THE IN­SPI­RA­TIONAL WOMEN OF BEIRUT

Writ­ten by Alex Aubry

Harper's Bazaar (Arabia) - - Contents - Words 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

Mediter­ranean.

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➤

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