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 sculptures, architectural plans, fountains and pools, housewares, and jewelry. Fiercely intellectual, she read across quantum physics, Arabic poetry, molecular biology, and optics. Critics seeking to attach her work to schools in Paris, Beirut, Baghdad, and Cairo from the 1950s to the 1980s brandish the labels "Abstract," "modernist," "geometrist," "neo-plastic," and "Arab-Islamic," but each misses an aspect of Choucair's drive to map the expanses of experience. Most importantly, she never pursued intellectual exploration merely for its own sake. She conceived of each artwork as containing possibilities for its maturation and metamorphosis, and for social intervention by provoking the audience's self-reflection. Her greatest goal—to install her work in ordinary outdoor arenas, especially in the Arab world whose growth was so dear to her—was never satisfactorily realized during her career.
Saloua Raouda Choucair was born in Beirut on June 24, 1916. The third child of Salim Rawda, an urbane pharmacist and rentier, and Zalfa Najjar, a well-educated relation, she entered an unusual household. Even with the adversity posed by Salim's death while a conscript in the Ottoman army in 1917, Zalfa maintained a comfortable lifestyle for her family while partaking of the rapidly growing city's new educational opportunities and feminist and nationalist mobilization. All three children would complete college and became prominent for their social leadership and activism. Choucair enrolled at the American Junior College for Women (currently the Lebanese American University), Beirut (1934 - 1936) and concentrated in the natural sciences. During this time she met the artist and intellectual Moustafa Farroukh and frequented his Art Club, at the American University of Beirut (AUB). After a hiatus when her family had to leave Lebanon due to her brother's visa status, she continued her artistic training in Beirut with Omar Onsi, a leading local painter of landscapes, portraits, and what Choucair later called "realist, classical" works.
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 independence (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.
Clearly, from the first, 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. One probable antagonist, the philosopher Charles Malik, linked Greco-Roman anatomical realism, epitomized by classical nude sculpture, to rationalist inquiry and political self-determination. By contrast, he saw Islamic iconoclasm as a clear indication of Arab superstition and susceptibility to autocratic rule. Another, the literary critic Musa Sulaiman, made similar claims for classical Greek narrative fiction, holding that since Arab authors do not comply with the constraints of time and space, it is doubtful they could ever create socially useful and lasting art. In the context of decolonization across the world, this type of ethnic essentializing and ranking was common. For most post-colonial subjects, it led to two options: isolation or assimilation.
Choucair rejected the assimilationist thinking promoted by Malik and Sulaiman, but she did not retreat into stifling self-glorification. In a series of essays written between 1948 and 1952, she developed a culturally relativist approach that was both particularistic and progressivist, in a Hegelian manner. For a 1952 essay on beauty, she explained that art's meaning inheres within its social, ecological, political, and economic setting:
Each civilization had its own goal with the unfolding of its dull, daily life. The artist felt this goal without being aware of it, and thus his production was an annotated copy of this civilization in its entirety.
Hence, the best artworks are those "noble forms" which most tightly integrate "the faith, sciences, and philosophy of the people."
Choucair's relativism not only explained cultural difference, it also allowed for the possibility of using art to develop a culture in line with its spirit. Accordingly, Choucair called on governmental officials to strengthen the public role of art through state sponsorship and pedagogy. She remained committed to this pedagogical investment in art throughout her career, teaching sculpture at the Lebanese University (1977 - 1984) and at the American University of Beirut (from 1986).
More boldly, Choucair argued that Arab-Islamic civilization best corresponded to global contemporary needs. In a 1951 attack on Musa Sulaiman, she asserted that both the phenomenological tradition of Sufic scientists and the narrative tradition of pre-Islamic Arabic literature proved Arabs had developed a unique understanding of existence, exceeding commonsense subjugation to temporal and spatial constraints, one that was recognizable in quantum physics and modernity's global amenities, such as sonic jets, gene therapy, organ transplants, and space travel. As her writings underscore, Choucair's concerns for combining Arab Nationalism, modernist developmentalism, and cultural relativism launched her from the standard art "refinement" given to the females of independent Lebanon's enterprising class, to the apogee of professional, universalist art.
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. To challenge realism, she studied with the Cubist master Fernand Léger in 1949. However, Léger's approach to moving from normal perception to stylized forms dissatisfied her. Choucair extracted the essences of graphic elements—either geometric shapes or Arabic letters—by submitting them to a variety of chromatic, scalar or incisive manipulations that reveal the normally imperceptible range of generativity inherent in their forms. This was the beginning of the "module" method she used later in her sculptural assemblages.
