SHARJAH, UAE: “This painting is the first of them.” Mona Saudi gestures to her 1963 oil-on-panel work “Lovers,” depicting a blue-hued feminine figure, her arm crossed with that of a second figure, whose head rests on her shoulder.
“I did this when I was 16 years old,” she recalls.
“It was part of my first exhibition in Beirut, in 1963, at Cafe de la Presse. It contained paintings like this and black-and-white drawings.”
The Amman-born artist says the painting was inspired by Picasso’s blue period, which she’d encountered in art books. She’d started to write poetry at about the same time.
“In Beirut everyone told me, ‘Ah, this work is very sculptural,’” she chuckles. “Here, I first met [Lebanese modernist sculptor] Michel Basbous, and I went to visit [Basbous’ village-cum-art project] Rachana.
“The exhibition was very well received and I sold some of the work, got some money and took a boat to Paris. In Paris I started sculpture and this” – she nods to the 1965 work “Mother, Earth,” the centerpiece of the adjacent gallery – “is one of my first works of stone carving.
“The title and the form is something that, until now, I’m still repeating in different media,” Saudi says of “Mother, Earth.” Later she points to another work of the same title from some years later.
“I did this one in Lebanon. All Beirut is built with this yellow stone. “You see it on the walls, but when you polish it, it becomes gold.”
Mona Saudi is among most respected Arab artists of her generation. Renowned for her sculpture in various media – stone and metal – her oeuvre also includes paintings, drawings and silkscreens.
All have been sampled in “Mona Saudi: Poetry and Form,” a retrospective that opened this spring at the Sharjah Art Museum, sampling her work from 1963 to 2017.
The Beirut-based artist met The Daily Star at the museum to reflect upon her practice and her work.
“When I first went to Paris, I just wanted to live my life there,” she says. “Then after some years I discovered I belong to this part of the world, so I decided to come back.
“I tried to live in Jordan for a little period and I thought there’s not enough personal and cultural freedom, cultural life, there, so I said the best option for me, is just to go and settle in Beirut.”
She says it was no coincidence that she returned to the region from Paris in 1969, immediately after Paris’ 1968 student uprising.
“I got a kind of different political consciousness,” she recalls. When it comes to “changing something, or doing something, it’s better that you go to a place where you belong, because it’s not something you can do in a day and a night.
“Then I really like the light and the weather in the Middle East.
“My biological system goes with light. I wake up with the light and I work with the light.”
While in Amman, she’d gone to work on an art project with Palestinian refugee kids, later published as “In Time of War: Children Testify.”
“Then I said, ‘Okay, I’ll fix myself in Beirut, where I knew all the artists, writers, poets, and so forth.
“Beirut is one of the Arab capitals that still has some freedom of expression and you can live as you like.”
Though her paintings and drawings retain the sculptural quality first noted in “Lovers,” Saudi says none of her three-dimensional works are sketch-based. “Usually I take a stone and I start directly. One step, next step, next step, until it tells me, ‘Okay, I’m finished,” she laughs quietly. “You can push me.’”
True to its title, the Sharjah exhibition sampled some of Saudi’s poetry and several of her works on paper inspired by the work of other Arab poets. Between 1977 and 1980, she created a series of silkscreens and watercolors inspired by Mahmoud Darwish’s poems.
The ink-on-paper collection “Raqim al-Petra” [The Hand of Stone Draws the Place], 1993-1998, was inspired by the poetry of Adonis.
Saudi has been good friends with many renowned poets of her generation – Darwish and Adonis, as well as Lebanese poets Onsi al-Hajj and Yusuf al-Khal.
“I loved poetry since I was a child,” she says. “I think all Arab people love poetry and are inspired by it.
“I think [my visual art] is inspired by poetic memory. I mean my way of thinking is poetic and abstract. So they come both together.”
The works inspired by Darwish and Adonis’ work usually include excerpts of their poems, drawn in Saudi’s distinct hand, which she declares isn’t calligraphy.
“I don’t know the rules of Arabic calligraphy,” she avers.
“This is what comes from my handwriting. I start writing and this is what comes out.
“It’s just my natural handwriting, sometimes small, sometimes big. It’s all lines, like my line-drawings.”
Discussing artistic practice with Saudi is quite unlike similar conversations with most contemporary artists. She equates her work as a sculptor with that of a poet, saying with a smile, “When you get a first phrase, it just goes on by itself.
“It’s the same with sculpture and with drawing.”
The similarities are formal. When asked how she develops an idea for a sculpture in stone – whether the idea comes first or the stone – she demurs.
“Usually I have a lot of stones around me,” she says. “I always collect stones. They are there, and one day I say, ‘Ah, this one I will start.’ It’s not ‘an idea.’ A sculpture is not an idea. I work in form. The form itself is the idea.”
A piece’s form is, however, shaped by the medium.
“I have to respect the stone,” she says, gesturing to one of her marble works. “This stone is very hard, for example, and must be cut a little with machines.”
“This pink stone,” she points to a limestone work, “just needs to be worked with chisel.
“So for each stone I need the tools that it needs ... For this kind of stone,” she nods to a marble piece, “I feel it should be polished to the final end. With the other one, or for any kind of limestone, sometimes I can polish just a small part and leave the form with all its chisel marks.
“Each stone, each form, has a different touch, a different light.”