project of nearly a decade.

“At first we were overwhelmed by the reality and the extent of the damage. said Zeina Arida, the director of the museum.

For three months, teams cleaned dust and chemical particles from everything in the museum. Then came art restoration. Everything has been restored in Beirut, with the exception of the portrait of Nicolas Sursock and two other pieces, flown to Paris for specialist treatment.

A year later, builders installed windows, ceilings and doors and are now reinstalling dividers and lights.

There was broad and swift support to bring the museum back to life.

The museum has collected nearly 80% of the estimated $ 3 million restoration budget through the French and Italian governments, the International Alliance for the Protection of Heritage in Conflict Zones, UNESCO, private donors and local groups.

It was a major achievement for a country grappling with the explosion, financial crisis and restrictions linked to the coronavirus.

The economic crisis has been a major obstacle.

“It has really been a very stressful two years, and the kinds of challenges we face are changing,” said Arida. Before the explosion, she had to cut the museum’s working days to save money as the economy collapsed.

Since the end of 2019, banks have limited depositors’ access to dollar accounts and restricted withdrawals from national currency accounts.

Thus, the museum raised funds abroad to be able to procure basic supplies and equipment. Management still had to figure out how to secure funds nationally. Like the rest of the country, the museum struggles to find fuel for its air conditioners, which are needed for storage areas and restoration workshops.

The museum aims to reopen in spring 2022, although economic and security conditions remain unpredictable. In recent weeks, the museum has hosted concerts and dance performances in its garden.

For many artists, like other struggling professionals, the explosion was the last straw, prompting them to leave for opportunities abroad.

Arida said the exodus creates a new responsibility: the need for new programs and funds to retain those who remain.

“We have to rebuild the whole area. The museum without the other organizations, without… the surrounding heritage buildings would never be the same again, ”she said.

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