Christopher Al-Omary Fiorello

Hidden talent finds an unlikely home

A partnership between one man’s nostalgia and another’s plea for cultural innovation

Mustafa Osse
Mustafa Osse

You’ve got to spend money to make money—mostly. But for one week this January, Syrian refugee Mustafa Osse has turned closeted passion into profit without expending a single lira. 


Osse’s story stretches from the Syrian border with Kurdistan into Beirut, where for the last eight years he and his family have lived and worked on the ground floor of an apartment building. After work, Osse retreats to his small home to pass time with family, help with upkeep and when he can steal a free second, to paint. 


He loads sprawling canvasses with the colors and faces of his homeland, all pastels and swirls. Family and tradition populate his work, ways of life preserved in a place far away from here. There are images of loss, too, of the loneliness endemic to the man far from home.  Osse stores these memories in his bedroom, tucks them away in the hope of one day showcasing them.


“I had a show once in Syria, but since I’ve been in Lebanon there’s never been time to think about it. I work all the time,” Osse explained to NOW, a friend and Kurdish translator sitting between us. As new refugees pour in every day, life for Syrians in Beirut is becoming increasingly difficult, especially for those who arrive without savings - days are spent making ends meet, not perusing galleries.


But a few months ago, a Kurdish friend of Osse’s heard about a space in Hamra’s heart where any artist, regardless of credibility or cause, could have a week-long solo exhibition at no cost.


“When design week came around last year, we were thinking about a way of making the space livelier,” explains Kais al-Kaissi, who heads the Beirut office of the UK graphic design firm A Fish In Sea. Thus the spacious office was temporarily transformed into a mini-gallery, to become Community, open from 10 till 7 all week. When al-Kaissi saw a positive public response, he thought “why not give the space a name, and offer it entirely for free for anyone that wants to exhibit?”


Hamra boasts just a few formal galleries, each with barriers to entry. Artists pay fees to showcase, either up front or in commission. Naturally, then, gallerists curate more saleable work, or exhibit artists who can front hefty fees. Getting in the door can become a disheartening venture for the aspiring. 


Food and beverage has filled this void to some extent—bars like De Prague and cafes like Younes regularly showcase work without any compensation. “They’re really noble,” Al-Kaissi says of Café Younes’ efforts to display art, “but there’s not enough of these initiatives happening. At the end of the day, you want somewhere calm where people can actually look at the art and discuss it.” 


It may be tucked away on the third floor of an obscure office building and have unflattering lighting and walls built for clothes racks but ten exhibitions and seven months later Community is booked months in advance. Many of the featured artists have sold work, some for as much as $500. Al-Kaissi is flattered by the turnout and pleased with the attention A Fish In Sea has garnered as a result.


He recalls getting off work in London and meeting friends in a part of town that “looked like Hamra sort of—hip and cool—and there were galleries all across the streets. You just walk in…and meet people, swap business cards.”  Gallery-hopping like this would be a challenge in Hamra, but Al-Kaissi sees potential in the neighborhood’s underutilized spaces. His attempts to realize the potential of his own space led to friendship with Salar Malla, Osse’s friend and a local anchor with Kurdistan TV.


Malla covered an art workshop held at Community by another Kurdish artist. Several weeks after the workshop, Malla rang Al-Kaissi. “I’ve got a friend. He’s a painter. Would you mind hosting him at your space?” Malla asked. “The one thing we don’t do here is say ‘no’,” Al-Kaissi said of Community’s prerequisites for whom they exhibit. Al-Kaissi booked Osse without knowing anything about the man, his work, or his financial situation. 


Community designs promotional posters for the artists pro bono, only asking them to contribute around $400 for printing. “Showing work is extremely expensive; that’s what’s kept me from trying,” said Osse when asked about the printing costs. What might have been the end before the beginning was transformed by Malla, who appealed to Kurdistan TV for help. The station absorbed Osse’s printing costs. “I was extremely thankful,” says Osse, “it came as a surprise to me.” 


When Osse got to Community, eldest son in tow, dozens of Kurds living around Beirut had turned out to see his work and shake his hand. “It was wonderful to see everyone at the show,” Osse recalls. “People from all over the city were there.”


Now at the end of his exhibition, Osse says he has had interest from potential buyers. He hopes to showcase his work at a nearby gallery in the future. “I’ve got 40 more paintings,” Osse chuckles when asked how he manages to paint so much on top of his schedule. “It’s a passion for me. I have to paint.”


Community Gallery is located on the 3rd floor of the Adidas Building, Makdessi Street, Hamra. For more information, you can visit their website.


Mustafa Osse also has his own website.

Osse’s eldest son, age 6, poses in front of a piece to which he contributed coloring (image courtesy of Kais al-Kaissi)

Al-Kaissi booked Osse without knowing anything about the man, his work, or his financial situation