Women are playing a vital role in the Middle East’s growing contemporary art scene. Recognising art’s power to communicate, engage and transform has helped a lengthening list of female creatives to promote the region’s culture while challenging its stereotypes.

Annie Vartivarian is the founder of the Letitia Gallery located in Beirut, Lebanon. Her passion and vision of showcasing the diversity of Middle Eastern and international artists through contemporary art transpires in the versatility of the gallery’s exhibition programme.

Her daughter Gaia shares the same interest in creativity and art, which led her to study furniture design in Geneva, Switzerland, and obtain a master’s degree from Istituto Marangoni in Milano, Italy, in Italian Product Design.

With their gallery, the mother-daughter team are striving to create a hub for creative discourse and cultural celebration.

WiFB sat down with Annie and Gaia to discuss the challenges and joys of being an integral part of Lebanon’s burgeoning art world and the special authenticity that comes from working with family.

A Family's Journey to Promote the Arts
Image courtesy of Letitia Gallery

Tell us about the foundation of the Letitia Gallery. Where did the idea come from and how did you get started

Annie: Mohamad Al Hamoud and I founded Letitia with the aim to further promote the (already flourishing) cultural scene in Beirut. The city itself functioned as the perfect starting point due to its rich history and its status as a melting pot of different ethnic backgrounds. Mohamad and I saw a real opportunity for promoting Lebanon as an important international art destination and a hub of creativity and artistic discourse.

The gallery opened in February 2018 with an inaugural exhibition by British artist Eileen Cooper OBE RA, followed by exhibitions with Ahmed Badry, Nathaniel Rackowe and Basir Mahmood. It was important for us to create a diverse and balanced programme of exhibitions that would celebrate both international and regional talent. We were also thrilled to inaugurate the gallery by showcasing the work of Eileen Cooper, whose work delved into the rich natural beauty of Beirut. I feel like our first exhibition truly encapsulated our desire to contribute to the cultural discourse in the region while also showcasing our love for the city.

The gallery aims to facilitate discourse around culture in the MENA region. How exactly does art promote the discussion around this topic?

Annie: Beirut’s place in the contemporary art community is already quite established, and we want to contribute to it by bringing a wide variety of art and artists into the gallery. It is an exciting opportunity for us to present something that is fresh, new and vibrant and adds to the cultural narrative within the region.

We promote this creative discourse through the thoughtful curation of different exhibitions by international artists, many of whom are new to audiences in the Middle East and showing for the first time in the region. It has been exciting to see our artists interact with the city and get inspired by their surroundings while creating the works we have commissioned. I believe these artistic interventions truly add to the discourse within the region and help us shape Beirut’s place on the cultural map, both regionally and internationally.

Besides our diverse exhibition list, we have been facilitating talks within the exhibition space. We also made our first appearance at the Beirut Art Fair this year – it was an exciting opportunity for us to further establish our status in the local art scene. The fair allowed us to interact with both local and international visitors and art lovers. We were thrilled to promote a handful of young emerging artists side by side with more established artists like Eileen Cooper and Nathaniel Rackowe.

In your experience working with international curators, what are the most frequent misconceptions you encounter on art from the region?

Annie: There is a significant difference in background between the art from the region and from abroad. Expectations are always different, and we try to fulfil the region’s expectations by also keeping our works on an international level. It is important to find a balance between the local and international artists we showcase. It is a balancing act that requires understanding a variety of different experiences and cultures. However, I believe this can also be an exciting opportunity to learn something new about the art market, strengthen our business and make it more successful. These different perspectives allow the cultural discourse to exist as a vibrant and pulsing entity that also shapes the way we discuss and exhibit artists’ work.

A Family's Journey to Promote the Arts
Image courtesy of Letitia Gallery

Do you think being women in this industry made it easier or more difficult for you to succeed?

Annie: This is solely my experience, but I definitely found women in the art world to be very helpful allies and supporters of the gallery. For example, Eileen Cooper was an utter delight to work with. Lauren Wetmore, the curator of our current exhibition Basir Mahmood: Eyes Recently Seen, has also been a wonderful ally for us and the gallery.

Gaia, what is it like to work with your mother?

Gaia: I find that work is always more genuine when it’s with a family member. It is easier to be more honest and direct about ideas and thoughts for the future of the gallery when you know the other person through and through. I think this level of honesty is an important ingredient in making our business stronger and more successful.
At the same time, it is also important for us to never mix our personal lives with the business we are running. However, I certainly believe that working together has brought us closer to each other, and it has been an exciting journey so far.

Annie, what is it like to work with your daughter?

Annie: It has been wonderful. I always knew that Gaia was a very attentive person and that she would give all her attention and care towards the betterment of the business. It felt like a natural step for us to work together. I felt very safe asking her to run the gallery with me. I have always seen myself in her, and when we started working together, I had big expectations. She surprised me by not just meeting them but also exceeding them. Gaia has a strong passion for the arts and truly understands Letitia’s mission and what we want to achieve as a business and as a space for cultural discourse. It has been very exciting to work together and see Letitia grow as a business.

What is your future vision for the gallery and your work together?

Annie: We are looking to expand the gallery’s presence beyond its walls, reaching new audiences through our participation in regional and international art fairs and commissioning installations and site-specific work in public spaces across Lebanon.
For example, we recently commissioned two large-scale public works by Nathaniel Rackowe – Black Shed Expanded and LP46 – which were displayed in various publicly accessible spaces in downtown Beirut. This commission was without precedent, and we were very excited to make our mark as a new gallery in such a thriving city by getting Nathaniel to create something for us. This public commission conveys our desire to become an international art destination, and commissioning an established artist such as Nathaniel made this even more exciting for us.

As the gallery grows, we will look to nurture our existing relationships with the artists we have shown in order to advance their careers. Through this, we hope to offer them access to an important network of local and international museums and collectors.