Culture

Goliath’s head in an olive basket

BEIRUT: “It hasn’t changed,” reflects Mounira Al Solh. “When I go back to my [Beirut] studio and find what I was working on in 1999-2001, it was the same. “I was doing self-portraits and writing down how many cigarettes I smoked and who gave them to me,” she laughs.

“I was trying to quit. I was drawing on paper and going over the lines with a sewing machine. Before that, I was painting how they slaughter cows ... I went to the [Beirut slaughter house], filmed inside and made paintings from it.”

When this paper began covering her work, Solh (b. 1978) was cast as an up-and-coming video artist with a playful sense of humor. “Rawane’s Song,” 2007, for instance, trains a camera on the artist’s feet as she stomps thoughtfully through a cluttered studio, concluding with an amateur cover of a Nancy Ajram tune. “The Sea is a Stereo” series has lots of fun with a cluster of Beirut men who swim in the Mediterranean and sun themselves near Raouche.

Near the end of “The Mother of David and Goliath,” her third solo show at Sfeir-Semler Gallery, Solh sat with The Daily Star to discuss things.

That work is formally diverse. It ranges from the eponymous series of oils, most depicting women, and pen-and-ink sketches of people the artist has met in her neighborhood since 2012 - many of whom were Syrians displaced by their country’s conflict. Some of these 500-odd sketches have become embroideries. A series of tent-like structures are embroidered with texts - the Arabic terms for the various stages of the day (as compiled by the 11th-century scholar Abu Mansour al-Thaalibi), as well as women’s personal narratives and depictions of endangered animals.

Elsewhere, Solh erected an Arabic neon sign (echoing the English-language adage “cleanliness is next to godliness”) and an installation of bottled Lebanese river water, left in the sun for cleaning - and a chandelier of discarded paper coffee cups. The sole video allusively recounts how the artist’s family was affected by Syria and Lebanon’s traumatic 20th and 21st-century histories, it’s narrative thread constantly interrupted with the phrase, “Or the video may have started like this.”

This body of work is much more varied that the videos than earned her early critical respect, but Solh sees more continuity in her practice than change.

“At that time video was a perfect medium because I could put all my ideas in one thing. Those videos have a painterly feel. ‘Rawane’s Song’ is orchestrated. You have the photos, the shoes, the papers. It’s all contained. That’s what I love about video,” she adds.

“At that time I was living as a student in the Netherlands and I didn’t have a studio. The day I went into the Rijksakademie [art school], I started painting again because I did have a studio ... It’s a conceptual school. You’re thinking of what you want to say, then you make it. It doesn’t matter if you know how to paint or make videos or films. You’ll be good at it when you need it. That’s how I still do things.”

Reflecting on “Mother,” Solh describes the relationship between three works in the gallery foyer. One wall was painted with coffee and from it was hung a neon sign with the phrase “Al-nathafa min al-iman.”

“It means ‘Being clean is religious,’” she says. “Coffee was once used to clean wounds, so it’s a kind of substitute for detergent.”

Hanging from the ceiling of the same gallery was the disposable-coffee-cup chandelier, which plays on the irony of coffee’s former function as a cleaner and the litter of paper and plastic coffee cups.

“These were collected on the beach sites facing the Ain al-Mreisseh mosque ... You know I’ve always been interested in that seafront, most recently the pollution leading to the garbage crisis.”

In the far corner of the first gallery hung an electronic sign on which flashed a series of 360 electronic “Sabah al-khayr!” greetings. This work, Solh says, is also about pollution, in this case the litter of “messages that you get on WhatsApp from people greeting you every morning.”

All these messages were received from the same family friend, Abu Sakhra, who sends her a “Sabah al-Khayr” every morning at 6:30, before he goes to work. He also performed in Solh’s “The Sea is a Stereo” series.

“He’s the Lebanese Bronzage Champion, the guy who puts on Nivea while he sunbathes,” she smiles. “You never know where the greetings are made - maybe someone in Egypt, or Tunis, or here. The common ground is this Arabic ‘Sabah al-Khayr,’ but also the images that are being used - this blond baby with blue eyes. It’s really crazy because it feels like, for all the crises we’re going through, in our imaginary people see something else.”

The exhibition title derived from Solh’s series of oils.

“The battle of David and Goliath is a very classical theme,” among the old masters, she observes. “I studied painting but I don’t make paintings. I use the medium to question it. I use it very playfully ... When I paint I’m reading a lot. Lately I’ve been reading a lot of Arab women writers and I got interested in how women writers could help you emancipate yourself.”

Solh says her paintings were inspired by the stories of militant women she’s known that faced arrest as well as works by women writers, particularly Najwa Barakat’s 1996 book “Bas al-Awadem” (Bus of Good People).

“Barakat was in contact with people from Algeria and around the region, so there were a lot of stories from Lebanon’s war but also from the Islamists there. If you read it now, it’s just like today.

“It’s about a bus full of people trying to go from south to north and on the way a lot of things happen. For instance, a pregnant woman with a basket of olives comes on the bus and says, ‘Take me with you.’ They’re stopped at a checkpoint and this basket falls and a decapitated head rolls out of it.”

For Solh, Barakat has restaged a typical David and Goliath moment, but with a female protagonist.

“It’s really funny sometimes when I look back and find it’s the same. The urgency of today on the ground, what’s happening, what to talk about, these things are changing a bit. If you think of slaughtering a cow or your own body’s decay.

“Maybe I have the maturity to -” she interrupts herself, laughing, “a little bit more maturity, but yeah, when you’re 18, 19, 20, it’s different than when you’re 40.”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on August 20, 2019, on page 12.

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