Following her "noble forms," Choucair moved swiftly from the bastion of conservative art to the outermost avant-garde. By October 1950, she had helped inaugurate L'Atelier de l'art abstrait, led by Edgar Pillet and Jean Dewasne. Other members were Alberto Magnelli, R. Mortensen, Viktor Vasarely, and Jean Deyrolle. Reviving her role from Beirut's intellectual scene, Choucair organized the Atelier's bimonthly debates and contributed to its affiliated art publications, Art d'Aujourd'hui and Combat. In early 1951 she exhibited solo at Galerie Colette Allendy in Paris and with her atelier mates at the massive Salon des Réalités Nouvelles.
A contemporary critic, Michel Seuphor, aligned the Atélier with Kandinsky's passion for plastic creation, as opposed to Mondrian's quest for construction. For example, the artists asked how to paint a square—the epitome of a mental construction—that points not to an ideal, Platonic form but rather exists for itself, in the context of its own painterly, aesthetic creation. Choucair's works like Composition on Green Module (1947 - 1951) took simple two-dimensional elements, such as the rectangle, and fractured them according to erratic but repeatable movements, leaving linear traces of the exposed interior. These lines, both of the original rectangle and yet out of it, repeat themselves seemingly incessantly but at varying angles and degrees of visibility, to become the basis for a composition that decomposes the original form.
In the summer of 1951 Choucair returned to Beirut with hopes of founding a modern art institute in her hometown and of continuing to participate in a "global art renaissance," as she put it in an interview then. She adopted a pace of one major show per decade, at which she would make a statement about the potential for art to shed light on life. Befitting her skepticism about teleological time, Choucair neither dated her production consistently nor worked programmatically. Therefore historians have generally, following a practice established in the 2002 catalogue raisonné she supervised, analyzed the bulk of her mature oeuvre in relation to four thematic areas: 1) Trajectory of a Line; 2) Poems (Qasa'id); 3) Trajectory of an Arc; and 4) Couplets (Muthannawiyyin).
The questions about the nature of reality and universality that had spurred Choucair into art continued to animate her, sending her into three-dimensional and even four-dimensional production. She avidly imbibed developments in quantum physics and molecular biology, incorporating their findings into artwork addressing the relationship between stasis and essence, fixity and fluidity, generation and corruption, infinity and instantiation. For example, in the Muthanawi and Sharara, series she considered what a gene could be in art, where a principle of production is implanted into a fertile, shifting context (think of public space) and with which it constantly interacts.
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. Artist and critic Samir Sayigh has written of Choucair's "theological sculptures" as intellectual-optical exercises that leap into motion when viewed by an eye able to sense the piece's original state (the foundational visual algorithm) and mentally un-work and rework its being by following the substitutions of scale, the shifts in proportions, or the compressions in tension.
Significantly, her sculptures often begin as tiny line drawings that become contours of terra cotta maquettes that may germinate in any media from oak wood, to bronze, to polyurethane, and could grow in size. Such works explore principles of encounter between masses poised to grow in scale from intimate to monumental. Similarly, in revealing their seams, the conjunctions of her composite sculptures speak to the pressure and passion of intersection, while suggesting alternative compositions. They thrive when they spark playful, curious public interactions, including actual reassembling by audiences. Given that particular instantiations are not the point of her projects, Choucair comfortably commissioned the execution of her domestic carpets and monumental sculptures and delighted in expanding the array of possible encounters.
Though Choucair refrained from public exhibitions of her work for long periods, she never lived in seclusion. Ever committed to art's integration into mundane life, her first post-Paris employment was as a designer with a development agency, Point Four. She married Yusif Choucair, a journalist, and had a daughter, Hala in 1957. Still, at a time when 45% of Lebanese women married by the age of age 20, 85% started having children by age 25, and few held extra-familial jobs after marriage, Choucair's integration of domestic, professional, and artistic life was nearly unique. The Lebanese Civil War (1975 - 1992) impacted her work by prohibiting public implementations of sculptural projects and by the destruction of one monument in 1983, but it did not directly pre-occupy her. She addressed politics through civics, meaning for her,whereby aesthetics demarcated a realm for enhancing interpersonal, international, and cosmological relations.
While thoroughly ensconced in her hometown, Choucair contributed to world art throughout her career. In 1955 she toured American arts and crafts academies including the Cranbrook Academy (Detroit, MI), the Pi Beta Phi Settlement School (Gatlinburg, TN), the Penland School of Crafts (Bakersville, NC), and the Pratt Institute (Brooklyn, NY). Choucair's engagement with American modernism remains to be elucidated, but clearly its expansion of art's boundaries and the commitment to merging form and function infused her subsequent sculptural work. 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. A 2002 catalogue raisonné provided the first comprehensive understanding of her work in its many different media. An online retrospective by ArteEast presented Choucair's work in the context of "historical modernisms," coinciding with the global art world's nascent interest in "alternative modernisms." A retrospective in the Beirut Exhibition Center in 2011 initiated another at the Tate Modern (London, UK) in 2013.
