Nowadays it is common to hear the academic discussion about the origins and history of art in Lebanon and the broader Middle East revert to talk of an exact date from which one is permitted to speak of an 'art history'. But the concept of art which dominates contemporary art practices in the region wasn't always as stable or synchronized with Western art history as we perceive it today.

Until the turn of the century, an autonomous concept of art had not yet emerged and the region's material culture was largely ornamental. This material culture, however use-oriented (read: objects were designed with a particular function in mind), still played an important role not only in state-building but in the historical consciousness of the modern project that gave rise to a division between fine art and decorative arts.

The exhibition "Al-Musawwirun: Artists before Art" at AUB thus attempts to recreate or simulate a number of images, pictures, and crafted objects that one might have come across a century ago in the region. It was a time when an art scene had not yet fully emerged, when contemporary art centers and private galleries, art schools and museums simply did not yet exist.

While the rise of modernity brought to the region (particularly the Levant and Egypt) new means of technical reproduction and production, artisans in the fashion of the Arab Orient were still practicing largely traditional crafts. And, what often happened, was that these artisans themselves became the first artists.

An inverse process is now also true: Many contemporary artists trained in the formal language of conceptualism and abstraction are turning towards the ornament not only for inspiration but in order to learn about alternative modernisms and abstractions taking place all over the world.

Al-Musawwirun includes photographic portraits by Daoud Corn (1852-1930), a man considered the first professional artist in Lebanon who cultivated a European training in painting, a rare skill at the time. The exhibit also includes work by his son, Georges Corn (1896-1971), who designed military costumes and even sketches for a national medal.

An oil on photograph from 1927 by Khalil Saleeby, another early modernist, appears also in the exhibition, showing how new technologies began to inflect the production of cultural objects. Additonal work in the 1930s by Shaker El Mazloum and Abu Subhi Al Tinawi were apparently very popular at the time, and remind the viewer of the traditions of orality in the region, however inflected by new technical means.

A rather dissimilar assemblage of works and objects appear, accompanied by posters and photographs from the period which document the emergence of a more autonomous concept of art that appeared around the 1920s. The work is embedded in a traditional culture where human representation in the classical realist sense was rather rare and motifs convened from different cultures and periods.

It is not only photography and paintings where this is evident, but also drawers, plates, furniture and prints, among others. As new artistic vocabularies emerged, imported from Europe, the division begins to grow between these different styles which coincided with the nationalist movements and the Arab renaissance or El Nahda, in Egypt and the Levant. The transformation was also inspired by the translation of European canonical works into Arabic.

In a sense, the connection between modernity, nationalism, historicism and the birth of fine art in the Arab world are immediately detectable, and point towards a period of optimism associated with both technology and politics, which remained intact until the foundation of the republic and then collapsed into the second half of the 20th century.

The birth of this institutional fine art was, however, not politically harmless, and always fraught with the class and ideology struggles of cultural production that have characterized fine art since its birth in early modern Europe during the 18th century. The sample at Al Musawwirun is by no means representative and it shows the absolute dearth of museums and museological conservation in the region, and serves as a true reminder that it is really difficult to develop a true autonomy of art without solid foundations.

The 'Al Musawwirun: Artists Before Art' Exhibition continues at AUB until July 10.

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