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I went to see an exhibition of Saloua Raouda Choucair at Tate Modern. Born in Beirut in 1916, she trained for a brief time in Paris under the tutelage of Ferdinand Leger. Her life and career has been however spent in Lebanon, working in a cultural and political enviornment that was difficult for artists, even more so for women artists. She isn’t well known outside the Middle East, and whilst it’s a shame that this is being redressed when her career is over (she is now very infirm), at least her work is finally being exhibited internationally.
She started her career with painting (the self-portrait that advertised the exhibition is beautiful but the least representative work in the collection). There was some early figurative work, and her women in the Les Peintres Celebres series are a response to Leger’s Le Grand Dejeuner. Her women are funny, educated and whilst not unaware of their effect on the viewer, unconcerned by it. Our judgements are our problem. As they look directly at the viewer, they are comfortable in their own skin.
The foundation of her work is to harmonise non-representational Middle Eastern art and European abstraction. Her later gouaches are entirely abstract, using the curve and the straight line of Islamic design in a repetition that feels very musical, like beats in a bar. Her canvases are the nearest I’ve come to experiencing music as a visual medium. There is of course a beautiful harmony in Islamic art, but her paintings feel also modern, syncopated.
It is in sculpture that she truly finds self expression. She was fascinated by architecture, and said that in another life, she’d have trained as an architect. Some of her sculptures are like models for modular housing, all have a relationship with space and light that feels architectural as much as artistic. More than any exhibition I’ve been to, I wanted to touch her sculptures. The space inside them allows a sense of great freedom and kinesis, even in a small work. But it also allows the viewers’ imagination to operate, to move into the work and respond very immediately and very personally to it.
She made a series of sculptures inspired by the structure of Sufi poetry, modules which interconnect but which also stand alone, to be as stanzas which compose the work. They are beautiful, sensuous structures which clearly hold within them both the economy and the expansiveness of poetry and of Sufi thought. The lyricism is manifest, and yet open to individual interpretation. Some of the dual sculptures are erotically charged and deeply tender, there is also a familial quality to several pieces.
Choucair’s latter years have been a continuation of her preoccupations – the curve and the line, light and space. Nylon wires stretched inside frames create sculptures of great delicacy and purity, which also have movement and strength. The tension in the structures hold infinite potentialities as the viewer moves round the twisting, sensuous lines and curves.
Choucair is not a ‘great’ artist, she is too small perhaps, both in terms of output and influence. Yet this exhibition moved me and inspired me more than any other I can think of. Hers is a body of work that is not about grand gestures or directional pieces. She makes art that is compact, and yet full of space and energy and light and possibility. Her non-representational abstraction is utterly humane, full of sensuality and familiarity. There will be no more work by her, so I am profoundly grateful that I have seen this collection.

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