Saloua Raouda Choucair: The Meaning of One, the Meaning of the Multiple, curated by Laura Barlow, in Focus: Works from Mathaf Collection, at Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art, Doha, Qatar
Artevida, collective exhibition curated by Adriano Pedrosa and Rodrigo Moura, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
|2013||Saloua Raouda Choucair, retrospective exhibition organized by Jessica Morgan, at the Tate Modern, London, United Kingdom|
|2011||Saloua Raouda Choucair: The Retrospective, retrospective exhibition organized by Hala Shoukair Gharzeddine at Beirut Exhibition Center, Beirut, Lebanon|
|2010 ||Noble Forms, retrospective exhibition organized by Salah Barakat and Joseph Tarrab at Maqam Gallery, Beirut, Lebanon|
|2008||Historical Modernisms in the Middle East, four-part thematic retrospective organized by Kirsten Scheid and Jessica Winegar for the ArteEast Virtual Gallery, New York, United States of America|
|2001||Women at an Exhibition: Four Generations of Lebanese Women Artists, thematic exhibition organized by Kirsten Scheid at Nadi al-Saha, Beirut, Lebanon|
|1998 ||"Tribute to Salwa Raouda Choucair" at '98 Art Festival, collective exhibition at International College, Beirut, Lebanon|
|1997 ||Sharjah International Arts Biennial 3rd edition, (invited participation), Sharjah, United Arab Emirates|
|1995 ||Abstract Painting in Lebanese Art, thematic exhibition organized by the Alumni Association of the Lebanese American University at the Lebanese American University, Beirut, Lebanon|
|1993 ||Saloua Raouda Choucair retrospective exhibition organized by the Arab Cultural Club at Dar Al-Nadwa, Beirut, Lebanon|
|____ ||Forces of Change, collective exhibition organized by Salwa Mikdadi Nashabi, at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, DC, United States of America|
|1989||Lebanon – The Artist's View, 200 years of Lebanese Painting, collective exhibition organized by the British Lebanese Association at the Barbicon Centre, London and the Institut du Monde Arabe, Paris, France|
|1988||Solo exhibition and conference organized Muhammad Barakat at Al-Muntada, Beirut, Lebanon|
|1986 ||Salon d'Automne, collective exhibition at the Nicolas Sursock Museum, Beirut, Lebanon|
|1982||Salon d'Automne, collective exhibition at the Nicolas Sursock Museum, Beirut, Lebanon|
|1977 ||Solo exhibition organized by Wadah Faris at Contact Gallery, Beirut, Lebanon|
|____||Salon de Mai, (invited participation), Paris, France |
|1976 ||Salon de Mai, (invited participation), Paris, France|
|1975||Salon de Mai, (invited participation), Paris, France|
|1974 ||Salon de Mai, (invited participation), Paris, France|
|____ ||Salon d'Automne, collective exhibition at the Nicolas Sursock Museum, Beirut, Lebanon|
|____ ||Saloua Raouda Choucair: 1947 - 1974, solo exhibition organized by the Association of Lebanese Painters and Sculptors at the Ministry of Tourism, Beirut, Lebanon|
|____ ||Collective exhibition with Farid Haddad, Said Aql, Stelio Scamanga, and Halim Jurdak, organized by Yusif Khal at Gallery One|
|1973 ||Salon de Mai, (invited participation), Paris, France|
|1972 ||Salon de Mai, (invited participation), Paris, France|
|1971||Salon de Mai, (invited participation), Paris, France|
|1970 ||Salon de Mai, (invited participation), Paris, France|
|1969 ||Salon d'Automne, collective exhibition at the Nicolas Sursock Museum, Beirut, Lebanon|
|1968||Salon d'Automne, collective exhibition at the Nicolas Sursock Museum, Beirut, Lebanon|
|1967||Salon d'Automne, collective exhibition at the Nicolas Sursock Museum, Beirut, Lebanon|
|1966||Salon d'Automne, collective exhibition at the Nicolas Sursock Museum, Beirut, Lebanon|
|1965||Salon d'Automne, collective exhibition at the Nicolas Sursock Museum, Beirut, Lebanon|
|____||Salon du Printemps, collective exhibition organized by the Lebanese Ministry of National Education at UNESCO Hall, Beirut, Lebanon|
|1962 ||Exposition de Saloua Raouda, solo exhibition at UNESCO Hall, Beirut, Lebanon|
