HYPERALLERGIC: Reconsidering the Work of a Lebanese Female Artist Who Deserves a Closer Reading
Most reviews of Saloua Choucair’s work are still confined to some superficial observations on her paintings, and her sculptures are nowhere yet offered any serious treatment.
Ari Akkermans– March 13, 2017
Recognition came later in life to Saloua Raouda Choucair, a Lebanese artist working from Beirut, in relative isolation, throughout the second half of the 20th century. Her first international debut — several decades after a number of gallery exhibitions in Paris during the post-war period — was a major retrospective held at Tate Modern in 2013, after curators from Tate discovered her work in a gallery in Lebanon. Choucair was 97 years old at the time. (She stopped producing art sometime in the 1990s, after five decades of work.) In the summer of 2016, the recently reopened Sursock Museum in Beirut celebrated Choucair’s 100th birthday, and in January 2017, the artist passed away peacefully in her Beirut home. A number of obituaries highlighting her achievements appeared in the Western press.
Her life’s work was kept almost intact in her apartment in the Kantari neighborhood of Beirut, having only rarely been sold. In recent years, a number of her seldom discussed sculptures — modular structures formed in calculated, irregular shapes — have found their way to Western institutions, but as far as reception is concerned, Choucair is still a rather obscure footnote. Most reviews are confined to some superficial observations on her paintings, and the sculptures, albeit mentioned, are nowhere offered any serious treatment.
This situation hardly comes as a surprise. A number of artists, particularly those from the post-colonial world, who have been discovered and rediscovered by curators in recent years, have shared the same fate: discovery followed by institutionalization and then, if not oblivion, a suspended state. In this state, curators cannot decide whether the artist should be shown as part of the Western canon, or in carefully labeled ethnographic boxes such as “Islamic art,” “women artists,” or “modernism” — the last which is a category that today seems to cover almost an entire century when applied to art produced outside of the West.
But when an artist is no longer in a position to explain and defend her legacy, is it perhaps necessary to reconsider what merits including her work in the canon of modern art. There are the obvious tropes: a female artist from an Arab country (which connotes the idea that a female artist would be keener to update the historical categories of “Islamic” or “Arab”), and the label given to her by almost every commentator as, “the first abstract modernist artist in Lebanon and possibly the Arab world,” ever since Lamia Rustum Shehadeh made that claim in 1999 in her book Women and War in Lebanon. This description of Choucair is arguable. Since when did modernism become identical with abstraction? The history of definitions of the category “modern” in the Middle East is fraught with inconsistencies, but the beginning of modernism in the region would be more accurately identified as occurring one generation before Choucair, and as far as abstraction is concerned, it would be more accurate to begin with Saliba Douaihy. More often than not, institutional attempts to link Islamic art to contemporary artists living in the Middle East have resulted in exhibitions that are either not contemporary at all or that showcase contemporary work of questionable value.
Other broad claims have been made in order to validate the process of institutionalizing Choucair, including matching or comparing her with specific Western movements or male artists. Articles on Choucair claim that she became interested in abstract art during her stay in Paris in 1948, and that she was a pupil of the post-impressionist Fernand Léger for a while and worked in his studio for some time. (The fact that fellow painter, Chafic Abboud, another Lebanese master, also spent time at Léger’s atelier, pegs her work to his in the academic literature as if the legitimacy of a male artist was necessary.) Saloua Raouda Choucair, the book by Jessica Morgan published on the occasion of Choucair’s self-titled Tate exhibition, goes as far as to claim that she was influenced by avant-garde artists such as Malevich, Kandinsky, and Mondrian.
Yet, Saloua Choucair was a solitary bird from the beginning. Armed with a degree in the natural sciences before taking up painting in the 1930s, she had little interest in the aesthecizing realism of her mentors Moustafa Farroukh and Omar Onsi. Her earliest abstract paintings precede her stay in Paris in the early 1950s. She quickly renounced the strict cubism of Leger’s atelier while still in Paris and vehemently denied Western influence on her work (at least to the degree that it appeared that she was just a follower of the avant-garde artists, though Choucair did not share their preoccupations.)
Choucair’s work, an extended investigation of the nature of negative space, grows through distinct bodies of work: from a purely geometric understanding of the boundaries of the line (the series Trajectories of a Line, from the 1950s), to her most complex structures in which a visual model of infinity is constructed through irregular patterns, repetitions, and concave shapes (Infinite Structures, from the 1960s onward). In between, there are other series, such as Duals, Poems, Modules and Interforms, that all pave the way toward the artist’s dissolution of time inside a solid form. However, these series are not periods, and although she abandoned painting early on to focus on sculpture, a similar stream of themes and questions constantly reappear: What is the eventual fate of a line? How can the line describe in full the varieties of our experience of time? Saloua Choucair takes on the big questions, rather than a mere aesthetic viewpoint.
Yet this is where things get complicated. With so few resources on her work available — Choucair was barely understood during her most active years and stayed away from explaining her work — it is very difficult to get a real sense of the nature of her project, which I suspect, evolved through the years. Between 1975 and 1990 there are decades of conflict in Lebanon and the long civil war during which no institutions existed that could properly exhibit or study her work, and no curators were active at the time. No encyclopedic institution that could take on the task of studying and archiving Lebanese cultural production of the war period exists in Lebanon, though certain organizations have taken on surrogate roles. Therefore the task is still unfinished.
