Culture

Jordanian artist publishes new monograph on her own terms

REVIEW

BEIRUT: The sculptress Mona Saudi has never adhered to conventional expectations. At the age of 17, Saudi fled Amman to pursue an artist's life in Paris (traveling over land and by sea and stopping in Beirut, Cairo and Alexandria along the way) and left a letter for her father informing him of her decision.

As a prolific mid-career artist, she opted to show her work in her home and garden instead of in galleries or cultural institutions, finding them wanting in terms of space and vision.

And now, after four decades of hammering and chiseling stones into sensual forms that pare down complex emotions into essential gestures, she has chosen to self-publish her first substantial monograph rather than seek out an art press to assemble a proper catalogue raisonnee.

"Mona Saudi: Forty Years in Sculpture," published late last year, marks the culmination of a long and steady career that began when Saudi was a kid running around the ruins of the Roman amphitheater in Amman, which, in the early 1940s, was less a city than a small town draped over seven hills.

Saudi's mother, Yusra, came from a Damascene family that left Syria for Jordan with a wave of Circassian emigrants and merchants in the late 19th century. Her father, Abdul-Majid, came to Amman from Hijaz. They married in 1913.

By the time Saudi became conscious of the world, it was just prior to 1948 and already two of her brothers were imprisoned for agitating on behalf of Palestine. One of them, Fathi, died suddenly of an unknown illness a few years later. The Palestinian struggle and the need to understand death as a transformation rather than an end informed many of Saudi's early sculptures.

Walking back and forth to school every day, Saudi used to detour through derelict stone quarries and fields. To this day, the natural forms of those early landscapes reverberate in her work, which, like her idol Constantin Brancusi, emphasizes movement and singular, all-encompassing actions.

It was the time Saudi spent in Beirut and in Paris in the 1960s, however, that cemented her artistic practice. In Beirut, she fell in with a crowd of artists and poets and mounted her first exhibition at the old Cafe de la Presse in Hamra. In Paris, she studied at the Ecole des Beaux Arts and obsessed over the Sumerian and Nabataean sculptures in the Louvre.

After 1968, she returned to Beirut and moved into a low-slung house surrounded by an unruly garden in the neighborhood of Clemenceau, where she has lived more or less consistently ever since. She married, briefly, and has a daughter who is now in her late 20s.

Over the years, she has exhibited her work in Beirut, Amman, Cairo, Rabat, Kuwait, Tehran, Moscow, Paris and Washington. As intriguing as her recurring forms - sculptures stacked like totem poles and constructed from interlocking forms for the Arabic letter noun, a series of pieces entitled "Seed" in which Saudi manipulates marble to replicate the ripples in a pool of water - are her chosen materials and their vibrant colors. Saudi mines the entire region and beyond, almost literally, for stalactite from the Jeita grotto, limestone from Jordan, alabaster from Yemen, marble from Hebron, volcanic stone from Armenia and diorite from Syria.

"Forty Years in Sculpture" is, at its best, a beautiful photographic record of Saudi's sculptures - her mother earths, her lovers, her fertility pieces, her sunrises, nocturnes and dawns, her trees, her women, her formations, meditations, absences, obelisks and more. Many of her sculptures are pictured here twice, giving readers a sense of their three-dimensionality as well as their heft and volume.

As with exhibitions of her physical work in actual space, the representations of her sculptures in book-form elicit the desire to touch, to trace one's finger down winding groove of her 2002 "Water of Life" in a striated emerald green stone Saudi calls Jordanian jade, or to cup the palm of one's hand around the curves of her many works entitled "Formation." (The replication of core imagery in Saudi's work, from holes and orifices to nubs and swells, and its possible relationship with femininity or sexuality deserves its own dedicated essay.)

Saudi's book, gorgeously printed and produced, nonetheless suffers when it comes to the trilingual texts by friends and local critics. Romantic self-mythologizing that elevates the life of the artist to rest on par with the work of the artist has long afflicted the documentation of Lebanon's cultural heritage, slim though that documentation may be. "Forty Years in Sculpture" is no different, and even the basic typology jumps from roman to bold to italics and back again to dramatize otherwise drab narratives and fey poetic flourishes.

This is to be forgiven, of course, in that artists in Lebanon, to a nearly absurd degree, are too often required to not only create their work but promote it as well. ("Forty Years in Sculpture" demanded that Saudi stop making sculptures for a year to put the book together.) Without adequate institutions, whether public or private, to take on the task of producing artists' monographs, books like "Forty Years in Sculpture" will almost always falter in the absence of strong editorial direction. The casualty here is not Saudi's work - which speaks for itself on the page - but rather the notion of a cogently written art historical narrative that puts her work in the critical context it deserves.

Mona Saudi's "Forty Years in Sculpture" is self-published and distributed in Lebanon by Librarie Antoine. For more information, please see www.monasaudi.com

 

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