We see you now: Saloua Raouda Choucair

Patience is a virtue. At the age of 97, the Lebanese artist Saloua Raouda Choucair has received her first big exhibition at a major institution. Tate Modern is exhibiting over 120 works of art from the experimental abstract visionary in a show that has been a long time coming.
As is often the case, when in the present, it is all too easy to overlook or misunderstand brilliance. It’s ironic, but part of the arbitrary nature of art. A lot of success and adulation for many overlooked artists happens later, postscript, posthumous even. It is up to those living in the moment to vindicate.
“We can view the past, and achieve our understanding of the past, only through the eyes of the present,” the great twentieth century historian E.H. Carr explained in his epic book What Is History? “The historian is of his own age, and is bound to it by the conditions of human existence.”
The wonderful thing here is that Choucair is able to experience the recognition that she deserves, albeit not in person. Alas, she is not able to travel, but from her home in Beirut, where she has been a significant voice in the art world since the 1940s, she can at last look back at her life and relish in the fact that history is changing.
As the exhibition notes, her work is not only full of intriguing questions and breathtaking compositions, it is avant-garde in its scope, mixing as it does traditional Islamic practices with Western modernism.
The latter was inspired by her experience of Paris. Arriving there in 1948, Choucair would spend three formative years in the city, studying at the École Nationale Superieur des beaux-arts. Fernand Léger would provide some thoughtful instruction to her during this period.
Back home she set to work, fusing all sorts of ideas into a style that was unique. However, as prolific as she was most of her work never found an audience. Her first sale would happen as late as 1962. The bulk of it never found a buyer.
“No one was interested in acquiring it,” the show’s curator Jessica Morgan told the Independent. “She knew she was good. She has spent a whole life saying, ‘When are they coming?'”
However, it is not about holding grudges, or even righting that wrong, Ms Morgan elaborates, but to bring her to the attention of the world and establish Choucair in her “rightful position as a significant figure in the history of 20th century art”.
The bulk of the exhibition appraises much of the work she executed between the 1950s and 1980s, especially on her amazing and complex sculptures. It is apt. Choucair once said that she would have, in another life, been an architect, and what an exciting prospect that would have been.
Her approach to sculpture, after all, resonates with that unrealised aspiration. She liked the idea that structures could be adapted, how their countenance didn’t have to be set in stone. Like seasons, they can change. The certainty of what they are is irresolute.
“A series of sculptures entitled Poems have parts that work together in a flexible way,” the Tate Modern explains. “Inspired by the unique stanza style of Sufi poetry, each module may stand alone as an individual or be stacked with others to be read as a whole.”
Though it is hard to say at present how Choucair will be perceived in around a generation’s time – we are, as Carr explained, limited by “the now” – this exhibition has already changed the past. We all certainly know who she is: an important voice in abstract art, a pioneering artist, and a women who said no to be shackled by the ignorance of her time.
Saloua Raouda Choucair at Tate Modern runs until October 20th 2013.
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