Saloua Choucair at the Tate Modern: 90 years of a Lebanese abstract pioneer

Saloua Raouda Choucair, Self Portrait 1943, © Saloua Raouda Choucair Foundation. Image: Tate Modern

Saloua Raouda Choucair, Self Portrait 1943, © Saloua Raouda Choucair Foundation. Image: Tate Modern

A lot has changed in 90 years – even in abstract art, as the Tate Modern’s Saloua Raouda Choucair retrospective shows.

A visit to Cairo in the 1940s inspired Choucair (born 1916) to draw on the abstract patterns in Islamic art, earning her the title of Lebanon’s first abstract artist. Her early paintings depict the world through a bold, geometric prism.

The most striking of her early paintings, though, still reference the figurative. Feminism might be some years in the future, but there is something subversive about the way Choucair’s nudes ignore the viewer in favour of their book of art history or natter over tea.

Similarly, while Sufi couplets may have been her blueprint, Choucair’s stacked wooden sculptures also speak of rising tower blocks and optimistic 20th century nation building.

Islamic patterns resurface in some of Choucair’s purely abstract paintings, such as the many-slivered Rhythmical Composition in Yellow, and the mathematical underpinnings are revisited in her later work. Wire and Plexiglas sculptures like Trajectory of One Line create the illusion of a curve through carefully aligned threads. The embrace of silver curves seems prophetic in light of today’s technology aesthetic.

These three contrasting galleries show how creatively Islamic art can be interpreted and applied – even by the same artist. Indeed, it begs the question: why not more? The last of Choucair’s work exhibited dates from the 1970s and early 1980s, despite the gallery’s reference to work completed in the 1990s and beyond. At £11 a ticket, the viewer could be justified in demanding more.

What is certainly not in doubt is the vigour and determination of the artist herself. One of the most poignant works is an early abstract damaged by broken glass during the Lebanese Civil War. It is also the odd one out. Whichever medium she works in, Choucair is always in control.

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About Julia Rampen

London-based journalist. Find me on Twitter @JuliaRampen

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