Antiquities mingling with modernism
Co-founder of Nabu Museum on his private collections, designing space and future plans
BEIRUT: Perched on a beachfront in El-Heri, Ras alChekka, stands the newly built two-floor Nabu Museum, a cube-shaped steel-and-glass structure that is now home to hundreds of regional antiquities and modern artworks.
The museum is named after the Mesopotamian god of wisdom.
It seeks to exhibit the cultural wealth of Lebanon and the region, which means the private collections of its founders – Jawad Adra, Badr el-Hage and Fida Jdeed.
“The Nabu Museum was created out of a need to create something for the community and the region,” Adra told The Daily Star.
“Bader el-Hage, Fida Jdeed and I have been friends for many years.
“We all share a passion for history, art and culture.
“The project imparts a shared perspective of what is a rigid cultural and historical tradition, the importance of arts and culture and the role of modernity in the region.”
Jdeed, Hage and Adra say land purchase, design and erection of their museum cost $7 million.
The worth of their collections was not discussed.
Adra sees himself as a custodian of the arts, rather than a collector.
His personal collection includes 2000 pieces from the Levant and Mesopotamian region, part of which makes up the museum’s permanent collection of early Bronze and Iron age artifacts, antiquities from the Roman, Greek, Byzantine and Muslim epochs, rare manuscripts and ethnographic material.
“I have been acquiring artworks and artifacts for over three decades now,” he said. “My collection is acquired from various sources.
“Sometimes it is the artists themselves, a gallery or auction. It really depends on when and how I encounter the artwork or artifact.”
The museum’s design is attributed to Iraqi artists Dia Azzawi and Mahmoud Obeidi, who were commissioned to complete the architectural concept.
“The building has a recognizable shape of a rectangular cuboid, with its structural clarity and inherent relationship to geometry and notions of perfection,” Adra remarked, saying these forms were informed by Azzawi’s interest in calligraphy as abstract semiotic elements.
“[They] decided to use weathered steel to create the facade of the building,” he added, “which has a connection to the sea, as it changes color with humidity.
“The final choice of material has a poetic and practical meaning as it becomes the building’s form, shape and color at once.”
Curated by Pascal Odille, the museum’s first exhibition, “Millennia of Creativity,” sets 60 modern artworks among around 400 archaeological pieces from the MENA region.
Adra says the show aims to compare the styles of ancient Mediterranean artistic production with those of more recent artistic practices.
Highlights on show include a selection of Sumerian and Babylonian cuneiform tablets and Phoenician steles dating from 2330 to 540 B.C. that recount epic tales.
A votive Roman statuette representing Aphrodite and Eros and a Roman blown-glass carafe in the shape of a bunch of grapes, sits
‘The idea was to create a space which would be decentralized from Beirut’
across from a collection of works by Lebanese painter Saliba Douaihy, covering all phases from the early thirties until his death in 1994.
“There are many important works exhibited in this exhibition, from a bronze calcophone [an ancient musical instrument],” Adra said, “to a  painting by Shaker Hassan al-Said entitled ‘Jidar Min al Qunaytirah No. 1,’ done with oil and spray paint and burning effects on board.”
The founders intend to hold two to three exhibitions yearly, drawing upon their own collection, and collaborating with those of other museums and collectors.
“We intend to collaborate with firstly the National Museum, AUB Museum, the Damascus Museum and Baghdad Museum,” Adra explained – “and of course museums from Europe and North America.
“We will have different curators for each exhibition.”
The museum also houses a library with books on art, archeology, history, and a collection of rare manuscripts. There are also residency spaces which can house three to six artists at a time, offering facilities to complete projects.
The next step, Adra says, is to create a public program with talks and tours, as well as an educational outreach program for schools and universities.
While the trip to El-Heri might require some forward planning, Adra sees the remote location as a benefit. “Remote is a relative term because we do not have public transport in Lebanon.”
“The idea was to create a space which would be decentralized from Beirut,” he said.
“The north of Lebanon, just like other so-called remote regions, lacks cultural spaces which will serve a communal and societal role.
“Ultimately we aim to provide an environment in which the public can explore the past, understand the present and play a role in shaping the future.”
Statuette of Aphrodite and Eros, Bronze. Roman period, first to second century A.D.
A pitcher-shaped pendent, third to fourth century A.D.