Saloua Raouda Choucair is a pioneer of abstract art in the Middle East. Born in 1916, she takes her rightful position as a significant figure in the history of twentieth-century art. Beirut is very important to her. It’s where she was born. She loves this city. She isn’t nostalgic of it she says. She believes in the future, trusting the exploration of science and space.
She started painting in the studios of Lebanese painters Moustafa Farroukh in 1935 and Omar Onsi in 1942. Her exhibition in 1947 at the Arab Cultural Gallery in Beirut is considered to have been the Arab world’s first abstract painting exhibition. In 1948 she left Lebanon and went to Paris, where she studied at the École nationale supérieure des beaux Arts and attended Fernand Léger’s studio. In 1950, she was one of the first Arab artists to participate in the Salon Des Réalités Nouvelles in Paris and had in 1951 a solo exhibition at Collette Allendy’s gallery.
Choucair’s work has been considered as one of the best examples of the spirit of abstraction characteristic of Arabic visual art, completely disconnected from the observation of nature and inspired by Arabic geometric art. Through her paintings and drawings, architecture, textiles and jewelry, as well as, of course, her prolific and experimental sculpture, Choucair proves her capability to work in diverse media pursuing her interests in science, mathematics, Islamic art and poetry.
She is a rare female voice in the Beirut art scene from the 1940s onwards, combining elements of western abstraction with Islamic aesthetics. Her style is characterized by an experimental approach to materials alongside an elegant use of modular forms, lines and curves drawn from the traditions of Islamic religion and geometric design. Taking her inspiration from mosques in Cairo, no one had expected her to be using engineering in her work.
You can lose yourself among the planes and voids of these interlocking modular sculptures. There is a lot of delight in her games of rhythm and counter-rhythm, her things that look like figures and also like sculpted words. She carved and constructed, worked with terracotta producing small organic forms and larger works with mirrors, Plexiglas and nylon thread.
There is a current exhibition of her at the Tate Modern, and although I love all her paintings, there is one that calls to my heart, a painting that was affected by a bomb that had exploded next to her house. Glass shattered the painting and it’s partially destroyed. It’s an example of her character, and the artist in her that was producing this kind of work under these difficult circumstances and yet her work has stayed focus on her true fascination. She’s an extremely rational artist. It was not in her artistic language to bring in subjects such as the civil war or about raising a child, or being a wife or a mother. These were irrelevant to her art making. She is a woman of mind, science, and beauty.
Looking at her paintings you can feel her soul was completely into forms and shapes and her energy dissipates among her body of work. It’s a great stream of gorgeous accented abstracts that are based on mathematical permutations but fly free of science. They fly free of the limited space they are in and flow uninhibited in this world of beauty she’s created. She’s omnipresent in her work, in her sculptures, in that world she put together. Saloua is a creator drowning in this beautiful geometry of life, creating like magic a world of splendor and perfection.
A small clip worth watching of her and her work: