(This text was originally published at The International Museum of Women, July 2013)
For the first time in its history, Tate Modern has dedicated the world’s first major museum exhibition to Lebanese artist Saloua Raouda Choucair.
Choucair (born in Lebanon, 1916) is a pioneer of abstract art in the Middle East. Through painting and drawing, architecture, textiles and jewelry, as well as her abundant sculptures, one can understand how Choucair worked in different media following her interests in science, mathematics, Islamic art, and poetry.
The exhibition focuses on Choucair’s sculptures from the 1950s to the 1980s, created in wood, metal, stone, and fibreglass, as well as extensive examples of her early abstract paintings.
The show opens, with a youthful Self-portrait from 1943, a stylized rendering of a serious young woman. This painting was made shortly after Choucair began painting under the tutelage of leading Lebanese artists Mustafa Farroukh and Omar Onsi. Contrary to the tastes of her teachers, Choucair developed a passion for Islamic art and architecture during a trip to Egypt in 1943. Choucair’s work combines elements of western abstraction with Islamic aesthetics.
The domestic scene explored in the three versions of Les Peintres Celebres was most likely based on Leger’s Le Grand Déjeuner, (she studied in the studio of Fernand Léger in Paris) a large painting depicting a harem of three naked women having tea around a small table. But rather than recreate the scene a la Léger, Choucair instead conducted a deliberate, feminist ‘de-Légerisation.’
The major work in the opening galleries is an exquisite little painting called Paris-Beirut. An Islamic star, Cleopatra’s Needle, the colours of the desert, the Arc de Triomphe: all are reduced to their essential forms and held in perfect balance in the picture.
The exhibition’s last room has beauty in abundance, numerous sculptures: some are planetary, evoking eclipses and starbursts. Others have affinities with womankind – corkscrew curls, metal bows and gyrating curves – and the quirkiest are highly strung, shivering excitedly as one passes. Even without any knowledge of the Sufi principles apparently underlying this art, one has the sense of a free and humorous spirit perpetually at work.
Choucair’s sculptures fuse Islamic design with modernist traditions. Like her paintings they are small-scale, vibrant and cleverly balanced. One of these sculptures, carved out of wood, with joint, seems to vibrate from top to bottom with interior life – unseen human existence.
Choucair’s sculptures often resemble architectural structures, in particular those with repeated units, such as modular housing. She once said that given another life to live she would choose to be an architect.