Tate Modern has devoted a solo show to an artist who can confidently be described as completely unknown in Britain. She has never had an exhibition in the UK or anywhere outside her native Lebanon. Now in her 97th year, Saloua Raouda Choucair is an extraordinary new name.
Born in Beirut in 1916. She learnt to draw and paint under the tutelage of Omar Onsi and Moustafa Farroukh, prominent Lebanese artists who adopted impressionist and realist styles. At the end of the 1940s Choucair spent three important years in Paris where she absorbed the current themes, trends and philosophies of European modernism.
The show opens, with a youthful self-portrait and a group of vibrant gouache paintings from this period, showing the artist’s experiments with repeated, modular forms inspired by her love of geometry and mathematics. A vein of humour is rare enough in art but it runs consistently through this show.
In the late 1950s, Choucair began modelling in clay and carving wood. Her first series of sculptures explores the trajectory of a line. She was very interested in the ability of a line to follow a path that allows it to transform itself into numerous shapes. The line and curve are basic elements of the visual language that she used throughout her career, finding its way into a variety of media including painting, sculpture, textiles, murals and other domestic designs. Like her paintings Choucair’s sculptures are small-scale, spry and ingeniously balanced fusing Islamic design with modernist traditions.
The last room has beauty in abundance, numerous sculptures created out of gossamer thread, spun steel and glass. Some are planetary, evoking eclipses and starbursts. Others have affinities with womankind – corkscrew curls, metal bows and gyrating curves – and the quirkiest are highly strung, shivering excitedly as one passes.
In 2011 a major retrospective of her work was held at the Beirut Exhibition Center. Her daughter is working on the establishment of her Foundation as such, the curators of this exhibition, Jessica Morgan and Ann Coxon, were given access to Choucair’s archive and the body of work that remains in her apartment.
That Saloua Raouda Choucair has had to wait a lifetime for such a show is shocking but perhaps Tate Modern is about to change direction, for this is the first in a series of exhibitions of Arab and African artists whose work is cherished at home and entirely unknown here. The exhibition is running until 20th October 2013 and is neatly positioned among the themed galleries on level four so that browsing crowds will come across it more easily.