Mouna Bassili Sehnaoui

I took the short trip from Beirut to the hilly district of Rabieh to visit Mouna Bassili Sehnaoui, as I have often done in the past. Mouna greets me outside her work studio, which is located on the ground floor of her house surrounded by pines, palm trees and gardenias. Mouna’s studio is adorned with her amazing paintings; she is equally at ease in gouache, oils or watercolors. Working in gouache is quite rare these days, and the medium provides a unique effect to Mouna’ work. 

I have taken this route several times over the past year, as I have begun collecting Mouna’s works. They greatly appeal to me both because of their beauty, and because of their meaning. Mouna is an extremely intelligent lady, who is very knowledgeable about Lebanon’s’ history and mythology. I spend hours with her discussing everything ranging from Lebanon, to art, to history. Mouna is able to converse easily in every subject we discuss. She is an ardent patriot who has helped Lebanon in many different ways through promoting the country to a global audience.

Mouna paints a variety of topics, all depending on the subject that she is currently focusing on. One of her more recent themes has been birds.

While visiting museums around the word that have had sections on Middle Eastern history she realized that birds appeared on many of the artworks. Traditionally birds have symbolized peace, freedom, and spiritual values. For the artist today birds represent the reality of our Global Village as Mouna writes in the forward to her book ”The Fifth Day” published by Dar An Nahar in 2008:

“In this day and age of instant communication birds with their inherent ability to cross all frontiers, like technology today allows us to do, remind us that communication also carries with it a high degree of responsibility. Today an injustice in one part of the world has repercussions at the opposite side of the globe, anything that happens in a far corner of the earth can also affect our lives…Today, we are more than ever before our brother’s keeper”

Inspired by these birds from the past she has painted a series of birds, some in gouache and some in oils. One of the oil paintings is of a bird crushing a human with its feet, which Mouna explains to me is reflective of the region’s dictators crushing their own peoples.

Lebanon’s history and cultural heritage have also had a large impact on Mouna’s work. She is very knowledgeable on Lebanese mythology and has done a series of lithographs based on Phoenician myths. She tells me of the many of her country’s mythological stories, including the story of Adonis and Astarte. Mouna explains that the white and red flowers in the Adonis valley are said to represent the tears of Astarte and the blood of Adonis.

Mouna’s surroundings often influence her work. Throughout the devastating years of the Lebanese War, Mouna painted scenes of the war, even before those tragic events commenced in 1975. Mouna’s work was reflective of foreboding chaos. One of these works that I couldn’t get out of my mind was a drawing (drawn in 1970) of a party on the outskirts of Beirut with two women sipping champagne and a gunman hiding in the bushes in the background. This sense of foreboding had struck Mouna in the early seventies. She drew the picture after her conversation with a foreign diplomat in which he stated that he couldn’t believe the Lebanese were going on about their parties and social events without a clue about what was festering in their country. He said the country was a ticking time bomb and the Lebanese were either unaware or too busy to be aware.  

Mouna recently came back from Abu Dhabi, a city that has inspired her current work. She now paints the Abu Dhabi palm trees, as well as the beautiful mosques found there. She has always been fascinated by the beauty of the various forms of Arabic calligraphy and had started to use Arabic calligraphy in various art forms way back in 1967.

She says with a smile: I don’t speak Arabic…I paint it!   

I love Mouna’s work, and have started my own collection of her paintings. Two works of hers that I bought were watercolors of the mythical Palmyra Hotel’s annex in Baalbek. The beautiful hotel, which was built in 1874 has an annex: a 19th century Lebanese house which retains its charm and historic nature up until this day. Mouna’s paintings are reflective of weekends she spends at the hotel. Another set I bought were entitled the ‘3 Divas’ and are three individual paintings of some of the world’s most iconic singers of the 20th century including. Um Kalthoum, Edith Piaf, and the beautiful and mysterious Lebanese singer Asmahan. The great depiction of the singers comes alongside some of their lyrics which Mouna wrote within each one’s paintings. Mouna says that she feels that words spoken or sung remain in suspension around us and also move out in waves to the end of the universe. 

Um Kalthoum:


Lebanese artist, born in Alexandria, Egypt. Attended the English Girls College there and started her art training after school hours at the Silvio Bicci Art Academy. Two years at the American University of Beirut then transfers to the University of Arizona, Tucson and obtains her B.F.A.

14 Personal Exhibitions include ones at the Beirut J.F.Kennedy Cultural Center (1973), Epreuve d’Artiste Gallery: Beirut, Nicole Belier Gallery: Paris, Al Thurath Al Araby: Saudi Arabia, Green Art Gallery: Dubai, Janine Rubeiz Gallery: Beirut, Gallery M: Paris.

She has taken part in many Group Exhibitions among them: Saga: Paris, Arte: Javits Center: New York, Platform International at Strassi Gallery: Washington, American University Museum Katzen Center: Washington. Art Multiple : Dusseldorf,  Liban Regards des Peintres: Institut du Monde Arabe, Lebanon: The Artist’s View: Barbicon Center, London, Salon d’Automne: Paris, Salon d’Automne: Beirut. Salon d’Automne du Cheval : Saumur, Art Multiple: Dusseldorf, St’art: Strasbourg.

