She may not be a household name in the West, but Saloua Raouda Choucair (1916) has been a strong voice in Middle Eastern art since the 1940s. The Tate Modern Museum in London is currently presenting the first major museum exhibition of the Lebanese artist, an exceptional component of the Beirut’s artistic panorama.
At 97 years old, Choucair is gaining enormous recognition as a pioneer of abstract art in the Middle East and as a prominent figure in the history of 20th century art.
Choucair incorporates myriad elements into her pieces. She works in different media: drawing, architecture, textiles, jewelry and experimental sculpture, following her interests in science, mathematics, and Islamic art and poetry. Since the 1940s she has played with the notion of western abstraction infused with Islamic esthetics. She experiments with materials and makes elegant use of lines and modular forms that translate into intricate rhythms of fascinating energy.
The eponymous exhibit: Saloua Raouda Choucair contains 120 pieces, and focuses on her sculptures from 1950s to the 1980s, created in wood, metal, stone, and fiberglass. There are also important figurative and abstract paintings like Self-Portrait (1943) and Paris-Beirut (1948). She also works with mud and clay, mirrors, Plexiglas, string, and even pound cake!
Many of the works on display at Tate Modern have never been exhibited outside of Lebanon; others are on loan from several major museums.
The exhibit begins with a series of early drawings from the 1940s. These are experimental pieces where the artist plays with repetition of forms, based on geometric and mathematical principles. In the 1950s she applies the same approach to her work with clay and wood, and begins her first series of sculptures wherein she explores the relevance lines.
SALOUA RAOUDA CHOUCAIR. 1. Infinite Structure, 1963-5 // 2. Poem, 1963-5.
In the 1960s the artist created her series Interfoms, consisting of seemingly simple blocks of cubes with highly complex internal forms. A following series, Poems, is made using individual pieces that stack together in flexible ways, much like the stanzas of Arabic poetry, which remind us that Islamic art must entail “a living architectural reality”, says the museum. We can appreciate the intense research and filed work that went into each of the artworks in this exhibit.
In the final space of the gallery, there is a display of experimental sculptures from the 1980s, where she introduces materials such as nylon string, Plexiglas and aluminum.
The Lebanese artists received numerous awards and recognitions during the 1980s and 1990s. In 2011 a retrospective of her work was presented at Beirut’s Exhibition Center.
Saloua Raouda Choucair will be on display at Tate Modern in London until October 20th of this year. ■