Beirut, Lebanon – There is a secret hidden in the portrait of Nicolas Ibrahim Sursock, a secret only a keen eye can see: a minuscule line marking the spot where the canvas was torn by debris from the explosion at Beirut’s port in 2020.
It hangs in the recently reopened Sursock Museum, the first modern art gallery in the Arab world, which reopened its doors on May 26, three years after the explosion.
Like the portrait, originally painted in the late 1920s by Kees van Dongen and one of the few restored at the Center Pompidou in Paris, the museum looks as good as new.
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Jacques Aboukhaled, the museum’s longtime architect, walks through the building and points out the extensive restoration work of the ceilings and paneling that had been mutilated into the invisible but vital air conditioning and electrical systems, as well as the elevators and skylights.
A total of 57 works of art were damaged and painstakingly restored by a team of Lebanese and foreign artists. All the pieces in the museum, including the dozens in storage, had to be carefully cleaned by specialists.
‘Put together like a puzzle’
Some of the original elements of the 1912 palace could not be replaced. Others, like the intricately carved wooden panels, had to be “put together like a puzzle,” says Aboukhaled, who knows the museum like the back of his hand.
The museum’s beloved stained glass windows helped save the Sursock Museum’s structure when the harbor explosion shattered it, says the museum’s architect (Courtesy of Sursock Museum)
“The windows were completely blown away, all the stained glass, everything,” Aboukhaled tells Al Jazeera, adding that the colorful glass, one of the building’s most prized elements, saved the museum’s structure.
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“When the explosion came, it was like a suction, so it blew away (all the stained glass), allowing the building to breathe,” he explains.
This wasn’t the first time the museum had been shaken by Beirut’s conflict-ridden past. It has closed and reopened four times since art collector Nicolas Sursock’s residence was turned into a museum in 1961.
Aboukhaled, who first became involved with the museum when he was just 16 years old, says not even the civil war damaged the building as much as when 2,700 tons of ammonium nitrate stored in Beirut’s port exploded.
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Some of the museum’s first visitors, Kate and Farid El Khazen, a couple in their seventies from England and Lebanon, gave high marks to the restoration.
“I never expected to find something so amazing in Beirut. I’m Lebanese, but I never thought this existed,” Farid told Al Jazeera.
“It is very important to move on after something as horrific as the explosion. Art is always good for the mind,” says Kate.
At the entrance to the building, a plaque recognizes all the institutions and individual donors who funded the $3 million project. Among them are the International Alliance for the Protection of Heritage in Conflict Zones, the French Ministry of Culture, the Italian Government and UNESCO.
Some wooden panels had to be ‘put together like a puzzle’, says Aboukhaled (Mia Alberti/Al Jazeera)
But one entity is missing from that list. Aboukhaled says official support from the Lebanese government was “zero as usual”.
When Sursock offered his palace to the city of Beirut before his death in 1953, a decree was signed to allocate 5 percent of all building permit taxes to the museum. In the past, this was enough to pay a $30 million renewal in the mid-2000s, for example. Now, with the financial crisis and currency crash in Lebanon, this donation represents less than 1 percent of the museum’s annual budget.
As international money started pouring in for the museum, so did criticism over the lack of funding needed to rebuild houses, water systems and government buildings instead.
How important is art?
Flora Jacobson, 29, a visitor from Denmark, found the museum impressive and emotional, but there was another side to her experience.
“It’s also a bit of a contrast to everywhere else. It’s nice and good because cultural heritage is important … but I think there are also important things that need attention and investment,” she told Al Jazeera.
Director Karina Helou is no stranger to criticism and not immune to doubt herself.
“People tell you that art is not something that is useful, (that) we should focus on other priorities in times of crisis. I was afraid they were right,” she says.
It took many foreign donors and three years to repair the damage from the explosion (courtesy of Sursock Museum)
Born in Lebanon, Helou was working in Paris as an independent curator when the blast happened. After 20 years abroad, the explosion brought her back.
