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Lebanese Abstract Artist Opens At Tate Modern

Raouda Choucair, known for her fusion of classic Arab and modern art, opens an exhibition this week at the Tate Modern in London, writes Fernande van Tets.
Tourists walk across the Millennium Bridge near the Tate Modern in London March 12, 2012.  London will host the Olympics Games this summer. Picture taken March 12, 2012.     REUTERS/Kieran Doherty    (BRITAIN - Tags: TRAVEL CITYSPACE SPORT OLYMPICS) ATTENTION EDITORS - PICTURE 2 OF 20 FOR PACKAGE 'SCENIC LONDON 2012' - RTR2ZWN2

The apartment in which Raouda Choucair lives is a testament to her life. Her abstract paintings line the walls, and the cabinets are filled with maquettes for abstract public works she intended to have built. The drawers are crammed with notes, drawings and ideas documenting a career that now, with Choucair aged 97, seems to be finally taking off.

Until today, these objects seemed destined to be the preserve of a few people in the know. Often misunderstood by her Lebanese contemporaries, Choucair lived a solitary life, ruing the lack of recognition that her attempt to rhyme modernism with Arab art garnered. But now, over 120 pieces, many of them never seen outside her studio, have been shipped off to the Tate Modern in London, for the first major museum show of Lebanon’s first abstract artist. The show opens on April 17 and will run for six months [until Oct. 20].

The Tate exhibition is the crowning glory of a recent accession to prominence. Mathaf, the modern art museum in Doha, exhibited one of Choucair's interlocking structures she called poems in 2010. But it was the 2008 discovery of a similar work by Tate curator Jessica Morgan on a shelf at Beirut’s Agial gallery that would eventually catapult Choucair to fame. Morgan became “obsessed” with the artist after seeing the work, and visited her Beirut apartment. Astounded by the complex oeuvre she found there, Morgan pushed the Tate to start buying. “I felt very strongly that there was some fight that had to take place so that everybody else understood how important this was,” she says. The museum eventually acquired three works in 2011 and 2012: the painting "Composition in Blue Module" (1947-51) and two sculptures, "Infinite Structure" (1963-65) and "Poem of Nine Verses" (1966-68). Three other works were subsequently donated.

Choucair’s star had been on the rise. In 2011, a retrospective was organized at the Beirut Exhibition Center, bringing together highlights of a career spanning seven decades.

Born in 1916, Choucair grew up in a Beirut in turmoil; the Ottoman Empire was in decline and the French mandate status disputed. Drawn to art at a young age, she studied both biology and art under local, realist artists such as Omar Onsi and Moustafa Farroukh. She flourished after traveling to Paris at the end of the 1940s. There, she studied both at the traditional Ecole des Beaux Art and the studio of the respected modernist artist Fernand Leger, who inspired some of her earlier work, such as "Les Peintres Celebres" (1948-49). But she also went to the more revolutionary Atelier de l’Art Abstrait, which strived to create abstract art.

Inspired by a trip to Egypt in 1943, Choucair, herself a Druze, tried to combine this modernism with Islamic aesthetics. It is this approach to art that made her such an appealing subject for the Tate. “What’s particular about her work is the way that it brings in her own interest in Islamic architecture, that it brings in a different history of abstraction. The dominant story that we’re always told is that abstraction evolved in the West in the early 20th century but, in fact, of course it existed in art and artifacts throughout the Middle East region for centuries,” says Morgan. “The really exciting thing with Choucair is that she understood and quite forcefully articulated this.” Arab art tends to be fundamentally different in that it reaches “into the essence of the subject, stripping it of all the associations with art since the time of the Greeks until the end of the 19th century," Choucair wrote in 1951.

Inspired by Arabic poetry, she moved on to structures she would later call poems; these were interlocking structures where each module, like a stanza of Arabic poetry, can stand on its own or be stacked with others to form a whole.

During the Lebanese Civil War, she stayed alone in her studio in Beirut and created a series of duals. Her family perceives her work of this period to symbolize the coming together of Lebanon, but this is a claim that Choucair herself has always denied. A painting pierced by holes and shards of glass from the windows of her studio, shattered by the explosion of a nearby bomb, bears witness to this turbulent period.

But even after the war ended, recognition failed to materialize. The reasons for this are multiple, but ultimately she suspects that — although Choucair herself found it an absurd idea — being a female artist at a time when it was rare in Europe to be one, let alone in Beirut, played a major role. She was so committed that she couldn’t "think that it would be an issue,” she says. “It was beyond my understanding that this would be any kind of obstacle. It’s kind of an incredible position.”

Now that mass recognition has finally arrived, Choucair, who suffers from Alzheimer's disease, is too frail to travel to the exhibit. Her daughter Hala, who runs the Soloua Raouda Choucair Foundation, which owns most of the works, says she realizes what is happening but regrets not being able to enjoy her success. “There is a hint of sadness there,” Hala said.

Ironically, after all her efforts to combat orientalism through her writing and her firm belief that modernism and being an Arab were a natural combination, the exhibition poster seems unrepresentative. It is an early self-portrait, showing a determined Arab woman, and not the abstract poems or duals that represent her to the world. “It is not her, it is not the style she wanted to promote,” says Hala.

But this is a consequence of her work being so unknown, argues Morgan. The next Choucair exhibition can use the image of a sculpture, because her work will already have been presented on a wider level. With new, almost daily, discoveries being made by Hala among the trove of work Choucair created, subsequent exhibitions seem likely.

“It’s so much a beginning, this exhibition is just a first step in discovering her work,” Morgan says.

Fernande van Tets is a journalist based in Beirut. She has written for The Economist, The Interdependent and Executive Magazine, as well as being regularly featured in Dutch national newspapers such as Trouw and Het Parool. She has a master's in war studies (with distinction) from King's College, London. Follow her on Twitter: @fernandevtets.

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