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Uncovering the History of Lebanon
Nature in the Design
The Finer Things in Life
A Journey from Geology to Iconography
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Spring 2006 Vol. IV, No. 3

The Finer Things in Life

Although art has always been a part of student life, both in and outside the classroom, AUB has not had an art department for almost thirty years. All that has now changed with the establishment of the Department of Fine Arts and Art History.

Although the Fine Arts Department was closed in 1977, students continued to take art courses through the Civilization Sequence Program (CVSP). (The CVSP was for many years a key component of the undergraduate experience at AUB. Although the program has changed over the years, it still offers students a foundation in the formative ideas of primarily Near Eastern and Western civilization, in addition to supplemental courses in a wide range of disciplines—such as art appreciation, French literature, German language, and contemporary Arab identity—that draw on the expertise of individual faculty members. ) Many students have also been involved in the arts scene on campus through their participation in the choir, theater productions, and the Art Club. For the last ten years, the Faculty of Engineering and Architecture (FEA) has included a Department of Architecture and Design that has graduated a number of graphic artists.

President Waterbury appointed an art committee five years ago to promote the arts both at AUB and in Lebanon and the region. The committee includes President Waterbury; David Kurani, an artist and acting chair of the new department; Saleh Barakat, a gallery owner and art dealer; Cesar Nammour, president of the Modern Art Society and a lecturer at AUB; and Ramzi Saidi, a private collector.

Since 2000, this committee has hosted a number of events on campus, including an exhibition that featured items from AUB’s art collection. You may be surprised to learn that AUB’s collection includes Eadweard Muybridge’s studies of animal locomotion, several priceless watercolors by Gibran Khalil Gibran, paintings by Hussein Madi, a sculpture by Malvina Hoffman, and a portrait by John Folinsbee. These activities, which included a display of contemporary Lebanese ceramics, pictures taken at the Arab College of Jerusalem, and the Moore Collection (photographs taken by Dr. Franklin T. Moore of the AUB campus between 1892 and 1902), have contributed to efforts to revitalize the arts in Beirut—a city without a dedicated art museum.

Even when there was no art department at AUB, many students pursued their interests and honed their skills as members of the student Art Club. Several artists, such as George Awde and Elie Abou Samra, have volunteered their time to encourage students to express themselves through art. Inas Zeineddine, the club president, explains that the club is a wonderful opportunity for students to pursue artistic talents that are all too often neglected as they focus on other academic subjects. She argues that art gives students an opportunity to think deeply about ideas and can provide a different insight on many issues.

A Quick Look at a Proud History

Although AUB’s involvement in the arts has been limited in recent years, it has a proud history: in 1929, it hosted the first solo art exhibition in Lebanon at West Hall, displaying the work of Lebanese artist Mustafa Farroukh, and organized many art exhibitions—both of internationally renowned artists such as Henry Moore and David Hockney, and of local craftspeople such as the tinsmiths of Beirut. Among the guest artists who spent time at AUB were Henry Moore (sculptor), Jeremy Leech

(ceramist), Tracy Montminy (painter and draughtsman), John Colt (painter), and David Hockney (painter).

The Department of Fine Arts—as it was originally called—is probably most fondly remembered, however, for its very popular “Art Seminars” program in the 1950s that was free and open to the public. The program, which included drawing, painting, and ceramics courses and special Saturday morning classes for children, attracted participants from all segments of Lebanese society and brought together both Lebanese and foreign nationals who were interested in and dedicated to the promotion of the arts in Lebanon. John Carswell, former AUB art professor (1956–76), explained in a talk that he gave on campus several years ago that the department was deliberately trying to change the rules for art and artists at that time: “No one was excluded from the process of making art—anyone and everyone was encouraged to try.”

Barakat explains that these seminars “paved the way to many artists to study art outside the academy system.” He continues, “the department was mainly focused on introducing abstract art to Lebanon for the first time. It is clear that AUB…was playing an influential role on the art scene in Lebanon.”

The Department Today

The new department was set up by a committee, organized by Dean Khalil Bitar, dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS), and chaired by Associate Professor Howayda Al-Harithy, chair of the Department of Architecture and Graphic Design, who was involved in this project to re-establish an art department at AUB over a ten-year period. The committee included AUB faculty members from both FAS and FEA and outside experts, such as Vice President Emeritus Samir Thabet. The department currently offers degree programs and minors in studio arts and art history, in addition to elective courses in music and theater. Dean Bitar explains that it was Al-Harithy who suggested that art history be offered as a major when the re-establishment of the art department was first discussed some years ago. Kurani notes that there are few art history programs in the Arab world. He goes on, “In the past this University was a springboard for some great artists, some remarkable art teaching and art happenings that were ultra-cosmopolitan in that they incorporated cultural elements of the best of East and West.  We who are here now want to revive this grand tradition in our studio arts and connect it with the rest of contemporary art in our art history and art theory specializations.”

Noura Al Aquil is one of the students currently majoring in the arts. The daughter of a Lebanese mother and a Saudi father, Noura grew up in Italy. She says she is always being asked why she left Rome—a place where “you are constantly surrounded by art”—to come to Beirut. “My reason is simple,” she explains. “I needed to come back to discover more about the origins of the Arabic culture. I have acquired a lot of valuable information through the Western world and believe I should acquire just as much information about the Arab world so that I can combine the two and benefit from both.” Kinda Dahlan, a fine arts student who has so far resisted pressures to become a “doctor, attorney/lawyer, or business woman,” raves about the sculpture class she is currently taking, describing it as “absolutely incredible! The professor and assistants are very motivating and helpful. I love the fact that I am working with my hands.”

Sculpture is just one of the studio courses being offered that Kurani describes as “perennial favorites.” Students can also take courses in drawing, painting, and ceramics. Courses in Art History and Theory are offered in cooperation with the Department of Architecture and Design.

Plans for the Future

The department has generated a lot of interest in a very short period of time: its courses are heavily subscribed and half a dozen students have indicated their intention to major in art. The establishment of the Department of Fine Arts and Art History is an essential part of the University’s commitment to expose its students to a range of intellectual experiences during their time at AUB. As Sandy Maksoudian, one of the students currently majoring in art explains so eloquently, “Studying art not only develops your techniques. It also helps you look at things differently, to look at things from another perspective.” The establishment of the Department of Fine Arts and Art History also supports AUB’s mission to reach out to the peoples of Lebanon and the region. It’s very much a win-win situation.

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