“It was like Medusa, like this terrifying moment. And instead of being petrified, I decided I needed to heal myself by taking action. Anger can carry a lot of power, and I think I was angry when I took this job, which gave me a lot of strength to pursue this, and I’m glad I did, because it was much needed to be here are.
Four thousand people visited the museum on the reopening day. Since then, 500 visitors come every day.
The five exhibitions selected for the reopening were not chosen at random. Curated by and featuring mostly Lebanese artists, the works tell the history of the palace, the museum, the art it has housed and the city it calls home, unfolding chronologically from the 1960s to the present, from the top floor to the subway level, using a range of media from newspapers and photographs to sophisticated multimedia pieces.
Zad Moultaka’s immersive audiovisual installation was Selena Havalgian’s favourite. The work combines the projection of pixel-sized images of all of the museum’s artworks with the sound of distant rumbles and wind chimes turning into broken glass – a sound that has come to symbolize the trauma caused by the explosion for many Beirutis.
Aya and Firas returned to the Salon Arabe to ‘take it easy’ (Mia Alberti/Al Jazeera)
“When I saw it, I spoke to the artist, and he said that the way to deal with the blast in Beirut is not to forget, but not to get stuck, a way to move on, to get through this bad thing and turn it into art,” the 19-year-old receptionist tells Al Jazeera between giving directions to Tunisian visitors.
However, the work on the Sursock is not yet done. It is an independent cultural institution in a country that not only has a tradition of under-investment in culture and art, but is also experiencing a financial crisis, from which the museum is not immune.
Helou says the challenge now is to secure funding for the next five years, but the director is confident it will work.
“The reopening was a sign of hope for all those who had doubts about the situation in Lebanon, the need for culture. That was a big confirmation that these kinds of institutions need to survive. Even in a time of crisis, it’s better to have a place of hope and safety than to be shut down until life gets better,” she says.
Aya and Firas, 20 and 24, agree. It is the second time they are in the museum. They came for the reopening night and wanted to come back and take in the place “quietly”.
The portrait of Nicolas Sursock was damaged by the blast and restored at the Pompidou Center in Paris (Mia Alberti/Al Jazeera)
“I feel nostalgic,” says Firas. “I am recovering my old memories. It’s hard to explain, but I feel comfortable. When I sit here, … I forget every difficult time.
Firas and Aya are sitting in the Salon Arabe, one of the two rooms of the original house that have been preserved. They point out the colors reflected by the stained glass on the marble floors and admire the intricate carvings of the wooden panels in the ceiling above – some of the other, smaller carvings turned out to be scars left by the explosion in the panels. were notched.
In the adjoining room, the Beyond Rupture exhibit, curated by Helou herself, is a timeline of the museum’s 61-year history, culminating in the blast.
CCTV footage of the moment of the explosion is part of the exhibition. In one of the videos, a museum employee can be seen walking outside the main entrance just as the camera is seriously shaken and dust begins to swirl everywhere like a man possessed. Seconds later, a bride and groom run into the lobby, covering their heads.
Just like that day three years ago, now another groom and another bride pose on the steps of the palace, probably unaware of the fate of that other couple three years ago.
Nearby, suspended from a tree, is a wing-shaped swing in honor of two-year-old Isaac Sydney Oehlers, one of the blast’s youngest victims.
There is another monument on the other side of the museum garden.
Down a flight of stairs leading to an emergency exit, Aboukhaled points out a section of the warped and mutilated ceiling that has been preserved exactly as it was after the explosion.
“It’s important to save something for this disaster,” he says. Though hidden from visitors, this is a special place for the architect, his own personal way of honoring what his beloved museum has lived through.
“I like to contribute the fact that I am Lebanese, and this is what we must do for our children and the next generations. I think this is important.
“It’s important to preserve our heritage and our history.”