Founder Joumana Asseily on Marfa’ Projects’ Triumphant Art Basel Return

Marfa’ Projects is growing in importance in the global art sphere and has become part of Lebanon's cultural resistance.

At this year’s Art Basel, discerning art lovers may have discovered, hidden amongst the hundreds of exhibitors, Raed Yassin’s Death Investment at Booth M8 or Lamia Joreige’s Sun & Sea at Kult Kino.

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A dark room filled with animal skulls on plinths.
An installation view of ‘Death Investment’ at Art Basel. Marfa' Projects

Yassin’s exhibition featured perfectly clean, mounted animal skulls with perfectly aligned, if savage, teeth that were restored by the artist’s childhood dentist. Priced between $6,000 and $10,000, each skull asked that collectors question their intentions in buying a symbol of death as an investment object. Yassin’s skulls are coveted by bankers in particular, according to Beirut gallery Marfa’ Projects founder Joumana Asseily, who revealed that six of the twelve works sold on the first day of the art fair.

Both Yassin and Joreige were represented by Marfa’ Projects, the gallery that exposed international investors and audiences to the works of Vartan Avakian, Omar Fakhoury, Stephanie Saade and Rania Stephan.

For a relatively small gallery founded in 2015, Marfa’ has punched well above its weight class in the international art scene, with artists spanning local and regional talent across the mediums of film, painting, sculpture, installation, sound art and textiles. More importantly, it is something of a triumph that Marfa’ Projects, currently managing several projects around Europe, is exhibiting at all.

Rewind to 2019, when the October Revolution heralded a period of rising poverty—currently over 50 percent of Lebanon’s citizens live below the poverty line—then to August of 2020, when 2,750 tons of improperly stored ammonium nitrate exploded in Beirut’s port. More than 200 people died and 6,000 were injured, while the devastation of buildings and infrastructure left 300,000 more homeless. Marfa’ Projects gallery space was decimated, destroying a hub of community and connection for regional artists who had found champions of their voices and stories in Asseily.

A woman sits with her head in one hand
Joumana Asseily. Courtesy Joumana Asseily

When we find time to talk, the gallery founder is in Paris, not long after Art Basel has wrapped. She is, she tells me, absolutely exhausted and scheduled to head back to Beirut.

Asseily was born and raised there, apart from a brief period when her family escaped to Paris to avoid the effects of the Lebanese Civil War. She returned to Paris at the age of 18 to study at the French art school Penninghen. Four years later, she met her husband and they married (“almost immediately!”), before moving to Los Angeles.

There, she dedicated herself to raising their children and the thought of working in or opening a gallery wasn’t even on her radar. The closest LA art galleries weren’t particularly close, and she had other things on her mind.

“I was drawing and working on books,” she recalls. “I was embracing quinoa and all those healthy things while doing children’s cookbooks.”

But then, in 2006, Asseily’s husband sold his company to return to Beirut. It wasn’t an easy move. At the time, protesters were burning all the Danish embassies following the publication of a caricature of the Prophet Muhammad in Denmark. There were car bombs.

“What reconciled me was the arts scene there,” she says. “I met amazing people doing amazing stuff. My whole idea changed. I started joining the boards and supporting the arts scene there, and it reconciled me with the country.”

Asseily saw an opportunity to contribute to the burgeoning scene, not just as a supporter of the arts but with something different and immersive. However, her idea took some time to enact—ten years, in fact.

“I had to be mature enough for it, and to find the space,” she tells me. “The space was, and still is, in the port area. The gallery is where you never venture, down in the customs area. All these dudes, the army, it’s literally like the meat-packing district in New York that you’d never venture into.”

Marfa’ Projects’ gallery space was a garage when they found it in 2015, explains Asseily, “but I liked its weird buzz and I loved the idea of a gallery within the context of that area. My sister was an architect who could fix it.”

An image of the front of an art gallery as taken from the street
Marfa’ Projects gallery in Beirut. Marfa' Projects

October of 2015 seemed like the perfect time to open Marfa’ Projects. International movers and shakers in the art world were arriving that month for the opening of high-profile institutions, including the reopening of the Sursock Museum after several years and the inauguration of the Aïshti Foundation. There was big buzz in the city, and fairs, curators, galleries and collectors were all in Beirut.

“It was the right moment,” according to Asseily, but her luck ended in 2020 when the gallery-on-the-rise collapsed into rubble.

Asseily was at home in the village of Yarze, just a 20-minute drive from Beirut, and witnessed the blast. After the immediate shock, Asseily resolved to reopen the gallery and accomplished that goal in the following year with a celebratory group show entitled Water that marked its new phase. Yet sadly, she says, most international press coverage talks about the sad and frightening things in Lebanon.

“In reality (and this is why I’ve rebuilt the gallery and I refuse to move) there is the will, the energy and this desire to continue,” she reflects. “It’s a survival mechanism, but it’s deeper than that. There’s a unique creativity, something special in the cultural field and the arts. Marfa’ is still a young gallery and we’re doing as much as we can with what we have, but if we can make a difference, we want to.”

Asseily wants Marfa’ to be part of the cultural resistance, and it’s important to her that artists can continue working and for the gallery to continue showing relevant works. It’s also important to the artists who have worked with Marfa’ from the beginning, such as the renowned Vartan Avakian.

The first project Avakian exhibited for Marfa’ was Collapsing Clouds of Gas and Dust, where he took dust particles from buildings—“sites of memory” as he described them—and turned them into beautiful mineral crystals. For the Marfa’ exhibition, he collected dust from an abandoned photo studio located in the Barakat Building, a historic Beirut landmark and the site of the future museum of the history and memory of the city: Beit Beirut.

Avakian addressed similar themes of memory and sacred places in his 2018 installation for Art Basel Statements entitled A Sign For Things to Come. This year marked Marfa’s third time at Art Basel Statements.

“Statements is for galleries showing emerging artists,” Asseily tells me. “You come with one statement, one artist. The first time we did the major fair was in 2019 with Saba Innab, a Palestinian artist. Prior to that, we did Liste, which is a passage to the big fair. That’s a very cool fair and most of the collectors attend Liste first.”

This year, Raed Yassin’s work became the statement Marfa’ Projects was making. The popularity of his work amongst audiences, press and investors reflects a volatile economic climate, Asseily theorizes. The skulls he displayed had teeth made of gold, silver and copper, straightened to perfection using the same methods dentists use on people.

Raed Yassin, ‘Death Investment’, 2023. Marfa' Projects

“Yassin’s pieces were interesting because they echo the financial crisis that we’re going through, and people don’t want to trust in banks after the collapse of Credit Suisse and the other majors,” she says. “People want to invest in tangible assets rather than investing in debt, so people are buying gold. The skulls with their gold teeth represent an asset. In some cultures, people used to buy gold and wear it in their teeth or on their bodies so that they wouldn’t leave cash.”

Today, she sounds relieved to be able to enjoy the slower energy of Paris—if only for a little while. On July 4, she’ll open a new show by Tamara Al-Samerraei at Marfa’ Projects and is looking forward to getting back to Beirut.

What drives her and inspires her, I inquire.

“People,” Asseily responds without hesitation. “I love stories, in any field. I’m fascinated by art, music, books and film, but I really love people’s experiences. There are so many different experiences, and they can be so inspirational. I went to big galleries in New York before I opened Marfa’ and I listened to stories. When you travel, you read and look at art, it’s all stories of people and how we make things around us.”

Founder Joumana Asseily on Marfa’ Projects’ Triumphant Art Basel Return