Mounira Al Solh at Artes Mundi 10: “We Had Hope in Change”

Lebanese artist, Mounira Al Solh grew up in the midst of intense conflict. A child of Beirut, born in the context of a protracted Lebanese Civil War (1975-90), daily struggles and quotidian joys alike were set constantly against a backdrop of violence and destruction with intermittent, tense, and all-too-rare periods of ceasefire making space for everyday life. 

As an adult, Mounira has found a sense of balance after trauma and relocation through art. Treading adroitly on the sometimes fine line between opposing forces – the personal and political, the private and the public, war and truce (if not peace), love and loss, and so forth – she manages to illuminate the spaces between such lines, areas that are anything but gray. 

One of an impressive group of contemporary international artists whose work was selected for exhibition by Artes Mundi, Mounira is the 2024 recipient of the Derek Williams Trust Artes Mundi Purchase Prize. I was fortunate, after arriving in Cardiff in late February, to view her work (and that of Alia Farid and Rushdi Anwar) at the National Museum of Wales (Cardiff). 

Based in Cardiff (Wales) and founded in 2002, Artes Mundi (which means “arts of the world”) hosts a prestigious biennial exhibition. The organization is committed foremost to supporting contemporary visual artists from around the globe, spotlighting work that centers urgent social issues and lived experiences while  fostering dialogue between artists and diverse audiences. 

For its 10th run, Artes Mundi (in partnership with the Bagri Foundation) presented the work of seven artists, including Mounira. Between October 20, 2023 and February 25, 2024, the solo projects of the selected artists were displayed at five different venues in Wales. 

As an adult, Mounira has found a sense of balance after trauma and relocation through art.

Mounira’s multimedia works including large-format paintings, small framed portrait drawings, embroidered pieces, fabric banners, a tent-like structure, and assorted other objects that rounded out her extensive contributions to the powerful exhibition.

In the main gallery, a series of 20 or so small, colorful portraits, displayed as a horizontal frieze, stretched from the front of the space to the rear, forming a kind of narrative trail to the stairway leading to a more intimate space above. 

The small portrait drawings pick up an earlier series titled, I Strongly Believe In Our Right to Be Frivolous (2012 – ). Mounira began producing the portraits during the Syrian Revolution in 2011, when, she explained in an interview with Art Review, the war “became bloody and dangerous for the people, and they started to escape Syria.” At the time, she said, “we had hope in change,” a positivity that she attempted to document via the portraits. 

Mounira met Syrian refugees who had fled to the Netherlands, where she lives as an expat, and invited several of them to visit her in her studio. They would chat informally over coffee, and, after becoming more comfortable, relate their always-harrowing stories. She took those accounts and transformed them into affectionate portraits on lined, yellow legal pads as though she was producing, in contrasting sobriety, an official record of each face, each life. 

While the sitters spoke of war and loss, they also talked about, says the artist, “love, drinking, and other things.” These portraits feel like corrections, like anti-IDs. Anyone who has nervously presented a passport to a frowning official might empathize with these images, which seem to peer beneath the surface of each face, providing validation of the humanity of the holder. Witty and whimsical, they are Mounira’s attempts to correct the gross power imbalance inherent in potentially devastating exchanges at borders. 

Click image to enlarge.

In addition to the small portraits, on the opposing wall, six larger, oil-on-canvas paintings were displayed. The paintings, collectively titled, The Mother of David and Goliath (2019-2020), were inspired by both fictional and real-life stories of and by women, including imprisoned women, all writing of their suffering – but not only. 

For Mounira, the paintings are wildly multivalent: indictments of the patriarchy, frank examinations of the roles women have played in their own oppression – particularly in their mistreatment of one another, explorations of the many, reductive stereotypes of Arab women, and more. Cruelty and sensuality often compete in these pictures, which mock orientalizing images with a sort of expressionistic abandon. Colorful and unrestrained, these tableaux offset rather dramatically the refined needlework and calligraphy seen with other objects in the exhibition.

In the center of the gallery, a half circle of seven blue banners form a protective perimeter around one side of a tent-like structure that Mounira described as “a sort of flying dish, that can become a boat or a spaceship perhaps.” The “tent” consists of a simple wooden frame over which embroidered fabric was stretched. The embroidery was an international, collaborative project that included women from the artist’s family and members of the local refugee communities in the Netherlands.  

“The patterns that you see on the tent,” explained Mounira, “connect the piece to mythological stories.” Additionally, representations of flora and fauna she remembered from her childhood in Beirut complete the decoration of this self-contained world of memory, solidarity, and powerful femininity.

