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Beirut and the Golden Sixties: Dancing on a volcano

A new exhibition at the Gropius Bau casts a critical eye on the so-called “golden age” of Lebanon’s capital city.

Aref El Rayess Courtesy: Saradar Collection, The Estate of Aref El Rayess

The explosion that ripped through Beirut in 2020 claiming the lives of 210 was just the latest in a series of traumas to have afflicted the Lebanese capital over the past 50 years. What makes it all the more poignant is that between 1958 and 1975 Beirut was a thriving cosmopolitan city and a hub of intellectual and artistic life in the Arab region.

That prosperous time is the focus of Beirut and the Golden Sixties: A Manifesto of Fragility at the Gropius Bau. The exhibition aims to capture this pivotal period in the history of Beirut through archival documents and photographs through the work of 34 artists, including admired Lebanese poet and painter Etel Adnan, and the Jordanian sculptor Mona Saudi.

Many of the themes connect with events that co-curator Sam Bardaouil – who grew up in Lebanon and was born at the outbreak of the Civil War in 1975 – experienced first-hand. “A lot of what Beirut is experiencing at the moment is linked indirectly and directly to factors that led to the eruption of Civil War in the first place,” he says. The 15-year war led to an estimated 150,000 fatalities. With artists, musicians and poets forced into exile, the war marked the end of Beirut as a cultural centre.

“We are not looking back at this time with nostalgia,” says Bardaouil, who has recently taken over the directorship of the Hamburger Bahnhof alongside the co-curator Till Fellrath, “but use the exhibition as a means to address the pertinent issues of the day.” The works on display will show the complex relationships between creative cosmopolitanism and larger geo-political forces, showing a Beirut “under construction and a place that is forever evolving reconstructing and deconstructing,” Bardaouil says. “We want to show the highlife the hedonism and the struggles and the upcoming war. It really was a city dancing on a volcano.”

From Mar 25 Gropius Bau, Kreuzberg