Her work has won several Prizes and figures in the Museum of Prints, Alexandria; the Sursock Museum, Beirut; the Art Collection for the future Art Center of the American University of Beirut; the Bank Audi Art Collection as well as many private collections around the world.

Her style is influenced by a Middle Eastern cultural heritage as reflected in the flat treatment of colours in both Byzantine icons and Persian miniatures. The treatment of space is very personal and brings a new dimension to a figurative approach by the use of hieroglyphic –like symbols and “windows” that open to reveal an added aspect of the subject treated.

Bibliography: includes many publications and catalogues, a book “Professions and Callings” and “The Fifth Day “ both published by Dar An Nahar, Beirut.

Benezit 1999: Volume 1, p.842.

Ain Mreisy:

Bekaa in Summer:

I had a very formal art training (in an Italian Art Academy in Alexandria, Egypt) starting when I was eleven years old and later in the mid sixties in the USA, where I came in contact with minimal and abstract art. When I finished my art studies (are they ever finished?) I returned to my country, Lebanon, and took a salutary pause.

There was a feeling of emptiness… maybe it was what one calls today a “burn out” experience.

 I felt harrowed and decided to start afresh, to find the basic impulse of wanting to express myself.

My venture led me to flat painting using “quarter tones” and delicate colour combinations together with a precise sense of line inspired by both Byzantine icons and Persian miniatures. 

It was time to put distance between what I had studied along with the weight of centuries of

 Western art.

Where to go from there?

The answer came as I discovered Lebanon and the Middle East. My generation’s schooling had been axed on the Western world. The feeling of emptiness was replaced by excitement as I read about the legends, history and art that had been overlooked for so long, right here in this part of the world. Walking in the Lebanese hills and coming across abandoned Roman temples, themselves built over foundations carved into solid rock by the Phoenicians, then occupied by later civilizations; Greek, Roman, Byzantine and Arab, made me marvel.  As I extended my explorations to other fabulous Arab countries; Yemen, Oman, Jordan, Syria, Dubai and Abu Dhabi I realized what a rich and extraordinary treasure we have. I never miss the opportunity of visiting museums that have sections on Islamic Art or the Middle East (from there came my fascination with birds expressed in ancient art from in this part of the world, and the book The Fifth Day published by Dar EL Nahar).

Another desire, that my art should be understood by people in all walks of life: on a basic level of seeing something one can relate to and on a deeper level of interaction with the experience brought by the onlooker. I discovered Arabic calligraphy but as my reading skills in Arabic were limited

I felt that I could” paint” Arabic to compensate. Letters float about with great joy and add to my pictorial expression. 

Figurative painting is used in a way that expresses our lives in the past and the new century, we now live several time sequences simultaneously: I have my life and its actuality but at the same time I am aware of what goes on in Japan and elsewhere, my subject may be expressing some aspect of itself and then there are all the unspoken words, visual images and sentiments that are there hovering all around us.

 I paint them into my work.

 Perspective also takes on a more emotive scale: Like icons, importance is freely expressed in terms of size and not mathematical precision.

Mouna Bassili Sehnaoui

Bekaa Batikh Vendors Siesta 2011:

Surviving with Music:


Le monde est tragique et merveilleux. Nul ne l’ignore dans notre village médiatique global où le spectateur epsilon, ni bourreau ni victime, est réduit à la condition de voyeur zappeur ingurgitant  pêle-mêle sessions de tortures, défilés de mode, nettoyages ethniques, pèlerinages religieux, débauches nocturnes. Il  peut même, comble du voyeurisme, ouvrir simultanément plusieurs lucarnes,  petits écrans dans l’écran, sur des réalités fictives et des fictions réelles. C’est le règne du télescopage généralisé.

Mouna Bassili Sehnaoui, qui sait vivre sur maints registres à la fois, a toujours eu recours au télescopage des temps, des espaces, des perspectives, des proportions, des genres, des objets, des techniques, des couleurs, des idées, des signes, des notations, des écritures  pour conférer à ses œuvres, en apparence si simples, si sages et si directes, un sens plus complexe, une pluralité de dimensions, d’échappées hors de l’ici et du maintenant dans lesquels elle semble absorbée.

L’habitude de capter au vol, dans le cahier de croquis dont elle ne se sépare jamais, les moments privilégiés de son existence dédouble déjà son regard : un œil sur le vécu, un autre sur la perception proactive, le dessin du vécu. Cette distance avec

elle- même et avec le monde, qui aiguise la fine pointe de l’attention et stimule l’éveil d’une conscience à multiples facettes, est en soi un exercice spirituel. Tout comme la focalisation sur l’instant présent qui permet d’en savourer la quintessence, d’en cueillir la fleur, sans mémoire du passé, sans projets d’avenir, rien que la plénitude d’un moment de grâce, d’un instant de lumière.

