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“We are storytellers” | Andrée Sfeir-Semler of Sfeir-Semler Gallery (Hamburg and Beirut)

Beirut’s legendary Sfeir-Semler Gallery has attended every edition of Art Dubai. Ahead of this year’s participation, the gallery’s founder Andrée Sfeir-Semler talks to Art Dubai about her journey and her specific roster of conceptual artists who, through their varied practices, carry the weight of history with them, acting as storytellers and messengers of the pertinent regional and international issues.


Why did you first decide to start the gallery?

I initially moved to Germany to continue my filmmaking studies. When I finished my PhD I was offered a gallery space in Kiel, and decided to jump in the cold water.  I’ve always wanted to be close to art production and to follow through the development of careers over time. I opened an independent gallery space rather than working with museum or academics as I wanted to work with artists living in the now and producing work relevant to our current lives.

Walid Raad, Preface to the third edition: Acknowledgments (Coupe II, Chandelier, Panneau, Fragement II, Tile), 2017, 3D printed plaster composite,paint,wood,Variable dimensions

With spaces in Hamburg and Beirut, what are the main differences between operations in the Middle East and Europe?

In Europe things are systematic, and it might be easier to find qualified people and informed audiences; and to work with organized processes. In Beirut for the longest time you had to figure things out along the way, and often improvise solutions. But the city is such an inspiration for many artists, and its dynamism is a huge draw for the international art scene. We receive a large number of visitors from abroad in Beirut, curators, museum groups, there is a lot of curiosity and interest.


The gallery in Beirut is notably situated in the industrial part of the city. Clearly this gives you more space but does it also speak more symbolically in that you are in the city but also outside of it?

Beirut is divided politically and this impacts the city’s geography and social fabric. When I opened the Beirut space in 2005, It was very important for me to be in a place that does not belong to any political or religious party, as in Beirut each neighborhood is part of a sectarian socio-geographical system. This independence allows me to present a challenging programme, and gives my artists a lot of freedom. It also gives visitors the sense of stepping into some sort of no man’s land where everything is possible. Even if the gallery is away from the city centre, we’re still very much connected to Beirut’s art scene and we strive to create a dynamic programming around each exhibition, with talks, film screenings, special tours for students and young professionals etc.

Timo Nasseri, A Universal Alphabet, 2019, Exhibition view, Sfeir-Semler Gallery, Beirut 

Your focus is mainly on conceptual artists, does that mean you favour the idea over the aesthetic?

I believe that relevant art is the mirror of a socio-geographic environment therefore I’m interested in artists that take their societies into consideration. In the Arab world, we do not have any visual traditions as in the West, we are storytellers, and have a huge oral heritage. Our artists are mainly conceptual and the form of their aesthetics follows the message and the stories they want to tell and the issue they want to raise.


What is your primary concern when selecting a new artist for your roster?

Quality! Before deciding to work with an artist, I generally follow their work for a while. Whenever an artwork strikes me, at group shows, museum shows or biennales, I follow the artists, make several studio visits and get to know the work in depth before making a decision. The handwriting content and ideas of the artist have to be very singular, and rooted in their deep inner-self.  The artists I represent, and have worked with over the years, are all very distinctive individuals.

You set up in Beirut in 2005 amid political unrest, how much would you say political unrest plays into art production in general in Lebanon and with your artists specifically?

Many artists we work with have practices that are deeply rooted in the political events that have shaken their home countries; whether Lebanon, or the wider region. And this is not surprising as artists as a general rule are the product of an environment which shapes their identities, even if they have a universal discourse.

I think in the case of Lebanon specifically, artists such as Mounira Al-Solh, Rabih Mroué, Walid Raad or Akram Zaatari might raise through their work questions that no one dares voice out loud – yet.

But there are so many more. Like Anna Boghiguian who speaks of trade and slavery; Khalil Rabah and his Palestinian Museum of Natural History and Human Kind; Youssef Abdelké who only draws in black and white; or Yto Barrada whose work might seem playful on the surface but who speaks of colonialism and identities. And so many more. I would not limit it to political unrest, I would say that these artists carry the weight of history with them.

Dineo Seshee Bopape, Lerole. footnotes ( The struggle of memory against forgetting), 2018, Installation view, Sfeir-Semler Gallery, Hamburg

Now you have established a successful international platform for artists from your home country with many going on to reach institutional standards. How does that make you feel?

It’s very exciting to start with an artist from scratch and see his/her work enter the collections of major museums around the world, or be shown at biennales and documentas. We work very hard to push our artists forward, and publicise their work. I am in constant dialogue with each of them about their production. It is not a job, it’s a calling, and I hope to be able to keep doing this for years to come.

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