Women Artists at Tate Modern (1): Saloua Raouda Choucair

This year has been particularly fertile for the featuring of women artists at one of my favorite galleries: Tate Modern.  Although it is not a topic that I am consciously investigating, I’ve been attracted more and more by the type of questions that women artists seems to make through their work. Without knowing anything about “feminine art” or “women artists” (the labels are contentious) I just want to share my candid impressions of what I’ve seen, and the type of questions that these artists produce in me, through my own process of “being”/”becoming” a ‘female’ artist (?).

In April (2013) I discovered almost by chance the magnificent work of Saloua Raouda Chocair (the exhibition is extended to 17/November/2013). A pioneer of abstract art in the middle east, her work speaks about the transition and translation of a number of influences from her life in Paris in the 1940s under the influence of Fernand Leger.  Saloua Raouda is a 97 years old Lebanese artist, and this is her first retrospective in the United Kingdom. The work exhibited is rather small, intimate, and it reflects also the difficult history associated to Lebanon. Indeed, one of the most striking works is a colorful composition in pinks, oranges and browns, titled Two-one (1947) that exhibits the signs of war and displacement.  The collection includes small gouaches, abstract compositions, small sculptures in wood, stone, ceramic and fiberglass, all of them salvaged from wars and bullets.  Throughout this sample of works, one can see the evolution of the artist in her search for a particular distinguishable language, and the topics of west/east, femininity, symmetry and Islamic aesthetics and spirituality.

In the first room, one can find a number of gouaches, experimenting with strong lines and vibrant colors. I get absolutely absorbed by  three small paintings that take me to intimate conversations of women in cafes, hammans or around house chores.  The strong line and colors (influenced by Leger) have in Saloua Raouda a different effect:  in Leger’s representation, the women are inert almost static, imprisoned by the strong lines and solid volumes, they are also assimilated in the promising world of technology, a very recurrent topic in Leger’s view.


Fernand Leger (1921) Three Women

In Choucair’s gouaches, the lines accentuate and stress the individuality, yet the whole composition refer to a more complex community of women and lives amongst women. Here the lines reflect movement, the drawings although nude are not really erotic, or purposefully appealing, they are just diverse women, with diverse bodies. It is possible to imagine them talking, or simply being in silent, enjoying the rare moments of solitude and privacy in both traditional and modern societies.Saloua Raouda presents three main images  titled Les Paintres Celebres. This is one of them:

Les Peintres Celebres 1948-1949, by Saloua Raouda Chocair.Saloua Raouda Choucair (1941) Les Peintres Celebres 1

The little details of Saloua Raouda are intriguing: the free and textured line, almost dancing; the cups of strong coffee;  the thoughts and feelings of these women; the reference to time (relative: suspended or urgent). The name of the painting is: “Les Peintres Celebres”, which says a lot about the intentionality of the artist, as it denotes a double sense. The expert Kirsten Scheid explains:

“In all three images, four naked women are gathered awkwardly around a table (or couch?) covered in red-checked cloth, drinking tea and reading from a large tome titled Les Peintres Celebres. their rigid poses (one an odalisque!) signal that they are models. Whereas models are more usually summoned at the instigation of painters, in Choucair’s scenes it is the other way round: the models invoke the painters, making them the subject of their inquiry and their spectatorship.” (p. 45)

[Kirsten Scheid. 2013. Distinctions that Could be Drawn: Choucair’s Paris and Beirut. In Jessica Morgan (Editor) Saloua Raouda Choucair. Tate Publishing. London. ]

It seems to me that this is also a questioning to the role of women in art, more as models, objects rather than creators, subjects, artists! Indeed, reading about Paul Klee’s teaching experience at the Bauhaus, is really shocking to see how even avant-garde artists rejected the possibility of a female “great artist” thus relegating them (spatially and occupationally in art schools) to traditionally oriented feminine forms of art: embroidery and weaving!  Gosh!

As part of these gouaches, her work “Chores”, addresses a related questioning. Here, the same lines express solitude and busy engagement. The bodies are bigger, stronger, almost sculpted by the “chores”… Also it is possible here to see that women doing the chores are different to the Les Peintres Celebres… these are “other women”, where the categories of ethnicity and socio-economic status are cleverly included in the discussion on feminism! I am sure the reader can also observe some other particularities…

Saloua Raouda Chocair - ChoresSaloua Raouda Choucair (1948) Chores. Gouache on paper

