Obituary: The Infinite Field Of Saloua Raouda Choucair (1916-2017)

BY Laura Metzler / Apr 3 2017 / 20:59 PM

Born and raised in Beirut, where she passed away on January 26 at 100 years old, the artist long celebrated in her home had recently risen in acclaim in the international art market

Obituary: The Infinite Field Of Saloua Raouda Choucair (1916-2017)
Image courtesy of Agial Art Gallery/ Saloua Raouda Choucair Foundation
Saloua Raouda Choucair in her studio

Saloua Raouda Choucair was born and raised in Beirut in 1916 where she passed away on 26 January 2017. While she has recently risen in acclaim in the international art world and market, her identity and practice were solidly grounded in her home. She didn’t limit this to Beirut or to Lebanon, but always held Arab nationalist ideas and aspired to be part of a modern Arab identity. Rather than aiming to be in collections in Europe and the US, according to her daughter, Hala Schoukair, Saloua wanted to have a sculpture in every capital in the Arab world and particularly wanted her work to be accessible to the public. “She believed it was possible to be creative and modern, but to take your roots with you,” says Hala. This notion was the core of her approach to abstraction and was laid out in her essay How Arabs Understood Pictoral Art (1951). She thought that the Islamic world already had all of the elements of modernity inherent in its history and used them to carve her own space and path.

While her first solo exhibition was in Paris at Colette Allendy in 1951, Saloua exhibited regularly in Beirut and was revered and respected by the community throughout her life. She was a student of Lebanese pioneers Moustapha Farrouk and Omar Onsi in the 1940s, was a member of the Art Club at the American University of Beirut where she helped organise events and exhibitions, and taught sculpture at the Lebanese University from 1977-1984. She had a retrospective at the UNESCO Palace in 1962, another at the Glass Pavilion of the Ministry of Tourism in 1974 and also exhibited at the Universite Saint Joseph (1952), Contact Art Gallery (1977), Al Montada Gallery (1988), and Al Nadwa Gallery (1993), all parts of the early contemporary arts infrastructure of Beirut.

“She started working on Islamic abstractions when everyone wanted to be more international,” says Saleh Barakat of Agial Art Gallery, the artist’s gallerist. “[Saloua] managed to impose her style and establish herself as the most important sculptor in Beirut. She was very clear in her vision and never doubted anything. She was a woman who knew her importance.”

Choucair's artwork

 Poem Cube. Plexiglas. Circa mid1970s. 51 x 51 x 51 cm.

Image courtesy of Agial Art Gallery/ Saloua Raouda Choucair Foundation

Saloua’s art reflects this strength of vision. She initially utilised the principles of Islamic geometry and the abstract concept of the infinite but she believed that everything in the universe was governed by the same infinite systems at different scales and frequencies. She was able to hold these at the core of her explorations but to pull them in different directions, blending the linear equations that governed earlier series such as the Trajectory of the Line with language, science, architecture and design, among other fields in pursuit of the understanding of an infinite field. What started as modular gouache paintings evolved into oil paintings and fluid sculptures in terracotta, wood, stone, fiberglass, aluminium, bronze and plastic. Along with this also came book covers and jewellery, salt and paper shakers, cabinets, fountains, carpets, full garden plans, pool designs, ash trays, napkins, and furniture, and the list goes on.

As much as Saloua was rooted in Beirut, she also very much engaged with the larger world around her and saw her vision of Islamic Modernism as cosmopolitan and global. She traveled to Spain and Morocco and looked at its architecture which would later become inspiration for sculptures such as Rhythm of the Arches. She lived in Paris from 1948-1951, studying at École des Beaux-Arts and briefly joining the salon of Fernand Léger before working more long term at L’Atelier de l’Art Abstrait. She participated in the Salon de Mai from 1970 until 1977 and worked for the Four Point Agency from 1954-1956, travelling to the US and learning enamelling and jewellery making techniques.

Choucair's artwork

Interform . 1960-62. Wood. 108 x 58 x 20 cm. 

Image courtesy of Agial Art Gallery/ Saloua Raouda Choucair Foundation

When man went to the moon Saloua looked at the physics of space and made sculptures inspired by tension studies. She followed the development of genetics, looking at the bonds of amino acids and the replication systems of DNA and used these as tools to further understand her pursuit of the infinite. She’s cited Le Corbusier artists like Wassily Kandinsky as influences but always brought them back into her own vision stemming from the history of the Arab world. Hers was a complicated pursuit of a constantly growing, questioning, and unifying practice.

Thanks to the dedication of her family, galleries, and researchers such as Kirsten Scheid, in recent years Saloua’s work has gained acclaim in international circles. This has built from the establishment of the Saloua Raouda Choucair Foundation and their release of her first monograph in 2002 and the completion of Kirsten’s dissertation creating the core scholarship surrounding the artist’s life in 2005.  Saloua’s exposure then continued to develop with a retrospective at the Beirut Exhibition Center in 2011 that led to a solo exhibition at the Tate Modern in 2013 curated by Jessica Morgan. Her work can now be found in the collections of the Tate in London, Mathaf Museum of Modern Arab Art in Doha, the Sursock Museum in Beirut, The Art Institute of Chicago, Centre Pompidou in Paris, and the Guggenheim in Abu Dhabi.

“Everything is in vibration,” she wrote in her notes, “light, heat, magnetism and countless other discrete energy forms that fill the universe. The zero vibrations is not a void but the starting point for everything that exists and this starting point is always in contact with every other point—there are no breaks in continuity.”