BEIRUT: The Saloua Raouda Choucair retrospective at the Beirut Exhibition Center is an art historical and curatorial goldmine. Some 380 works – including early paintings and late sculptures that have never been shown before – fill a venue the size of an airplane hangar. Most of them come straight from the artist’s studio, as do the notes, sketches, photographs and maquettes shedding unprecedented light on Choucair’s thought process over the past seven decades.
In substance, if more than style, the exhibition presents the nearly complete, almost wholly intact body of work of an artist who has spent a lifetime plumbing the language of abstraction for a vocabulary that is hers alone. The play of lines, forms, volumes and movements is rigorous and remarkably consistent.
Her work conjures and embodies an experience of modernity that challenges the old, arrogant notion that it came to the east only through emulation or imitation of the west.
Divided into eight more or less chronological sections, the show moves through all of Choucair’s major phases, from her delicate drawings and luminous gouaches to her stacked and interlocking sculptures and her wild experiments with centrifugal tension made of stainless steel, Plexiglas and nylon thread.
Since the 1940s, Choucair has titled virtually all of her works according to self-styled typologies. The exhibition, as such, offers ample opportunity to explore the elusive movement, mathematical precision and cryptic mysticism of her “modules,” “duals,” “poems,” “interforms,” “odes” and “infinite structures.”
Fourteen drawings of reclining nudes hang alongside a suite of lush, colorful paintings that flirt with figuration and abstraction. In one painting, a large, deconstructed woman looms humorously over a diminutive statuette of Ibn Rushd. In another, the tangled embrace of three nude figures foretells the intimacy, sorrow and trust of Choucair’s “duals,” the interlocking sculptures she produced alone in her atelier during the years of Lebanon’s Civil War.
Each “dual” consists of two pieces that pull apart or fit together, leaving a thin space between them like a scar. Around two dozen “duals” are clustered together in the middle of the exhibition, arranged in a circular, womb-like configuration.
Emanating from this center are other like-with-like groupings.
The most mind-bending of these is a pair of staggered shelves holding 18 “poems” – in wood, terracotta, fiberglass, aluminum and brass, with component parts ranging from three to eleven pieces, some of which bear the artist’s notes for the palpable, tactile pleasure of putting them together or taking them apart.
The exhibition ends with two late typologies, Choucair’s “sparkles” and “visual meters,” all of them fiendishly complex riffs on positive and negative space that were inspired by the artist’s fascination, in her 80s, with the double-helix structure of DNA.
There hasn’t been a show of Choucair’s work as crucial or comprehensive as this since 1974, when Lebanon’s Ministry of Tourism put some 100 pieces on display in its glass-fronted exhibition hall on Hamra Street.
A public sculpture erected in Ramlet al-Baida in 1982 was vandalized and then disappeared. In 1998, the real-estate company Solidere bought two stone sculptures and a gorgeous, arced bench in 17 pieces – but all are now orphaned on loveless plots of land in Downtown Beirut that see little to no pedestrian traffic.
Beirut galleries have mounted smaller exhibitions from time to time – Contact in 1977, Al-Montada in 1988, Al-Nadwa in 1993 and Maqam in 2010. All those spaces have since closed, which isn’t so much a sign of Choucair’s bad luck as it is an indication of adverse market conditions and chronic discontinuity on the local scene.
Choucair is now 95 years old, bedridden and frail. In what seems, today, like an unconscionable oversight on the part of local, regional and international collectors, she sold very little during the decades she was most productive.
The Tate, in London, recently acquired a painting and four sculptures for its permanent collection. Mathaf, the museum of modern Arab art in Doha, included a stacked, aluminum sculpture (one of Choucair’s “poems” in six verses) in its inaugural exhibition “Sajjil: A Century of Modern Art.” But the bulk of her work is held by the foundation that bears her name.
The importance of the current retrospective is twofold. First, it represents an unparalleled opportunity to engage with an incomparable artist whose works should be known to the world. Second, it serves as a ruthless measure of the (still undernourished) local art scene’s capacity to keep the legacy of Lebanon’s modern artists alive.
The open-plan exhibition design is passable, at best. Too many works are shoved into corners or lost under shadows. Too many low platforms and dense pedestals overwhelm the works they support. The absence of an exhibition catalogue is, moreover, a shame. Solidere, which runs the center as part of its public relations division, deserves credit for giving Choucair space and time, but exhibition-making is a serious profession, not a laudatory gesture.
This incredible body of work deserves a scrupulous intervention and a world-class display. It begs to be unpacked, reordered and reconsidered, alongside terms such as “theological” or “eastern” abstraction, which artists and critics have ascribed to her work. The decision, on the part of the Saloua Raouda Choucair Foundation, to produce monumental versions of the artist’s tiny maquettes raises tricky questions about fulfilling her wishes while preserving the integrity of her oeuvre.
Choucair’s art should be studied, queried and scrutinized by scholars. It should be cared for, elucidated and contextualized by curators. It should be placed far more often on public view to challenge and beguile us all.
In the face of stinging failure – no institution in Lebanon, whether public or private, exists to absorb, honor and explore the work of an artist as exacting and complex as Choucair – it will fall to all the foreign museums with designs on the art of this region to take her in, do her justice and allow her work to dovetail with or destabilize what we know about abstraction in the history of modern art.
“I’m trying to preserve as much as possible and make sense of what she did,” says Hala Schoukair, the artist’s daughter, who heads the foundation and spent twelve months organizing the exhibition with the Agial Art Gallery’s Saleh Barakat. “I have to admit, I don’t always understand her. I have my own limits.
“My mother gave me carte blanche a long time ago. She said, ‘I’m getting old. Everything has an end. I can’t deal with it anymore.’ But I feel like I am living with the leftovers of her passion and they are huge because she had so much. She had something beyond love. She believed in her art and her culture and her language. She was totally at ease bringing everything together.
“She always said, ‘My abstraction is different,’ and it’s true. No one made sculptures like her, even now. Maybe a new generation is finally getting her.”
“Saloua Raouda Choucair: The Retrospective” is on view at the Beirut Exhibition Center until Nov. 13. For more information, please see www.beirutexhibitioncenter.com.