Tarek Nahas | Purchasing Art through Intuition or Extensive Research…

© Tarek Nahas

Tarek Nahas is not only known as a business lawyer based in Lebanon, but also known to the international art scene as a passionate collector of photography. Nahas’ collection boasts diverse works by artists such as Hiroshi Sugimoto, Cindy Sherman, Vik Muniz, Wolfgang Tillmans, William Klein, Gao Bo, Akram Zaatari, and Joana Hadjithomas & Khalil Joreige. In 2015, he co-curated Open Rhapsody in Beirut with Jean-Luc Monterosso, the legendary director of La Maison Européenne de la Photographie, Paris, most commonly known as MEP. The exhibition focused on photography and video works in harmony with one another. In 2018, he curated Across Boundaries, a major Lebanese photography exhibition that was the focus of the 2018 Beirut Art Fair. PHOTOFAIRS had the opportunity to interview Nahas about his passion for collecting fine-art photography, discussing topics such as Lebanese photography and his most valuable work to date…

© Anne Collier, After You Get What You Want (Recto), 2017

We began by asking Nahas what he finds most appealing about photography, he responded:

“What I appreciate about photography is its versatility, it can be used to support fictional narratives or conceptual creations. It can also serve as a tool to witness various events, whether it be daily life or tragic tales.”

Do you remember the first artwork you bought and is it still in your collection? What made you decide to buy the work? 

I have always been attracted to photography, and during visits to galleries in Soho, New York, I took a leap into the world of images. The first photography artwork I bought is Marilyn in a black dress from Bert Stern’s series ‘The Last Sitting’. It was in New York in 2004. It is still in my collection and was hanging for a very long period of time on the walls of my apartment.

© Akram Zaatari, Scratched Portrait of Mrs Baqari, 2016. Courtesy of the artist and Sfeir Semler Gallery (Beirut & Hamburg)

When you think of buying a work, do you always do your research about the artist, or are there moments where you let your intuition decide?

My purchase process has evolved with time. During the first few years, I was driven mainly by intuition and the desire to acquire a work by a specific artist during an exhibition or at an art fair. With time and knowledge, I research long before deciding to purchase by an artist, I usually know what work I desire to acquire, from which series of the artist, and why such work, in addition to procuring me an immense pleasure, would also complement other works in the collection. Today, I can still rely on my intuition from time to time, but I have acquired knowledge through my reading, curating, and by attending art fairs and exhibitions. I believe that any sort of intuition is already infused by knowledge and research.

What was your most expensive purchase? 

My two most expensive purchases were works by Gilbert & George from their recent ‘Beard Pictures’ series, and by Thomas Struth from his ‘Paradise’ series.

© Gilbert & George, BEARDTREE, 2017. Courtesy of the artist and Lehmann Maupin (New York, Hong Kong, Seoul, London & Palm Beach)

You curated a photography show titled ‘Open Rhapsody’ in Beirut in 2015. What was your expectation in doing this exhibition? Do you have any future curatorial plans?

‘Open Rhapsody’ was probably the first large scale contemporary photography exhibition in Lebanon, and one of the first ones in the Middle East. My main idea was to show the public the best contemporary photography work in my collection, as well as in the collections of other Lebanese art collectors, and to make sure that the public understood that photography has been recognized internationally as an artistic medium on the same level as painting and sculpture. I must say that the way photography is considered in Lebanon today, less than 4 years later, has evolved and no one disputes it anymore as an art medium. This has also been accentuated by Across Boundaries, the second exhibition that I have curated in 2018, which was the main focus of the Beirut Art Fair. In this exhibition I showed around 150 photography works, substantially from Lebanese photographers that I have carefully but subjectively selected from 30 Lebanese institutional or private art collections spanning from the late 1800s till date. A book was published for each exhibition. I do not yet have any future curatorial plans, but I am open to curate an exhibition outside Lebanon. China would be an extraordinary opportunity.

© Tarek Nahas Home Interior. Courtesy of Tarek Nahas

Do you think there is a common focus among the Lebanese artists, as opposed to the artists from the rest of the world? Artists examples? 

Until a few years ago, Lebanese artists expressing themselves through photography still related to the war of 1975/1990 and to the postwar period. Fouad Elkhoury or Roger Moukarzel are prime examples of photographers documenting or narrating daily life in Lebanon during war time. Walid Raad is a multi-disciplinary artist that created the Atlas Group, a group which primarily expressed itself through photography to narrate fictitious stories related to events that occurred during the war. 

Another common focus among a number of Lebanese artists is the photography medium itself, whether through the work of Ziad Antar in its Expired series, for which he used expired analogue films found in a photography studio, or Joana Hadji-Thomas & Khalil Joreige in their ‘Wonder Beirut’ series, whose main goal was to reflect on latency, being the transitory stage in the process of image making where the image is already set down by light on silver salt, but is still not chemically revealed yet. 

© Thomas Struth, 115th Street at 2nd Avenue, New York / Harlem, 1978. Courtesy of the artist

Photography, especially with improvements in technology, has gained increased importance in the art world and is for most contemporary artists a preferred medium to work with. From your point of view, why is contemporary photographic art an increasingly popular art form?

It is an increasingly popular art form because we live in the era of the image. We are surrounded by images, and it is only normal that in such an era, artists express themselves with what matters today. Furthermore, I also believe that conveying your photographic artistic expression through the Internet and social media is more visually appealing and comprehended that other forms of art.

© Josef Koudelka, Abandonned oil field, Azerbaijan, Baku, 1999. Courtesy of the artist and Magnum Photos

What do you find the most rewarding aspect of collecting art? 

The quest of the artwork, the research, as well as meeting very interesting individuals whether they situate themselves as curators, museum or foundation directors, or artists. Discussions often widen my horizons and open up new visions or paths to explore.

Where do you see the future of photography and your photography collection going?

Photography is meant to evolve, as it is now a medium that is used by artists with various interests to express themselves. Artists are producing video and photography works in exhibitions showing both still and moving images. Painters are working on top of photography.

My art collection is also evolving in the same manner, however, I tend to go back in time and acquire works by major artists from their very best series that would have passed the “time factor” and are now considered as significant in the history of contemporary photography.