Just in Time, a Lebanese Artist's Work Is Shown at Tate Modern

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Saloua Raouda Choucair did everything in her life early, or late.

Her first exhibition in Beirut in 1947 is thought to be the first-ever show of abstract art in the Arab world. She had her only child at age 40 -- rare in the 1950s. Now, at age 97, she is having her first major museum retrospective, at the Tate Modern in London.

"All the timings were wrong with my mother so I'm not surprised this happened so late," said her daughter, Hala Schoukair, now 56. "She started with abstraction when people in Beirut were just discovering Impressionism. In the '60s, no one was paying attention to her and then when they started paying attention, the war started. Even if there was some good attention, something always went a little wrong."

Over the years, though, Ms. Choucair kept at it, working in the studio that filled the top floor of her home in Beirut, while canvasses, sculptures, jewelry and other bits and pieces of art crowded into every available space. Sometimes war intruded, shells tearing paintings or destroying sculptures. In peacetime, while other artists flocked to be part of Beirut's famed café society, Ms. Choucair went on working, on her own.

When Jessica Morgan, a curator with the Tate Modern discovered her art in 2009, Ms. Choucair had finally stopped her work, which had started to slow about a decade earlier with the onset of Alzheimer's disease.

Ms. Morgan visited an apartment where Ms. Schoukair had moved all of her mother's work: "There was one room that was densely packed with sculpture, and every shelf, every wall, was covered," Ms. Morgan said. "It was thrilling, extraordinary, to come across an artist who was so sophisticated, who one knew almost nothing about."

Ms. Morgan started to acquire pieces for the Tate and to make the case for a large-scale survey of Ms. Choucair's oeuvre. "She is the most important Lebanese artist of the 20th century, to my mind," the curator said. "I would say that without hesitation."

Born in 1916, Ms. Choucair studied art under two pioneering Lebanese painters, and then took two formative trips. In 1943, she visited Egypt, where she became fascinated with Islamic architecture and drawn into mosques to study the geometric patterns in the ceiling mosaics. Five years later, she traveled to Paris, where she took classes for a few months in the studio of Fernand Léger. She was not particularly taken with Léger, but instead focused her attention on the Atelier de l'Art Abstrait led by Edgard Pillet and Jean Dewasne.

She returned to Beirut in 1951, where she combined abstraction with Islamic geometric patterns. She saw her early paintings as a way of bringing modernism into the Arab world, her daughter said. In the late 1950s, she stopped painting and started working more consistently with three-dimensional materials.

Ms. Schoukair has no recollection of her mother painting. "For me, it was clay," she recalled by telephone from New York where she lives part of the time. "My mother was always covered with clay, and she would give me a bag and I would sit next to her and do things with clay. Then she would be cutting wood or having a stone cutter helping her with stone, or going to see workers who would work with aluminum. I remember her, one day, coming home with a piece of a fridge that she made into a table. She was always surrounded by materials. She had all that machinery, too."

The hardest years for Ms. Choucair were in the late 1960s and early 1970s, which were her daughter's teenage years. "She was most frustrated then; she would say it and I would feel the pain," her daughter said. "She would complain and I would hear her anxieties and I would feel it. She knew she was very creative and original and she would see others copying her early works or doing minor stuff and they were rewarded in ways she wasn't. She was ignored more than she was criticized. They didn't understand her. That was the hardest thing for her, I think."

Ms. Morgan said there were several factors that helped to keep Ms. Choucair in the shadows. "She's a woman, that was a large part of it," she said. "She is also Druze, " she added, referring to the tribal sect that emerged in the 11th century, merging strains of Ismaili Shiite Islam and pre-Islamic theologies.

"Beirut is nothing if not sectarian," Ms. Morgan said. Being out of the mainstream limited her exposure, but "being a woman and being Druze didn't help."

Ms. Choucair's work combines Western abstraction and modernist modular forms with aesthetics based in classical Islamic forms, including circles and lines drawn from the tradition of Arabic geometric art. While her contemporaries in Lebanon were making symbolic or impressionistic works based on nature, Ms. Choucair was exploring her own aesthetic vocabulary and iconography.

"She was too avant-garde for what was happening there at the time," Ms. Morgan said. "Her work was very abstract, the thinking and intellectual approach was connected to geometry, and the dominant forms in Beirut at the time were semi-abstraction, and a conversation with nationalist politics. She was out of place, out of context in Beirut at that time."

Still, as the years wore on there was often someone who was championing Ms. Choucair in Lebanon, her daughter said. "Nobody came to her studio without their mouth going wide and them saying, oh my god," Ms. Schoukair said. "I would go to a show with her and people would come up to her and treat her with such respect."

In her 80s, the appreciation deepened. "They always treated her as a master," the daughter said. "They always thought she was the doyenne. It wasn't international and it wasn't on this scale, but she had respect."

The Tate Modern show features Ms. Choucair's early abstract paintings and her sculptures -- created in wood, metal, stone and fiberglass -- from the 1950s to the 1980s.

Mrs. Choucair was diagnosed with Alzheimer's in 2000, but her disease has had a slow progression, according to her daughter. She has not been able to attend the exhibition in London but she is well enough to know that it is happening and to take pleasure in the arrival, at last, of international recognition.

"It's never too late," the daughter said. "It's good that this is happening now. I can still tell her and she still enjoys it and that made her very, very happy. Everything happens with a little wrong timing, but I think we're finally getting it right now."

world

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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