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Saloua Raouda Choucair (1916–2017)

Painter and sculptor Saloua Raouda Choucair, one of the first abstract artists working in Lebanon and perhaps even the Arab world, has died at the age of one hundred. Inspired by a range of influences, from the architecture of Le Corbusier to Arabic poetry, Choucair was largely unrecognized as an artist until later in life.

Choucair’s daughter Hala Schoukair said, “She was an avant-garde who was inspired by the principles of Islamic art, but without any visual references to what people were accustomed to seeing in that art.” She added, “There was no correlation to calligraphy or Arabesque patterns. Her style is pure abstraction of form and line, just like a mathematical equation. Therefore my mother was often misunderstood, pushed aside, ignored, and left to be on her own.”

Born in Beirut in 1916, Choucair apprenticed with Lebanese artists Omar Onsi and Moustafa Farroukh before traveling to Paris to study with Fernand Léger and to attend the École des Beaux-Arts in the 1940s. Choucair was one of the first Arab artists to participate in the Salon des Réalités Nouvelles in Paris. She returned to Beirut several years later and began experimenting with other mediums, including clay and wood. While the artist was well-received in France, her work was often misunderstood in subsequent decades; she didn’t sell her first piece in Lebanon until 1962.

Choucair’s work was featured in numerous solo exhibitions at institutions such as the Arab Museum Modern Art, Qatar; Tate Modern, London; the Beirut Art Center, Lebanon; Al Nadwa Gallery, Lebanon; and CRG Gallery, New York. She also participated in various group shows, including “Postwar: Art Between the Pacific and the Atlantic, 1945–1965,” (2016) at Haus der Kunst, Munich; the Twelfth Sharjah Biennial (2015); “Artevida” (2014) at the Museu de Arte Moderna do Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; and “Companionable Silences” (2013) at Palais de Tokyo, Paris.

She received many awards throughout her career, including an honorary doctoral degree from the American University of Beirut, a special award from the National Council of Lebanese Women on International Women’s Day, and the Cedars Medal from the Lebanese government.

In 2011, the first major retrospective of the artist’s work in more than thirty-five years, featuring around 380 works, was held at the Beirut Exhibition Center. In the January 2012 issue of Artforum, Kaelen Wilson-Goldie described the show as “a salvage mission,” since most of her oeuvre had to be rescued from unstable storage conditions, as well as a testament to the artist’s resilience—she was caught up in the violence in Beirut between 1975 and 1990, evidenced by a painting on display that was partially destroyed by a bomb that struck her family’s home—which allowed her “to devote her life to the development of a rigorous abstract vocabulary that emulates no one’s yet embodies the Syrian poet Adonis’s concept that language is the material presence of thought itself.”