THE INSPIRATIONAL WOMEN OF BEIRUT
Written by Alex Aubry
“Beirut is the Elizabeth Taylor of cities: insane, beautiful, falling apart, ageing and forever drama-laden,” observed the celebrated Lebanese-American author Rabih Alameddine in 2014. For Rabih, who divides his time between San Francisco and Beirut, his observation isn’t a critique so much as an acknowledgment of the nuanced and complex realities of a city that’s long captivated the world’s imagination as either a “Paris of the Middle East” or a theatre of regional conflict. His stories, on the contrary, serve as a reminder that this is a city which lies somewhere between these two extreme images. In his novels it’s often the female protagonists who come to embody the city, making the point that in order to truly capture Beirut’s spirit one need look no further than the generations of women who have helped shape this fascinating piece of land jutting out into the
In the summer of 2016, the recently reopened Sursock Museum celebrated the 100th birthday of one of Lebanon’s most noted artists, Saloua Raouda
Choucair, who passed away peacefully at home a few months later in
January 2017. Although her first retrospective in 1974 garnered considerable attention and she would go on to receive a number of awards, she remained underappreciated by the larger art world and even in her native Lebanon for many years. A 2011 show at the Beirut Exhibition Centre would expose her work to a new generation of Lebanese, revealing that she’d fallen through the cracks of art history. Amongst the artworks on display was a small painting she created from 1947-51. Titled Two=One, it would serve as an unlikely testament to a period when she was caught up in the violence that engulfed Beirut during the civil war. An example of the artist’s modular paintings in shades of rust, pink and red, upon closer inspection it reveals a surface pockmarked with holes and splinters of glass. “That painting used to hang in my bedroom before we moved it into the living room,” recalls Saloua’s daughter Hala, a noted artist in her own right, who established a foundation in Beirut to preserve her mother’s legacy.
On the afternoon of February 6, 1984, a year after Hala had returned from her studies in Paris, they received a warning that bombings were imminent and to seek shelter in the theatre next door to their home. “My father was stubborn and refused to leave his favourite chair right next to that painting, so my mother and I ended up going to the theatre while he stayed behind,” says Hala, noting that
moments after her father had gotten up to take a nap in the adjacent room, a shell hit their building, shattering the windows and sending shrapnel flying through the air. That day, her father, who survived the explosion, lost hearing in one ear. An artefact as much as artwork, today Saloua’s painting serves as a reminder of the artist’s unwavering resolve to keep working against the backdrop of war, while persevering in her career when few Arab women artists were taken seriously in a profession dominated by men.
Born to a Druze family on June 24, 1916 in Beirut, at the time a sleepy port city on the fringes of the Ottoman Empire, Saloua displayed a singular independent spirit from an early age. Her father, Salim Raouda, a landowner and pharmacist, died of typhus soon after being conscripted into the Ottoman Army during World War I, leaving his wife, Zalfa Najjar, to raise their three children. Saloua was sent to the progressive Ahliyyah School for Girls, before going on to study biology at the American Junior College for Women, and philosophy and history at the American University of Beirut. She would later take up painting in the 1930s, while apprenticing with two of Lebanon’s most noted artists, Moustafa Farroukh and Omar Onsi. A year after helping found Beirut’s Arab Cultural Centre, where she exhibited her work, Saloua sailed for Paris in 1948 to attend the École des Beaux Arts and immerse herself in the city’s post-war art scene for three years.
In contrast to the conservative École des Beaux Arts, where she took courses in classical drawing and sculpture, she also attended the Académie de la Grande Chaumière, an alternative art space whose members included Isamu Noguchi, Alexander Calder and Louise Bourgeois. After hearing Fernand Léger speak at the Beaux-Arts, she apprenticed in the French artist’s studio, where he encouraged his students to blandly replicate the master’s vis vision. ision. It was a tendency Saloua resisted by mischievously producing work that subverted the artist’s style, one that took a gentle, yet witty, tty, feminist swipe at the French art establishment. In 1940s 0s Paris, she cut a distinctive figure and was a rarity as an n Arab woman working independently in France, where she e produced an unfamiliar kind of abstract art influenced by principles of Islamic geometry that left some perplexed. Despite espite initial resistance to her work, she would eventually ally win the respect of critics, as an avant-garde artist who o dared to call into question the Western concept of modernity. nity.
