“‘Kul shi franji, branji’ isn’t true,” says Abraham Karabajakian. His denial of the Arabic expression, “Everything foreign is better,” neatly sums up the dominant theme of the modern and contemporary Middle Eastern art in the KA private collection Karabajakian and his business partner, Roger Akoury, started two years ago.
Karabajakian acquired each of the 500 works in the collection himself and selected 90 sculptures and paintings among them for a by-invitation-only show at the sprawling Dbayyeh apartment he and Akoury converted into KA’s exhibition space a little over one year ago.
He has subdivided the show into clusters, which he prefers to navigate in a particular order, moving from vaguely impressionistic figurative paintings of the early 20th century to 1950s-era abstract works by artists like Saliba Douaihy, Aref el-Rayess and Serge Shart.
Karabajakian narrates these stylistic cycles with the fluency of a professional curator and the proud, hard-won fervor of a longtime collector – punctuating his analysis with occasional colorful anecdotes about how he acquired a piece or a painting’s personal significance to the artist. The wooden table where Jansem Jean’s mother is seated in his 1956 painting “Le Pot Blanc,” for example, is now in the home of the subject’s grandson.
Most of KA’s pieces are the work of Lebanese, Armenian and Arab artists,  though a few major international names anchor the collection, a strategy that Karabajakian believes lends itself to his aforementioned objective.
“The collection is a reflection of my identity,” he explains. “I’m Lebanese first, and I’m Armenian, and I’m a citizen of the world. The American work we have is here by coincidence. You go to an auction to buy a Guiragossian or Saliba Douaihy and you like something else there. Beauty has no nationality. At the end of the day, displaying Lebanese work along with international big names will prove that Lebanon has its own artists.  They’ll see that Lebanese artwork is different, but in some cases better.”
Indeed many of the artists represented in the collection have already demonstrated their worth in the international art market. A favorite of Karabajakian’s is Abboud’s oil-on-canvas “Le Pays Chaud” (1970), which he believes to be an abstract representation of Tripoli’s coastline. Abboud’s “Liberty and Serwal,” a blue-hued, slightly pointillist rendering of a reclining woman wearing traditional Arab men’s trousers, is the first thing you see when you step off the elevator.
“I don’t know why he named it ‘Liberty,’” says Karabajakian, “but he clearly put her in men’s pants to make her closer to freedom.”
Hanging nearby are a pair of paintings by Maqbool Fida Hussein, both depicting strong, confident women staring directly at the viewer. Karabajakian marvels at the “power of her stare, the confidence and the self-possession” of the female subject of Maqbool’s “Fatima” but denies that the near-juxtaposition of the three paintings is intended to provoke a comparison.
“I’m not a professionally trained curator,” he demurs.
Part of Karabajakian’s objective as a collector – he personally owns 100 pieces in addition to those he acquires for KA – is to repatriate some of the region’s cultural heritage and gradually cultivate an appreciation for Middle Eastern artists and a market for their work in the Arab world.
“For me, taste is [a] muscle that you have to work out,” Karabajakian says. “If you work out really hard with a trainer first and it’s no fun, you don’t do it again. It’s the same with art. If it’s too hard, people won’t like it. If you look at our selection, all our work is bright and happy. Even the ‘miserable’ paintings make you happy in the long run because they make you think about the values you need in life.”
Nowhere is the sentiment more evident than the sculptures of Lebanon-based Palestinian artist Abdul-Rahman Katanani, all mounted as a single wall installation. Karabajakian assembled these five pieces, all depicting children at play, over a three-year period from different international exhibitions.
This collection of life-sized paper dolls-in-metal occupies an expanse of white wall to create a playground montage that, from a distance, is deceptively universal and cheerful. A little boy rides a tricycle as a girl plays with a red pail. A boy and girl clutching bunches of brightly colored balloons chase each other, while a solitary figure dissects a doll with a pair of scissors. None of the pieces have facial features so, at first glance, it could be a representation of any playground, anywhere in the world.
Stepping closer, the onlooker will notice that the balloons are strung with barbed wire. Bottle caps adorn the children’s clothing, and they play with toys made of scrap metal. Katanani constructed the figures with “found material,” Karabajakian explains.
“The genius of Katanani’s work is that he wanted to show that Palestinian children are children of the world they live in,” Karabajakian says. “They’re playing in a playground but their toys are products of the war.”
Much of the work displayed in KA’s exhibition space is less overtly political. Anyone invited to view one of the two exhibitions KA has mounted since the space opened last year is immediately struck by the overwhelming cavalcade of colors and shapes, which are amplified by the view of the Mediterranean shimmering through floor-to-ceiling windows.
Though the public is barred from the KA collection for now, Karabajakian says that later this year he plans to open it Saturdays. He sees this as the first step toward creating a comprehensive museum of art for Beirut.
Karabajakian is optimistic about the endeavor, especially since he’s noticed more of his Lebanese friends dabbling in contemporary art lately.
“Ten years ago, no Lebanese people I know were spending money on art and now they’re all paying major sums [for pieces],” Karabajakian says. “It all comes with exposure. That’s why we need more art spaces and exhibitions.
“People always ask me if I’m scared about having all this expensive art in this country. I tell them that when people start stealing art in Lebanon, we’ve done it. Everything will be good.”
By Lysandra Ohrstrom