The Saloua Raouda Choucair exhibition at Tate Modern is a humbling ode to one of Lebanon’s pioneering abstract artists. With sculptures so beautiful, they make you stop and forget everything – including the busy gallery, the enticing book shop, and the cafe with the delicious view – in this gallery on the fourth floor, time moves slowly; quietly and in smooth, fluid shapes.
Choucair’s formative years were spent making art that mimicked the geometrical patterns and forms of Islamic architecture. Strongly influenced by the two basic elements of Islamic design – the straight line and the curve, she used these in various combinations to create paintings, murals and the most successful of all her artworks – her sculptures.
Among Choucair’s influences, this exhibition counts a trip to Cairo in 1943 which inspired her to use geometry, calligraphy and architectural patterns in her work, and a three year stint in Paris where Choucair worked under the tutelage of Fernand Léger and had her first encounters with abstract modernism and cubism. When she finally returned to Beirut in the 1950’s, Choucair began making sculpture in earnest with most of her works strongly reassembling architectural structures. That she would have been a very passionate architect, given a second choice, is clearly evident in her work. And though I’m not sure how successful she would have been at making livable structures, you can almost see a skyscraper or a designy museum space in every one of her sculptures.
Working in line with the unique stanza style of Sufi poetry where each line may stand alone as an individual or be combined with others to form a whole, Choucair’s Poems series is ingenious. As is also her Duals series where she marries pairs of materials including wood, stone, metal and fibreglass. And her versatility and progressiveness – as is evident in the Tate video below where she shuns nostalgia in favor of embracing modernisation and science – shows how far ahead of her time Choucair was.
What makes her work successful is that Choucair’s influences are clearly visible to her audience; you don’t need to be an art historian or make long winded deductions to see that she was influenced by architecture and Islamic forms. With her ideas being so simple and accessible, but yet so delicately crafted and balanced, you know instantly you are in the presence of good art. And the fact that four rooms later, you still want to see more is further evidence that Tate has got this one right. Sometimes it is the smaller exhibitions that leave you spell bound, versus the ones they so readily advertise around coffee cups.