The Mind's Eye

The Mind's Eye

Rose Issa’s project at the Beirut Art Fair will consider the impact of recent regional socio-economic issues on both collectors and artists

When the independent curator, writer and producer Rose Issa organised her first Arab film festival over 30 years ago while living in Paris, it was fuelled by a desire to show an alternative side to a region that had become synonymous with occupation and war.

Fast forward three decades and Rose’s sense of urgency is as strong today as ever, driven by a determination to highlight the abundant artistic talent in evidence across a region that unfortunately, to many, still remains associated with violence and destruction.

She explains that while her forthcoming project, titled ‘Ourouba, The Eye of Lebanon’, explores the impact of socio-economic issues since the turn of the century on both a national and regional scale, it does so from the viewpoint of both collectors and the artists themselves, meaning that each featured work tells more than one story. The exhibition will form part of the Beirut Art Fair, which takes place at the Beirut International Exhibition and Leisure Center (BIEL) from 21 to 24 September.


“I wanted to see how collectors select their purchases, what touches their hearts and what’s relevant to them,” she says. “I was also interested in how both artists and collectors have reacted to events of the past 15 years or so, the chaos that war produces, but also the construction and reconstruction that follow too.”

‘Ourouba’ translates as ‘Arabicity’, a key concept across several of Rose’s projects which champions the individuality of the region’s artists and the non-stereotypical way that they present their conceptual and aesthetic concerns. The theme will act as a running motif through the works on show, which include installations, paintings, photography and sculptures on loan from private and public collections in Lebanon.


As part of the project, Rose has, for the first time, visited the homes of several collectors and artists at work who have been active since the turn of the century, amassing over 40 pieces to date. Her research has delivered fascinating results, yielding pieces of work that convey the turbulence and grief that war produces, but also elements of beauty and humour.

The importance that collecting art has taken on in recent years was also evident, driven in part, Rose believes, by Lebanon’s recent history and the turmoil that its people have endured.

“In Lebanon, there are generations who have never known peace for any length of time,” she says. “These people include art lovers who know their culture can be destroyed in the blink of an eye. There is a real sense of need to preserve the country’s artistic legacy.”


It was the impact of fighting in her homeland decades earlier that first sparked Rose’s involvement in the arts.

“I’d arrived in France from Lebanon in the late 1970s and was trying to think what I could do that was positive and would make a difference,” she says. “I wanted to reflect another aspect of Arab life. Film seemed the ideal vehicle to achieve this.”

Rose explains that her family had always loved the world of film, even though she had studied mathematics at university and carved out an early career in journalism.

“Very little was being done to promote culture from the Arab world away from the region, so I was happy to help address this issue by initiating and putting together a festival,” she says. “I felt that the region’s film scene had a lot to offer in this respect.”


The idea proved to have broad support and the resulting, week-long festival in 1982 was a huge success that promptly spawned a raft of other initiatives, including projects in Cannes and London.

Rose quickly established herself as a high-profile promoter and organiser of both film and visual arts shows, moving from Paris to London, where she began identifying talent from the Arab region and sourcing material for events.

As an independent curator, she works with the world’s top public institutions, which gives her the opportunity to introduce artists and filmmakers into mainstream institutions in cinema and television across European cultural hubs.

Supporting artists who have come up against hurdles when endeavouring to raise their profile abroad has been a key driver for Rose in her work.


“For example, it’s easier for galleries to promote Arab artists from the diaspora who speak English or French well than those who stayed in their country of birth, either through choice or otherwise, and can only communicate in their mother tongue,” she says. “Many of these don’t have the opportunity or infrastructure to launch themselves.”

She cites Ayman Baalbaki, the Lebanese artist from Odeissé, and Mona Hatoum, of Palestinian descent, but born in Lebanon, as examples of talent that simply needed greater exposure. Others, she notes, found that a return to their roots earned them the recognition they were seeking even though they’d ventured abroad.


“The Iranian artist, Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian, lived for decades in New York, but only gained a higher profile aged 80, once we organised a show of her work in Tehran and then brought the exhibition to the Barbican,” Rose notes. “I love the work of many artists, but it’s assisting those who are less able to defend themselves that gives me the greatest satisfaction.”

‘Ourouba, The Eye of Lebanon’, Beirut Art Fair, International Exhibition and Leisure Center (BIEL), from 21 to 24 September


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