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Choucair Showcased | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Saloua Raouda Choucair
Waterlens 1969–1971, detail
© Saloua Raouda Choucair Foundation

Saloua Raouda Choucair, "Waterlens" 1969–1971, © Saloua Raouda Choucair Foundation

Saloua Raouda Choucair
Waterlens 1969–1971, detail
© Saloua Raouda Choucair Foundation

It takes a strong-minded, talented, and highly intelligent woman to challenge the pre-conceived notions of the male-dominated mid-twentieth century art world, particularly for an Arab woman alone in Europe. However, this is precisely what Saloua Raouda Choucair did during her few years in Paris in the late 1940s.

Jessica Morgan, co-curator of the Lebanese artist’s current retrospective at the Tate Modern, explains how Choucair was ground-breaking in registering that abstraction was not a Western creation, but had in fact existed for centuries.

“The real significance of Choucair’s work is the way in which she brought together her interest and knowledge in Islamic form and architecture with a Western conception of abstraction, combining both to create a new avenue of modernism,” she explains.

Morgan is confident that if Choucair had remained in Paris, rather than returning to her homeland, the Lebanese artist would be a household name, rather than a relative unknown, only being brought to light in her 97th year.

This 120-piece exhibition, many of which have never been seen before, takes the viewer on a journey through a lifetime of Choucair’s highly creative and experimental work. It starts with a 1943 self-portrait, showing a determined, head-scarved young woman with a slight frown and serious gaze.

Saloua Raouda Choucair, "Self Portrait" 1943, © Saloua Raouda Choucair Foundation

Saloua Raouda Choucair
Self Portrait 1943
© Saloua Raouda Choucair Foundation

At this early point in her career, Choucair was under the tutelage of two of Lebanon’s leading landscape artists, Mustafa Farroukh and Omar Onsi. However she soon moved to Paris to study at the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts, finding a place in the atelier of cubist and figurative painter, Fernand Léger, where she was to spend several formative years.

The small series of paintings entitled Les Peintures Célèbres in the first room of the exhibition are a homage to her mentor’s Le Grand Dejeuner, using similar bold colors and flat shapes, yet her figures are more womanly, softer and more naïve.

Just prior to her sojourn in Paris, Choucair spent some time in Cairo and had fallen in love with Islamic art, design and architecture, which were highly unfashionable at the height of modernism. However, she did not see the two as mutually exclusive, and set about combining her love of the simple line and curve of Islamic geometry with the abstract modernism of her Parisian experience.

Her Fractional Modules, painted around this time, begin to explore and examine the possibilities of such a synthesis of ideas, through mathematical repetitions and duplications, all rendered in a soothing, muted palette of gouache.

Returning to Beirut in the early 1950’s brought Choucair’s chances of international recognition to an end, says Morgan. Despite knowing it would be detrimental to her career, Choucair wanted to be with her husband. Only a few years later, she gave birth to a daughter, Hala.

This period between the 1950s and 1970s was a time of prolific activity for Choucair, during which she experimented with many different materials, including wood, metal, stone and fiberglass. Fusing her fascination with science, geometry, engineering and architecture with her understanding of Sufi poetry, Choucair produced her modular Poems series.

Saloua Raouda Choucair Poem 1963–1965 © Saloua Raouda Choucair Foundation

Saloua Raouda Choucair
Poem 1963–1965
© Saloua Raouda Choucair Foundation

This series takes up two rooms of the exhibition, each component of which can stand alone or be combined with other pieces in myriad different configurations to be understood as a whole. She saw these works as being in constant flux—flexible matter to be altered and added to over time—rather than inert forms.

Similar, yet contrasting, are the artist’s Duals, which are made up of two closely entwined pieces of the same sculpture, but unlike Poems, they are only complete when embracing their metal, wood, stone or plastic partner—a sort of essential yin and yang. It is difficult not to reach over the exhibition ropes to run ones’ hand over the smooth curved surfaces of these infinitely tactile, interlocking works.

Room three holds perhaps the most startling work of the exhibition, and the one that perhaps best reflects Choucair’s later life. Two = One is a modular painting whose canvas is covered in scratches and tears; there are even a couple of pieces of glass embedded in the painting, the result of a bomb exploding near her flat during the civil war in the 1980s.

However, the driving force of Choucair’s talent persevered, informed by her highly intelligent, open-minded and inquisitive nature.

On the opposite side of the room is a glass case full of maquettes (scale models), each created from different materials. Among these are models and plans for large-scale public projects, which were sadly never made. These sit cheek-by-jowl with smaller, intriguing works of jewellery and household design, such as quirky salt and pepper sets.

Choucair’s irrepressible creativity is astounding, especially considering she was seen as outlandishly avant-garde in Lebanon at the time. Despite her passion and obvious talent, she never received the same attention as her male counterparts, nor did she receive the respect and acclaim she deserved until much later in life.

<strong>Saloua Raouda Choucair</strong><br /><em>Intercircles</em> 1972–1974<br />© Saloua Raouda Choucair Foundation

Saloua Raouda Choucair
Intercircles 1972–1974
© Saloua Raouda Choucair Foundation

The last room reveals several of Choucair’s plexiglass and nylon thread structures, careful geometric configurations balanced meticulously in the center of the room, each one exploring the idea of potential kinetic energy within its structural form. Although accomplished, delicate and impressive works of art, these are less appealing to me personally, as they seem to lack some of the intimacy, femininity, warmth and wit of her earlier work.

However, this is a well-curated showcase of a lifetime dedicated to experimental and highly creative work, finally granting Choucair her rightful place in the history of art.

In comparison with the blockbuster Lichtenstein retrospective downstairs, this modest, yet committed, exhibition is a welcome reprieve. It is only a shame that Choucair, at 97 years of age, is too old to travel and see the enjoyment that lights the faces of the visitors who flow through the rooms, marveling at her life’s work.

This exhibition runs from April 17–October 20, 1013, at the Tate Modern, London.
Admission £10 (£8.50 concessions)
Open 10am to 6pm every day and 10pm on Friday and Saturday.
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