|____ ||Salon d'Automne, collective exhibition at the Nicolas Sursock Museum, Beirut, Lebanon|
|1952||Solo exhibition at the École Supérieure des Lettres, Beirut, Lebanon|
|1951 ||Solo exhibition at Galerie Colette Allendy, Paris, France |
|____ ||Salon des Réalités Nouvelles, collective exhibition, Paris, France|
|1948||Solo exhibition at the Arab Cultural Club, Beirut, Lebanon|
Awards and Honors
|2014||Honorary doctoral degree, American University of Beirut, Lebanon|
|2002||Honor, Haigazian University, Beirut, Lebanon|
|2001||Honor, National Council of Lebanese Women, Lebanon|
|1999||"Innovations" award, Fouad Makhzoumi Foundation, Lebanon |
|1998||Honor, Lebanese Association of Painters and Sculptors, Lebanon|
|_____||Abdel Hadi Debs Award for the Arts, Lebanon|
|1997 ||Special tribute, Sharjah International Arts Biennial 3rd edition, Sharjah, United Arab Emirates|
|1994 ||Honor, Arab Cultural Club, Beirut, Lebanon|
|1993||National Cedars Medal – Commander rank, Lebanese President, Lebanon|
|1992 ||Honor, Antelias Cultural Movement, Lebanon|
|1988||National Cedars Medal – Knight rank, Lebanese President, Lebanon|
|1985||Honor, General Union of Arab Artists|
|1981||Honor for Sculpture, General Union of Arab Artists, Baghdad, Iraq |
|1972 ||Award of Excellence, Lebanese Ministry of Education, Lebanon|
|1968||Second prize for sculpture, Salon d'Automne, Nicolas Sursock Museum, Beirut, Lebanon|
|____ ||Second prize for sculpture, Alexandria Biennial Exhibition, Egypt|
|1967||First prize for sculpture, Salon d'Automne, Nicolas Sursock Museum, Beirut, Lebanon|
|1966||Third prize for sculpture, Salon d'Automne, Nicolas Sursock Museum, Beirut, Lebanon |
|____ ||Prize for publically installed sculpture, Lebanese National Council of Tourism, Lebanon |
|1965 ||First prize for sculpture, Salon d'Automne, Nicolas Sursock Museum, Beirut, Lebanon|
|1963 ||Lebanese Palace of Justice Award, Beirut, Lebanon|
Lebanese modern art, abstract, Islam, monumental sculpture, physics.
Aswad, Jacques. "Sensory Equations." Saloua Raouda Choucair: Her Life and Art. Saloua Raouda Choucair Foundation, 2010 Beirut, translated from Arabic by Kirsten Scheid. http://www.srchoucair.com/sensory_equations.html.
Choucair, Saloua Raouda. "An-Nashaat al-fanni fi an-Nadi ath-Thaqaafi al-`Arabi (The Art Activities of the Arab Cultural Club)." Al-Adib 7(1 January 1948): 59 - 61.
Choucair, Saloua Raouda. "Kayfa Fahima al-`Arabi Fanna at-Tasweer (How the Arab Understood Visual Art)." al-Abhaath 4(2 June 1951): 195 - 201.
Choucair, Saloua Raouda. "Al-Jamalu wa al-lawhatu al-fanniyyah (Beauty and the Artwork)." Sawt al-Mar'a 8 (7 July 1952): 24 - 25.
Metzler, Laura. "(And so on…): Genetics, Quantum Mechanics, and Transcendence in the late work of Saloua Raouda Choucair." MA thesis, the American University of Beirut, 2014.
Sayigh, Samir. "Saloua Raouda Choucair: Tamayyuz 'Uslub wa faraadatu Ru'yah (Saloua Raouda Choucair: Distinctiveness of Style and Individuality of Vision," in al-Kifah al-'Arabi, 25 - 31 July 2983, pp. 70 - 71. Translated from Arabic by Anna Swank. http://www.arteeast.org/2012/03/04/saloua-raouda-choucair-distinctiveness-of-style-and-individuality-of-vision/
Schoukair, Hala Gharzeddine, ed. Saloua Raouda Choucair: Her Life and Art. Beirut: Saloua Raouda Choucair Foundation, 2002.
Shaybub, Edvik Jarayssati. "Ma`a al-Fanana Salwa Rawda (With the Artist Salwa Rawda)." Sawtu al-Mar'ah 7(12 July 1951): 36 - 37, 49. Translated from Arabic by Anna Swank. http://www.arteeast.org/2012/03/03/with-the-artist-saloua-raouda/
Khal, Helen. The Woman Artist in Lebanon. Beirut: Institute for Women's Studies in the Arab World, Beirut University College, 1987.
Malhas, Thurayya. An-Nahhatah at-tajreediyyah Salwa Rawda Shuqair fi masaaraatihaa ash-shakhsiyyah wa al-fanniyyah namuthajan bi 'Imtiyaaz. Beirut, 2002.
Morgan, Jessica, ed. Saloua Raouda Choucair. London: Tate Publishing, 2013.
Scheid, Kirsten. Painters, Picture-Makers, and Lebanon: Ambiguous Identities in an Unsettled State. PhD dissertation. Princeton University, 2005.