The tent and the half-moon of banners recount a decades-long tale of love between a woman Mounira has known since her youth and a soldier fighting in the Lebanese Civil War. Written in both Arabic and English, the artist silk screened the words onto white fabric and attached each panel to the outward-facing (from the tent) sides of the blue banners. 

The protagonist of this story is a nurse in Lebanon during the civil war. She meets and cares for a wounded, young soldier. In the midst of the war, the nurse and the soldier fall in love, concealing their involvement from others. Eventually, they flee together to a mountain village where they are accepted by the villagers – her people. Already married to an abusive husband and the mother of young children, the nurse is forced to leave her children behind temporarily. Later, she divorces her husband, reunites with her children, marries her true love, and lives far into old age. 

War is woven into their love story. Or, perhaps, it is love that is woven into the war story? In the context of a brutal, seemingly unending war in which neighbor is pitted against neighbor, love does not blossom as some kind of miraculous phenomenon or as part of the natural order of things; rather, it just happens, it just is. And so is death. And motherhood. And everything else.

The written narrative must be read, as with Arabic, from right to left. It flows across one banner after another in delicate, elegant text. Music from the “Oasis One World Choir” resonates softly through the gallery, almost subliminally, in multiple languages including Arabic, Swahili, and Welsh. 

The objects in Mounira’s installation all tell vivid stories.

Beyond the first gallery, in the hallways and other “between spaces in the museum,” as Mounira put it, small embroidered works display “the words of love which Lebanese singer Rima Khcheich uttered in the tent as part of the singing piece.” Like a double incantation, the music and the love story transform the tent into a sacred, protected space.

Once past the main gallery and up the stairs, viewers are invited to enter a more intimate area, like the private sleeping chamber of a home. There, a bench and a cushion on the floor along with pillows invite visitors to rest and contemplate under, explained Mounira, “a pink floating and suspended sheet, a typical ‘newly married couple sheet.’” 

The reading material offered in this quiet space is a single issue of Not Only Arabic (NOA) magazine, a publication she produced and named for its “critical stance towards Arabic language” and its assertion that “the Arab world” should “recognize many more minorities and communities’ language.” This particular issue was devoted to the empowerment of women during the Arab Spring in 2010.

It seems appropriate that Mounira’s complex, multimedia installation culminates in a moment of quiet contemplation in a symbolic, liminal space – a kind of neutral zone that feels less like a museum and more like a lounge or waiting room: the mood beneath the pink canopy is quietly anticipatory.  

The objects in Mounira’s installation all tell vivid stories, oscillating between intimate specificity and collective if not universal truths. You don’t leave with answers or clarity but you do depart feeling connected to a larger community of people who want to be able to tell their stories above the din of war and conflict and across borders and disparate experiences until there is peace.

Mounira has exhibited internationally in the USA, Germany, UK, Japan, and Dubai. She is represented by Sfeir-Semler Gallery Hamburg/Beirut and Zeno X Gallery, Antwerp.

© Debra Thimmesch (3/24/24) – Special for FF2 Media ®

LEARN MORE/DO MORE

Visit Mounira Al Solh’s artist website.

Learn more about Mounira Al Solh’s work at Sfeir-Semler Gallery and at Zeno X Gallery.

Check out issues of the Not Only Arabic magazine.

Learn more about the Oasis One World Choir.

Read the Artes Mundi 10 Questionnaire with Mounira Al Solh from Art Review.

Learn more about the Artes Mundi exhibit at the National Museum of Wales in Cardiff.

Continue reading about Artes Mundi 10 here.

Support Asian arts and culture through the Bagri Foundation.

CREDITS & PERMISSIONS

Featured Photo: A night hour, as long as night (2023)

Middle & Bottom Photos: in love in blood (2019-ongoing)

All photos taken by Debra Thimmesch for FF2 Media (2/23/24). Authorized for responsible use as long as user includes link to THIS post in photo credits.

Tags: Arabic, Artes Mundi, Bagri Foundation, Cardiff, Debra Thimmesch, England, exhibit, Lebanon, Mounira Al Solh, multimedia, National Museum of Wales, refugees, Rima Khcheich, Syria, The Mother of David and Goliath

Related Posts

by
Debra Thimmesch is an art historian and critic, activist, independent researcher and scholar, writer, editor, and visual artist. She mentors graduate students in art history and is attuned to current endeavors to radically rethink, decolonize, and reframe the study and pedagogy of art history. Her work has appeared in Art Papers, The Brooklyn Rail, and Blind Field Journal.
Previous Post Next Post