With the Lebanese artist 97 years old and in the grip of Alzheimer’s disease, it might seem too late to celebrate the life and work of Saloua Raouda Choucair. However, Choucair has never let recognition, or the lack thereof, define her. Still based in her birthplace of Beirut, she’s barely exhibited beyond the borders of Lebanon and only started selling her work in her fifties.
Through this retrospective, which carefully places this abstract artist back into the trajectory of modern art, we’re able to trace her steps from east to west: from Lebanon, through Cairo, to Paris – where she studied under cubist master Fernand Léger – before finally returning to Lebanon, where she witnessed the civil war.
Mathematical in their allocation of space, her paintings are geometric studies of abstract shapes. Planes of colour divide each page while groups of nudes, composed of fleshy patchworks, drink tea together. Choucair’s sculptures take their inspiration as much from engineering as anything else, with her intricate designs in stone and wood looming like tower blocks, walking the tightrope between art and architecture. Others are futuristic, with bodies of thread forming bulbous spidery cocoons and shimmering nylon stretching to the ceiling. Several pieces entwine with one another, locked in a passionate embrace, echoing the form of Sufi poetry where verses can stand both collectively and alone.
The Tate’s gamble to exhibit a little-known artist has paid off. Choucair’s pairing of Western modernism and Islamic design results in a fascinating collection fused with cultural collaboration.