Major sculpture by Saloua Raouda Choucair installed at AUB

​​​​​​​​​​Sally Abou Melhem <sa256@aub.edu.lb>, Office of Communications

AUB Art Galleries and Collections announced the installation of a sculpture entitled Poem in Four Verses on campus, in an official inauguration that took place on October 18, 2018. The artwork is by pioneer of abstract art in the Arab world, Saloua Raouda Choucair (1916-2017).

“This monumental artwork is a major contribution to the cultural heritage of both AUB and Beirut,” said AUB Provost Mohamed Harajli at the inauguration ceremony. He spoke about the artist’s strong association with AUB throughout her life, starting with her philosophy studies at the university from 1945 to 1947, and then her work as a librarian while she was refining her craft, and capped by her being awarded an honorary doctorate in 2014. “It is no exaggeration to say that this university was instrumental in her developing a complex art both entirely of its own time, yet also based on a profound knowledge of the historical art forms and philosophy of the region.”

The sculpture was commissioned by an anonymous donor in 2014 as a gift from the Saloua Raouda Choucair Foundation. AUB has in its possession two other artworks by Saloua Choucair, a three-dimensional sculpture and a painting, both currently displayed at the Permanent Collection exhibition at the AUB Byblos Bank Art Gallery.  

“I’m sure that nothing would have made her happier than knowing that her fellow citizens and future AUB generations will be passing by this sculpture, and that her art will become part of their daily life,” said Schoukair in her speech during the inauguration ceremony. 

The sculpture
The sculpture was designed in the early 1960s. A small model of it was made at that time, although the artist always intended for it to be executed on a monumental scale.  The work, as it now stands in its location to the east of Jafet Library, is 2.7 meters tall, and weighs seven tons.  It is comprised of four individual blocks of a local stone known as testa. It was made by the stonemason Samah Gharzeddine, who worked regularly with the artist for a period stretching over decades.  It took Gharzeddine four years, from 2014 until 2017, to complete the work.  There are no interconnecting rods between the blocks, nor is there any use of additional fixative materials, such as cement.  The entire work is held together only by the perfect balance of the individual units.

AUB Art Galleries and Collections Director Rico Franses explains that, “as the title suggests, the sculpture is conceived of on the model of a poem which is composed of individual verses, each being a discreet unit with its own characteristics, yet, when combined, coalesce to form a single, harmonious whole.” He adds that throughout her life, the artist was inspired by the structure, rhythms, and beauty of Arabic poetry and sought to translate those features into two-and-three dimensional visual forms.  The viewer is encouraged to walk around this extraordinary artwork, viewing it from all sides and angles, including above and below, in order to discover both the multiple internal relationships existing between the various parts, and the overall unified coherence that it achieves.

“The originality of the idea behind this sculpture, Poem in Four Verses, is that her abstract art has its roots in Arabic culture. It is not a nihilistic idea. My mother was not negating or suppressing anything, nor was she minimizing or symbolizing any aspect of life. The abstract idea, for her, is the essence of life. It is a very positive idea of creation,” said the artist’s daughter.

Also speaking at the inauguration was Kirsten Scheid, associate professor of anthropology at AUB, and author of “Distinctions That Could Be Drawn: Choucair’s Paris and Beirut,” that appeared in the catalogue for the Choucair exhibition at the Tate Modern in 2013. She said, “As you walk around this sculpture, its components form lines which point outwards, not backwards. There’s no figure or symbolic meaning that you can fall back upon to understand the piece. You must keep moving with it, physically and mentally.” Scheid then explained how Choucair’s artwork highlights the responsibility of the viewers for the meaning they produce. “The work evolves from the same intellectual and social process by which Choucair, whether as a student or an employee or an activist at AUB, transcended her role and given boundaries.”

The artist
Saloua Raouda Choucair is a doyenne of abstract art in the Arab world, and a pioneer who followed her artistic vision with passion and self-determination. Inspired by science and mathematics, as well as Islamic art and poetry, Choucair is best known for her sculptures, particularly the modular works made of interlocking pieces that can be taken apart and reordered. She worked in a multitude of media including wood, metal, glass, wire, clay, plastic, fiberglass, stone, and steel.  She also created innovative tapestries and jewelry pieces and was an accomplished painter.

She was born in Ain El Mreisseh in 1916, where she lived most of her life. She studied in the studios of Omar Onsi in Lebanon and at the Atelier de l'Art Abstrait in Paris for several years. Over seven decades, primarily working out of her atelier in Ras Beirut, Choucair sculpted, painted, wove, and built. 

Throughout her life, Choucair had a dedicated following in Paris, where she garnered several awards and exhibited annually at the Salon de Mai. But it is only in the past few years that Choucair's work found the international acclaim it deserves.  A 2011 retrospective at the Beirut Exhibition Center was followed in 2013 by a show at the Tate Modern in London, which showcased more than 160 of Choucair's works and earned her enormous public and critical approbation.

Choucair's artistic accomplishments are considered all the more remarkable for having been achieved by a woman growing up in the Arab world in the early-to-mid 20th century.  

Although she passed away on January 26, 2017 at the age of 100, her daring progressivism and bold ambition remain an inspiration to many.