Plénitude qui n’est parachevée que par son partage : jouissance participative, conviviale, par la capture, pour mieux les donner à goûter, des moments de paix, de sérénité, de rêverie, d’absorption, d’écoute, de contemplation où le soi et le monde s’accordent mystérieusement, se répondent dans une sorte d’harmonie préétablie.

Fixées sur le carnet, ces intensités vécues se métamorphosent, s’affranchissent de la stricte obédience réaliste pour devenir des variations sur un thème, telle la série sur le jazz où, en fin de compte, les musiciens s’éclipsent pour laisser place à l’ivresse des instruments saoulés par leurs propres sonorités, claviers qui s’envolent,

cordes qui vibrent par sympathie.

Instants lumineux arrachés à la destruction et à la mort, gemmes de vie sauvées du brasier de l’Histoire immédiate. Les noter envers et contre les atrocités de l’Histoire est une manière de résister, de ne pas se laisser emporter par son vent mauvais, de rester lucide face à l’innommable, de préserver sa part d’humanité.

Par leur graphisme noir minimaliste, sans pathos, presque solennel à force de stylisation, les six tableaux bleus oblongs de la série Calligraphie du troisième millénaire forment un contrepoint saisissant avec l’exubérance colorée des autres.  Mouna Bassili Sehnaoui crie à sa manière et avec ses moyens : «  C’est assez, assez d’attentats, de prises d’otages, de murs de haine, de maladies animales fabriquées de main d’homme, de bombardements d’innocents, de destruction de l’environnement, de manipulation du

 langage  et de l’information ».

 Sachant qu’elle crie dans le désert, elle revient à ses heures privilégiées pour révéler un secret à la fois simple et difficile : la grâce n’est ni dans le monde, ni dans les objets, ni dans l’art, ni dans la musique, ni dans un moment particulier, elle est dans notre capacité de nous ouvrir à eux, de transfigurer notre regard et notre sensibilité.  Et la lumière n’est pas hors de nous, elle est en nous, dans notre capacité d’illuminer les ténèbres extérieures au lieu d’en attendre l’illumination.

                                                                                                Joseph Tarrab


Une forme quasi héraldique*

…Modestie qui a dicté le format même des toiles carrées de Mouna Bassili Sehnaoui, 40 x 40 ou

50 x 50 cm, et le choix du médium.

Elle aurait pu choisir la facilité, l’acrylique. Elle a choisi le travail plus astreignant, plus exigeant de la peinture à l’huile, sans pour autant céder aux sollicitations de la matière. Sa démarche reprend, en plus elliptique, plus succinct, plus synthétique, l’allure de chaque spécimen. Elle élimine les accidents, le superflu, se concentre sur une forme quasi héraldique. Elle minimise le nombre des coups de pinceau nécessaires pour la délimiter et des couleurs posées en aplats, sans touches voyantes même si elles ne sont pas escamotées.

Parfois trois ou quatre couleurs suffisent.

Une couleur pour l’espace, une couleur pour le contour de l’oiseau centré, comme s’il s’agissait d’un portrait, une couleur pour la tête, le corps, les ailes, la queue.

Parfois, une seule couleur pour l’espace et l’oiseau et une autre pour le profil. Même quand elle les multiplie, comme dans la série Rainbow, les couleurs n’ont

droit qu’à la portion congrue, restant confinées sur les rubans, sans déborder. Tout est sobre, net, bidimensionnel, réduit à sa plus simple expression.

Quand elle joue sur des variations (Free Thinker et Breaking Loose), elle va vers les tonalités grises ou terreuses.

Même quand elle ajoute d’autres motifs, un cyprès, des aiguières, les oiseaux n’en tiennent pas comptent, ils s’y superposent sans complexe et sans effet de perspective. Seuls les derviches tourneurs ont droit à quelque chose comme un semblant de perspective et à un mouvement de la matière picturale. Leurs mains ont la forme d’oiseaux stylisés, puisque eux aussi relient, à leur façon, le ciel et la terre.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              Joseph Tarrab                                                                                         

  *Extrait du livre : Le Cinquième Jour: Entre Ciel et Terre

 Edité par Dar An Nahar, qui paraîtra au printemps 2008

 Abu Dhabi Sheikh Zayeb Mosque:



Keeping Going Triptych:  


Baraka in Red:


Birds over Baghdad:

Envole II:


Khalil Gibran’s Trees:

Malak Al Batikh:

Dialogue of Time and Civilization:

Surviving History: Byblos:


If interested in buying Mouna Sehnaoui’s work contact Epreuve d’artiste:

 For any other inquiries about Mouna’s work, contact Mouna directly at:

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1 Response to Mouna Bassili Sehnaoui

  1. Friedrich Ragette says:

    Dear Mouna,
    Wadad Cook reminded us of your presence in Beirut. I just enjoyed your website pictures. We’ll be in Lebanon from March 14 to 19th and would love to meet. We shall be even neighbors since staying chez Roula Yazbeck – now Ragette. A painting of yours is part of our “picture gallery” in Vienna.
    Till soon,
    Fritz and Lora Ragette

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