Lebanon’s female modernist stars: Four stellar Arab artists who deserve greater recognition

Lebanon’s female modernist stars: Four stellar Arab artists who deserve greater recognition
Helen Khal in Lebanon (Image supplied)
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Updated 29 April 2020

Lebanon’s female modernist stars: Four stellar Arab artists who deserve greater recognition

Lebanon’s female modernist stars: Four stellar Arab artists who deserve greater recognition
  • Arab News examines the works of contemporaries Huguette Caland, Helen Khal, Etel Adnan and Saloua Raouda Choucair

BEIRUT: Arab modernism remains a much-underrated genre in the art world. Dubai-based independent arts consultant Myrna Ayad believes that Arab modernists have not received the recognition they deserve — although she points out that there have been recent positive changes implemented by auction houses, art professionals, and academics ­­to showcase their artistry on the international stage.

“In the past, there was a preconception that there’s only a modern period in the West. People did not know that there was actually a very robust, solid, and incredible modern period in the Arab world,” Ayad — who oversaw the development of the Modern section as former director of Art Dubai — tells Arab News.

Beirut was famously known as a cosmopolitan powerhouse where ideas were exchanged and artistic life flourished from the 1950s to 1970s, and even to some extent in midst of the horrific civil war that rocked the country between 1975 and 1990. “A lot of people say that the Lebanese are resilient, and we have to consider that, ultimately, art is a form of expression. These people had to express themselves,” Ayad says.

Here, we recognize some of Lebanon’s leading female modernists, all of whom were contemporaries, and all of whom — in the face of political, social and economic obstacles — continued to pursue art for decades. As Ayad notes: “Nothing stopped them. I think that’s what’s amazing about our modernists; they were relentless and perseverant.”

Helen Khal (1923-2009) — ‘The Gallerist’

An untitled piece by Helen Khal from 1968. (Courtesy of Barjeel Art Foundation, Sharjah)

Born in Pennsylvania into a Lebanese family, Helen Khal wore many hats — wife, mother, teacher, artist, writer, and critic. In 1963, along with her husband, the poet Yusuf Khal, she co-founded Beirut’s first permanent art gallery, “Gallery One,” presenting talent from the Middle East and North Africa.

Khal also illustrated the covers of a literary journal called “Shi’r” (‘poetry’ in Arabic), established by her husband. In 1976, she was commissioned to write what was to become her best-known literary work, “The Woman Artist in Lebanon,” profiling the trajectories of Lebanese female artists.

As a painter, Khal was known for her color field painting style. Possessing a pure and intimate nature, her compositions show a dedication to exploring the simplicity of form and color. “Khal’s work is aesthetically beautiful and universal. Her use of color was happy and positive,” says Ayad.

Saloua Raouda Choucair (1916-2017) — ‘The Futurist’

"Poem," a sculpture created by Saloua Raouda Choucair between 1963-5. (Image supplied)

“My mother wasn’t sick of modern times, she wasn’t nostalgic – she believed in the future,” claimed the daughter of Saloua Raouda Choucair, who spent most of her life in Beirut and became internationally known late in life. Through Choucair’s works — manifested in wood, clay, metal, fiberglass, and painting — one can sense a deeply curious mind at play.

“Saloua’s very entry into the art world was defined by defiance,” says Ayad. “Her philosophy professor once said, ‘There’s no art except Greek art.’ She asked him, ‘What about Islamic art?’ And he said, ‘That’s just ornamentation.’ So, she spent her life disproving him.”

Saloua Raouda Choucair in Beirut. (Image supplied)

In 1948, Choucair went to Paris to study under the tutelage of the renowned French artist Fernand Léger. Choucair’s geometrical artworks were ahead of her time, combining elements of Islamic art, science, mathematics, and abstraction. In 2013, Choucair — then in her late nineties and battling Alzheimer’s — made history by becoming the first Arab woman to have a solo retrospective at London’s Tate Modern.

Etel Adnan (1925-present) — ‘The Colorist’

An untitled painting by Etel Adnan from the late Eighties. (Image courtesy of Sothebys)

The prolific artist Etel Adnan is now 95, but still painting her singular landscapes that burst with color and life. It is through color that she expresses how she contemplates the world and all its beauty: “The purpose of art-making, for me, is a certain hunger for color. Once the color comes out of the tube, it’s at its most beautiful. So this love for color keeps me painting,” she once said.  

Although Adnan was born and raised in Beirut, she has traveled widely, and has lived in California and in Paris, where she currently resides. But Adnan remained attached to Lebanon through her publications and paintings, as one can see in her simple yet poetic 1973 landscape, “Mount Lebanon.”

Etel Adnan. (Courtesy of the artist and Sfeir-Semler Gallery Beirut / Hamburg, ©Gilles Bassignac)

As Ayad points out, Adnan is also a respected and important writer, poet, and playwright, delving into the themes of nature, politics, and gender. Indeed, for most of her early life, she focused on writing, coming to painting much later on.

Today, her bouquets of color can be found in the collections of the Centre Pompidou, British Museum, MOMA, and the Barjeel Art Foundation.

Huguette Caland (1931-2019) — ‘The Unconventionalist’

A kaftan designed for Pierre Cardin by Huguette Caland in 1979. (Image supplied)

Playful and sensual are words commonly used to describe Huguette Caland’s imagery, which often celebrates the female figure. The daughter of Bechara El-Khoury — Lebanon’s first post-independence president — Caland pushed boundaries with her life choices and the art she produced, from minimalist canvases to hand-painted abayas.

When Caland was 21, she married a French-Lebanese man called Paul Caland in Beirut, and gave birth to three children. But, longing to pursue an artistic career, Caland left her family behind and made her way to Paris in 1970, where she struggled to be taken seriously by the art world. She nevertheless managed to catch the eye of the French designer Pierre Cardin when she stepped into his boutique wearing one of her unique robes. Cardin eventually invited her to design a clothing line for him.

Like so many of her female contemporaries, Caland’s work only began to gain appreciation later in her career, when her works were featured in exhibitions held in Beirut, Paris, California, and Cornwall. Despite the hardships Caland faced — notably dealing with body-image issues — she retained a sense of humor and joie de vivre. “Life shouldn’t be a punishment, and it is for many people,” she once said. “I admit that I’m privileged, but I think that my character is my biggest privilege because I’m born happy.”

Huguette Caland in Lebanon in the 1960s. (Image supplied)