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Debut UK exhibition for Lebanese artist - aged 97

Published: Updated:

She has been described as a pioneer of abstract art in the Arab world. But Lebanese artist Saloua Raouda Choucair has waited a long time for international recognition of her work.

Now, with a major exhibition at London’s Tate Modern, over 100 pieces of Choucair’s artwork are on display - many of them for the first time.

Taking pride of place are her distinctive sculptures, made up of multiple interlocking pieces that can either be exhibited separately or assembled together into a single work - just like the verses of Sufi poetry.

But despite the innovative approach, Tate Modern curator Jessica Morgan said there were many reasons why Choucair’s work had been largely overlooked in the past.

“A critical one, of course, is the abstraction of her work which was unfamiliar and not really in dialogue with what the dominating trend was at that time in Beirut, which was very much to do with developing a national language of modernism and referring to a landscape, to a heritage. Now, in fact, her work does have all of that in it because of her interest in Islamic architecture, form, geometry and so forth but not in any way that would have been recognised at that time,” said Morgan.

Born in Beirut in 1916, Choucair’s work on display spans six decades, including pieces from three years spent in Paris in the late 1940s.

But despite having continued working in Beirut throughout Lebanon’s 1975-1990 civil war, the conflict is absent from her work, apart from one painting that was damaged in a bomb blast.

“With Choucair’s work, one of the fascinating things is that she is so absolutely rigidly concerned with the principles that she established very early in her career which were to do with abstract form, they were to do with light and space, geometry, a lot of mathematical configurations and she almost, she had no space in a way in her work to respond to what was happening around her. I mean, it’s kind of an extraordinary event in a way because I can barely think of an artist working in Lebanon at that time whose work was not about the civil war,” said Morgan.

The curator said she first came across Choucair’s work by chance when she was in Beirut, and immediately felt she had hit upon something special.

She visited Choucair’s apartment, which turned out to be a treasure trove full of the artist’s work.

It then became a priority, Morgan said, to highlight the Lebanese artist, and place her alongside her contemporaries, such as French artist, Fernand Leger.
“I think what we wanted to do was place her in a history of modernist art and really put her in her rightful position which is as a major figure in the 20th century,” she said.

Inspired by Islamic geometric design, and interested in architecture, mathematics and science, Choucair toured the streets and mosques of Cairo for ideas.

But long-time admirer, Saleh Barakat, said a turning point for the artist had come during her time at university.

“One of her professors at some point said that great art was art that was derived from Greek art. So she looked at him and said: ‘What about Islamic art?’ He said Islamic art was not art, it was redecorating. In that moment, her whole life changed because she decided to dedicate her whole life to proving that this professor was wrong,” said Barakat from his Beirut gallery.

By the time Barakat opened his ‘Agial’ gallery in the early 1990s, Choucair was already well-known on the local art scene.

But she only sold very few of her creations, as art buyers were more often looking for works with a ‘Western’ touch.

“At the beginning of Saloua’s life, she was always recognized in artistic circles.
In 1958, she won the ‘Biennial Alexandria’ prize, which at that time was probably the most important fine art event in the Middle East. But she was calling for an Arab art inspired by Islamic mysticism, at a time when the Arab world looked up to the West, it wanted to be Western,” said Barakat.

When Choucair finally appeared to be on the cusp of a successful art career, circumstance worked against her.

“I think that in the early 1970s there was almost a recognition, in Lebanon at least, of her pioneering sculpture work. But when she reached the point of proving that she was a pioneering sculptor, the Lebanese war started and all the difficulties that followed from that, and she had a daughter to take care of. So all of that affected her production,” the gallery owner said.

Barakat says the Tate Modern exhibition has led to interest from other international galleries and museums - perhaps signaling the start of a new beginning for Saloua Raouda Choucair.