What I found really interesting is to acknowledge the need of questioning the gender aspects of art and painting. This includes not only the hierarchical and glass walls and constraints for women artists, from institutional, patriarchal models, but also, in a wider view, the necessity of understand that gender is a cross-boundaries topic.  For example, as a Tate member and assiduous visitor to this gallery I am aware about how “feminine” is this gallery. Women, on their own or with friends stroll around in complete freedom. The members room cafe is particularly a very feminine space. I take the opportunity to draw some sketches and it strikes me this is a topic that I would love to explore more: Friendship.  The body language of female friendship is appealing and complex: while I am drawing, I feel I can hear their/our conversations: of this and that, of world, and life, and personal quests, about career, work, family, art, interests, shoes or love…

Here it is my own gouache inspired by Saloua Raouda, the first in the series of Girlfriends:

Friends Gouache on Paper BAcevedoBeatriz Acevedo (2013) Gouache on Paper. “Girlfriends”

Original work

Throughout the summer I’ve been trying to capture those moments of intimacy and wonder shared between friends. My own summer has been enhanced by the support of my friends: Phone calls, skype, visits and meetings in London have been a the medicine I needed to go through this difficult summer, and I know that my life would be very difficult without my friends. When I moved to the United Kingdom, what was most difficult for me was to leave my amazing group of supportive girlfriends in Colombia, in order to follow my dream of doing the PhD. Fortunately, thanks to technology and frequent encounters (in Bogota, Prague, Amsterdam, Manchester, Rome or Lille) our conversations have been able to continue throughout the years.

Luckily, I have also met some inspiring women in the United Kingdom: delicate and beautiful roses that I try to cultivate, tend and care with all my heart!

So back to the exhibition, apart of the gouaches, I am attracted to the abstract and geometrical compositions in vibrant colours. Saloua Rauda’s interest in geometry and abstract art is translated into the visual music of these compositions. Once again, they are intimate, exploratory, at the same time full of sound, colour and rythm. (This may relate to previous post on synesthesia in Kandinsky spiritual approach to art). Her understanding of colour and geometry is evident in the different paintings: oils on canvas, gouaches on paper, and also in the small sculptures. I must confess I’ve been at least three times to see this exhibition, and I always get mesmerized by this one:

saloua raouda abstract geometrySaloua Raouda Choucair (1962-5) Composition with arcs. Gouache on Paper

(my own blurry picture).

After one of the visits, I tried to draw upon the inspiration of this exhibition.  The initial result is this collage: I used the colors of the “damaged” canvas I mentioned before in my palette (pink, rose, orange, nude, purple, grey). I used colored paper (some of them very tactile) and cuttings from the newspaper. From almost 2004 I have been cutting bits from the newspapers in the form of phrases that in groups of six become a sort of post-modern i-Ching (see Facebook page for a weekly reading). I  also found this beautiful romantic image from the famous film scene and it became the center of the work. Around it I built the composition of colored papers. I attempted at alluding to the sensuality of love (the lips, the vertical smile), but also to the waves of emotion and the liquidity of love… and I pasted a little cutting about “painting and passion” somehow expressing my yearning for more creative time.

pink collage Beatriz Acevedo

Beatriz Acevedo (2013) Pink paint and passion. Collage on cardboard.

Digital composition using Instagram Collage.

From this first review of Saloua Raouda Choucair on this first post of Women Artists at Tate Modern, I would like to stress three main points:

First, the incessant process of search and questioning your role as an artist, a woman, a citizen of a particular country. I am not sure about a “feminine art”, but what I suspect is that there is a link between being a woman or a man in particular historical circumstances that influence the way we express certain questions and concerns.

Second, the importance of exploring, understanding, using and appropriating what you read, see or learn. This also entails a number of experiments, exploration of novel materials, and a good dosage of daring and risking.Exhibitions and other artists are an amazing source of inspiration! As stated by the book Steal like an artist, it is important to go around and see what is going on, adapt, adopt and transform… I am now working on sketches on friendship, perhaps for some greeting cards, or just to represent the dialogues I have with my girlfriends. I also feel the need to come back to a smaller canvas/format, as it is easier to reproduce but also, it is more intimate and private.

Third, the need of follow your intuition in art as in life. I feel now that this is the life I want to live… with the risks and rewards it entails. It is a matter of drawing/painting/creating or implode. I feel that I am a better person (for myself basically) when I am creating!

Finally, for me, the exercise of writing about art is part of my own education and my purpose of sharing and opening dialogues with readers of this blog and other people. In relation to this process of writing, Kirsten Scheid (cited before) recalls the ‘plastic bag’ in which Saloua Raouda kept cuttings with reviews of her exhibitions, some of them being scribbled and contested by the artist. She quotes sociologist Howard Becker about how “writing about art can reform standards for valuing art by revealing ‘that [the previous] standard was too constricted, that there are in fact other things to enjoy’ .

Similarly, these thoughts and reflections are just the starting point of an ongoing conversation, and I will appreciate you join me in this reflection.


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