Central to Western interpretation of Lebanese art is the idea that war and conflict have been the primary sources of influence for artists, but looking at the entirety of Choucair’s oeuvre, it is very difficult to infer any kind of insight or even information about the violence in Lebanon from observation of the work. (This was also the case with Yvette Achkar, another still undiscovered abstract painter of the same generation in Lebanon.) There’s also the often repeated claim that her work was entirely derived from Islam or from Islamic art, which is based on a single line from an interview with the artist that appeared at the time of the Tate exhibition but was probably filmed several years earlier, and furnishes very little proof that she actively considered Islamic art her chief source of inspiration; her unpublished notebooks and notes seem to suggest otherwise.
In 2015, while working at a Lebanese gallery, I was part of the team that conceived a presentation of one piece from Choucair’s Dual series alongside two contemporary Lebanese artists (Saba Innab and Tanbak), for a curated section of art from the Middle East at the Armory Show. I now realize the extent to which I fell prey to hearsay, explaining away her work in the text I had written for our presentation, as an articulation of “her experience of a Beirut divided between East and West” (the fault line during the civil war). I also reproduced the claim that the artist had been inspired by architectural brutalism in general and Le Corbusier’s Unité d’habitation in Marseille in particular, and applied these influences to depict Beirut in blocks that can be assembled and reassembled. Now there is a story in almost every review written of Choucair’s sculptures that highlights the influence of brutalism and Le Corbusier in her work. The influence might indeed be there, but this repeated story overshadows the artist’s own formal research which deserves a more searching analysis.
Later that year, two exhibitions corrected me: Donatella Bernardi’s large show, Morgenröte, aurora borealis and Levantin: Into your solar plexus at the Kunsthalle Bern, where the room “Mother/Daughter,” devoted to Saloua Choucair and her artist daughter Hala Schoukair, contained an intervention in which Choucair’s work was glossed with scientific notation. This room made me think of the review I wrote of Hala Schoukair’s work from her exhibition in Beirut in 2014: Grains of Light. About this work I wrote: “Making sense of a world of entropy and chaos, arranging its disjointed syntactic elements into an endless grid, almost meditatively, warding off mortality but yet, through the conscious repetition, establishing a proximity with madness.” Additionally, Choucair’s first solo exhibition in New York, at CRG Gallery, displaying a diverse range of materials and historical periods, clued me up on an elaborate but precise continuity, which aimed not at the rigidness of post-war abstraction but at something primal: an archetypal form. It was then possible to read Choucair’s practice alongside pre-classical art.
The work of two scholars in Lebanon has shed some light into other paths by which to better understand Choucair’s work. In 2015, Kirsten Scheid translatedinto English the famous letter that Choucair had penned to Musa Suleiman in 1948 in response to his book Narrative Fiction among the Arabs. In this book Suleiman claimed Arabic literature was outdated and poor in comparison to the Greek epic, to which Choucair fiercely responded:
The Arab never took much interest in visible, tangible reality, or the truth that every human sees. Rather, he took his search for beauty to the essence of the subject, extracting it from all the adulterations that had accumulated in art since the time of the [Ancient] Greeks.
We might find here the genesis of her abstraction: a deliberate departure from the image of man cultivated by Greek philosophy and humanism, which Choucair goes on to add, “froze the world for centuries.”
As Scheid explains in her introductory essay to the letter, according to Choucair, Arabs were uninterested in the visible and excelled in works that are more real than common reality. Choucair establishes from early on, the late 1940s, this most central concept in her work: the distinction between visibility (optics) and visuality (understanding). But the fact that the entire discussion in the letter is constructed around the cultural politics of the golden age of Arab nationalism makes me suspect that the ideological picture of the artist presented here is incomplete, and that Choucair might have come to hold different views years later.
Laura Metzler, on the other hand, wrote a dissertation in 2014 on genetics, quantum mechanics, and transcendence in the late work of Choucair, a work that deserves to be taken rather seriously, though it is still unpublished. Metzler had access to many unpublished notes from Choucair’s studio, and argues for a much richer picture of her work that is embedded in the sciences.
Potentiality is the keyword here. Choucair was largely interested in lines that continue infinitely, and the potentiality of lines to create shapes that again flatten into two dimensions. This brings Kandinsky’s interest in the trajectory of a line to my mind, but Choucair was looking at something else: from Metzler’s work on the notebooks we know that the infinite structures Choucair was looking at were not mere abstractions, but actually a model of deoxyribonucleic acid and early models of the human genome. In her mind, however, there was a contradiction between the infinity of a line or a system, and the event of death, which is central to the biological sciences. How does Choucair reconcile the potentialities of the line with the ultimate horizon of death? The line here merges with concepts of transcendence and memory, and a wave-like movement is introduced in her late work; infinity is achieved not through repetition of the same, but through hypostasis, merge and rupture.
A big part of the picture of Choucair’s work is still missing — all we have is details, spare notes. But what we can see so far is enough to reset the colonial and rather condescending interpretations of Choucair’s work, and to start analysis again with a fresh set of questions in which historical claims and narrative forms become secondary to the primary preoccupations of the artist. When I encountered her “Structure with One Thousand Pieces” (1966-68) at the Sharjah Biennial in 2015, it frankly was difficult to see Le Corbusier or Beirut. The work was more about a certain type of infinitude that is not at the end of time, or after death, but constantly circulating among us. The Lebanese critic Jacques Aswad quotes Choucair as saying: “When the difficult equation finished, I would find the words ‘and so on.’ It was hard for me to understand the beginning, so what of this suspended ending?”