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.