VINTAGE LEBANESE ARTISTS
SALOUA RAOUDA CHOUCAIR
Saloua Raouda Choucair (Arabic: سلوى روضة شقير; June 24, 1916 – January 26, 2017) was a Lebanese artist, painter, sculptor, writer, arts activist and intellectual.
She was the third child of Salim Raouda, a pharmacist and landowner, and Zalfa Najjar, a well-educated relation.
Her father died of typhus soon after being conscripted into the Ottoman Army during World War I, leaving his wife to raise their three children. Her sister was the women’s rights activist, Anissa Rawda Najjar (1913-2016).
Saloua attended the progressive Ahliah School for Girls in Beirut and took painting lessons with the nationalist landscape artists Moustafa Farroukh and Omar Onsi. From 1934-36, she studied biology at the American Junior College for Women (now the Lebanese American University) and philosophy and history at the American University of Beirut.
An extended trip to Cairo in 1943 exposed her to Islamic art and architecture.
Despite early recognition of her talent, masterful mentors, and relative material ease, Choucair refrained from professional art practice until she was in her thirties. Perhaps her long reticence relates to her subsequent insistence on integrating art into public space and domestic life. After having taught in Kirkuk and toured Alexandria and Cairo, in 1944 Choucair became a librarian at AUB. She joined the university-affiliated militant Arab nationalist group, the Arab Cultural Club (ACC). Including Constantin Zuraiq and Georges Habash among its members, the ACC was one of many local organizations systematically debating the meaning of Lebanese independence (partially achieved in 1943) and the war in Europe. Choucair organized an art lecture series in 1947 – 1948, with an accompanying set of exhibitions. She argued that art appreciation would enhance members’ daily life by increasing their care for harmony, proportion, integrity, and quality in all social intercourse.
Choucair believed in using art to evaluate and elevate peoples. However, it is said that she finally decided to pursue art professionally to disprove claims of Western cultural superiority by professors of literature and philosophy at AUB (including Charles Malik).
She helped found the Arab Cultural Center in Beirut and in 1947 exhibited at its gallery in what was often cited as the first showing of modern abstract art in the Arab world.
Like her contemporary, Aref el Rayess, Choucair relocated to Paris in July 1948 to undertake formal art training. The gouaches and sketches from this period trace a whirlwind of movement, interaction, and exploration. To master classicism, she enrolled in a live drawing class at the École Nationale des Beaux-Arts in Paris in 1948, whose traditionalist training she supplemented with classes at the more freewheeling Académie de la Grande Chaumière. To challenge realism, she studied with the Cubist master Fernand Léger in 1949, spending time at his studio before coming into her own as an early member of L’Atelier d’Art Abstrait (the Studio of Abstract Art), led by Edgard Pillet and Jean Dewasne.
Fiercely intellectual, she read across quantum physics, geometry, Arabic poetry, molecular biology, and optics.
Choucair worked in a variety of materials, including wood, aluminum, brass, terracotta, fibreglass, tufa stone and textiles.
In the late 1950s, working from her home studio in Beirut, Choucair began modelling in clay and carving wood. Her first series of sculptures explores the trajectory of a line. Choucair was interested in the ability of a line to follow a path that allows it to transform itself into numerous shapes. The line and curve are basic elements of the visual language that she used throughout her career, finding its way into a variety of media including painting, sculpture, textiles, murals and other domestic designs.
In the 1960s she worked on a series known as ‘interforms’; simple cubes or blocks housing intricately carved, complex internal forms. This was followed by the series she later titled ‘poems’, modular sculptures with parts that stack together in a flexible way. Each module, like the stanzas of Arabic poetry, may stand alone or be stacked with others to be read as a whole. A further group of works are known as the ‘duals’, having two interlocking parts.
Continually inspired by both cutting-edge science and Islamic theology, Choucair sought principles of art form that could both generate universal interactions, on a cosmological scale, and account for minute, particular events in the viewer’s immediate experience. The ability of quantum mechanics to explain unmeasured possibility and discrete actuality at once was critical to Choucair’s self-formulation. Fashioning geometric-chromatic “equations,” she worked like a mental chisel carving out spaces that could invite people to experience majestically infinite possibility as a manifestation of divinity.
In the early 50s, she married Yusif Choucair, a journalist, and had a daughter, Hala in 1957.
In 1959 she began to concentrate on sculpture, which became her main preoccupation in 1962. In 1963, she was awarded the National Council of Tourism Prize for the execution of a stone sculpture for a public site in Beirut.
In 1969 the French government hosted her for a year residency after which the Salon de Mai in Paris annually invited her. In 1980, the Iraqi government hosted her for a one-month residency.
In 1974, the Lebanese Artists Association sponsored an honorary retrospective exhibition of her work at the National Council of Tourism in Beirut. In 1985, she won an appreciation prize from the General Union of Arab Painters. In 1988, she was awarded a medal by the Lebanese government. A retrospective exhibition organized by Saleh Barakat was presented at the Beirut Exhibition Center in 2011, which initiated another at the Tate Modern (London, UK) in 2013.
Art presented Saloua Raouda Choucair with a hyper-reality in which to explore universal structure, cosmic meaning, and the transformation of the self and society. Following her holistic vision, she produced painting, sculptures, textiles, architectural plans, fountains and pools, housewares, and jewellery.
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