Lebanese artist found fame late in life

NEW YORK • Saloua Raouda Choucair, a Lebanese artist, is one of the first abstractionists in the Arab world who brought a new idiom to modernism with her sense of line and form.

It was not until she was in her 90s that Choucair (pronounced shoo- CARE), who lived and worked nearly all her life in Beirut, gained recognition outside Lebanon as an unsung hero of the modernist story, a distinctive, eloquent artist relegated to the margins of a traditionally Western narrative.

She died on Jan 26 at her home in Beirut. She was 100.

The death was confirmed by her daughter, Hala Schoukair.

Out of place in her native country for many years, she worked in obscurity - persevering through Lebanon's civil war in the 1970s and 1980s, filling her apartment with small-scale geometric paintings and modular, interlocking sculptures that reflected a distinctive, highly refined understanding of line, form and materials.

In 2013, the Tate Modern in London organised a retrospective that came, as critic Laura Cumming wrote in The Observer, as "a bolt from the blue". She added: "Saloua Raouda Choucair is an extraordinary new name."

Two years later, the CRG Gallery in Manhattan organised the artist's first solo show in the United States.

Profoundly affected by Alzheimer's disease, she was unable to attend either one or enjoy her belated success.

She was born Saloua Raouda in Beirut on June 24, 1916.

Her father, Salim Raouda, was a landowner and pharmacist. He died of typhus soon after being conscripted into the Ottoman army during World War I, leaving his wife, Zalfa Najjar, to raise their three children.

The family, which was well off, belonged to the often persecuted Druze sect, a non-Islamic religion.

Saloua attended the progressive Ahliyyah School for Girls and took painting lessons with nationalist landscape artists Moustafa Farroukh and Omar Onsi.

She studied biology at the American Junior College for Women and philosophy and history at the American University of Beirut. An extended trip to Cairo in 1943 exposed her to Islamic art and architecture.

In recent years, her work has been seen at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris, the Whitechapel Gallery in London and the Haus der Kunst in Munich.

"A critic once told me that my work has a European influence," Choucair told one interviewer.

"I object. It is a universal influence. What I experience, everyone in the world experiences and, in fact, all of the rules I apply to my sculpture are derived from Islamic geometric design."

In addition to her daughter, she is survived by two granddaughters.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 20, 2017, with the headline 'Lebanese artist found fame late in life'. Print Edition | Subscribe