After marrying her journalist husband, nd, Yusif Choucair, in 1953, Saloua travelled to the e United States in 1955 on a scholarship from the he Ford Foundation, where she furthered her training ng and education as an artist, initially taking classes s at the Pratt Institute in New York, at a time when the city was experiencing a dynamic modern art scene ne that was drawing visionaries from across the globe. She later transferred to the Cranbrook Academy demy of Art in Michigan, which served as an important portant incubator of mid-century Modernism thanks to influential alumni such as Florence Knoll as well as Ray and Charles Eames. While there, the Lebanese artist immersed herself in the school’s multidisciplinary atmosphere, where students ents in architecture, industrial design and art t were encouraged to collaborate on projects.
Even after returning to Beirut in 1957, she remained fiercely adamant in crafting her r voice as an artist and creating her own language of abstraction. traction. In a rare TV interview during the 1990s, a feisty Saloua brushed off a critic’s suggestion of a European influence on her art, noting, “It’s a universal influence. What I experience, everyone experiences.” Through her experimental body of work she would go on to create paintings, drawings, architecture, textiles, jewellery and sculptures that demonstrated her role as an artist and thinker. Yet despite being a pioneer of abstract art in the Middle East and a rare female voice in the Beirut art scene from the 1940s onwards, she remained virtually ignored as an important figure in the history of global Modernism until recently. The reasons for this are both varied and complex.
To gain recognition as a woman artist in the 20th century was challenging enough, and once back in Beirut she worked in isolation, an outsider to the movements around her that regarded her work with suspicion, partly because she was a woman in a male-dominated scene, but also because they didn’t understand the art she was producing. “She was an avant-garde artist inspired by the principles of Islamic art, but without any of the obvious visual references that people were accustomed to seeing, such as calligraphy or Arabesque patterns. Her style was the pure abstraction of form and line, just like a mathematical equation,” says her daughter Hala, noting that the outbreak of the Lebanese civil war would only further isolate Saloua with the disruption of the city’s once vibrant art scene.
During her lifetime, she was rarely given the opportunity to hold exhibitions and didn’t sell a single piece until she was in her 50s. Despite such challenges, she continued to develop her body of work, accumulating six decades’ worth of art at her apartment and studio in Beirut’s Kantari neighbourhood. “I’m not surprised that she received recognition much later in life, as it was a question of bad timing for my mother. She began w working in the medium of Abstraction when the Beirut art establishm establishment was just discovering Impressionism. By the time they started paying attention to her the war broke out,” says Hala, who grew up in her mother’s studio where she was encouraged to experiment with different materials. “My mother was so passio passionate about her art that she worked constantly in her studio, b but I never got bored as a child because she was very playful. She w would give me clay to mould into shapes for hours or turn a wal walk in a garden into a fascinating adventure where she would po point out the shape and colour of flowers.”
By the time London’s Tate Modern mounted a major retrosp retrospective mapping her career as an artist in 2013, Sal Saloua was 97 years old and bedridden; too infirm to fu fully comprehend that she’d finally received the in international recognition she so deserved. Today her p perseverance in the face of challenges and creative s spirit lives on in her daughter, as well as countless women who call Beirut home. Representing a tapestry of faiths and backgrounds that, in addition to the Lebanese, includes Syrians, Palestinians, Armenians, Iraqis and Egyptians amongst many others, their stories paint a portrait of a city that continues to intrigue and defy expectations. Like Saloua, most of them have travelled and lived around the world, before being drawn back to the Lebanese capital, where they’re contributing to its reputation as a vibrant hub in the Middle East for art, culture and design. On the following pages Bazaar celebrates t the inspiring women of Beirut who are carrying on th the rich legacy of those who came before them.
Opposite: Lebanese artist Saloua Choucair’s painting Two=One reveals a surface pockmarked with holes and splinters of glass as a result of an explosion by her home during the civil war.Above: Saloua seated outside a Paris café in 1948 Saloua Choucair during an exhibition openingin the 1960s➤