The Tate Modern is one of world’s most renowned institutions. The museum is a powerful force in the art world, often influencing the art market, and catapulting the careers of artists onto the global stage. I have deep respect for this institution, and by the fact that it is a truly global museum, which is evident with the current list of exhibitions, including: Sudanese Ibrahim El Salahi, Lebanese Saloua Raoudah Choucair, and Mashcac Gaba from Benin.
The fact that the Tate is showcasing 3 significant and groundbreaking shows on these artists highlights the museum’s commitment and dedication to exhibiting art from across the world, and to provide a much-needed platform for non euro-centric artists. It is line with the increasing attention the art world is giving the global south as of late, including the regions of Africa, the Middle East, and Central and South East Asia. I foresee more institutional focus on the global south, with the Tate taking the lead.
Saloua Raouda Choucair
17 April – 20 October 2013
I was deeply joyed to be able to see one of the Middle East’s finest artists finally get the recognition they deserve. It was also fascinating to be able to witness the first retrospective by an Arab artist to ever be held at the Tate. This is a significant and groundbreaking show, and is a high point for Middle Eastern art, highlighting the serious global interest in artists from the region. The Choucair retrospective was outstanding, and the exhibition features works from the 1940s-1980s, and includes both the artist’s paintings and her incredible sculptures.
Choucair, born in 1916, is a pioneer in the field of Abstract art in the Middle East. Although an incredibly talented artist, it took Choucair many decades for people in Lebanon to pay attention to her. Firstly, as a woman during the 20th century in Lebanon, it wasn’t considered ‘acceptable’ to be an artist- especially a sculptor! Secondly, people at that time in Beirut simply could not understand her work and the concepts and ideas behind it. It was only in the past few years that Choucair has been getting the attention she deserves, the Tate retrospective being the cherry on the cake.
Jessica Morgan, Daskalopoulos Curator, International Art at the Tate, and curator of the show, mentions that she came across Choucair’s work by complete chance. While on a visit to Saleh Barakat’s Agial Gallery in Beirut, she spotted one of Hala’s sculptures. Morgan was immediately intrigued. After enquiring further, Morgan decided to pay a visit to Hala at her apartment. She was surprised to see decades worth of work exhibited all over Choucair’s apartment. Jessica couldn’t believe that an artist of such high caliber had been overlooked by the international art world for so long. Morgan took the initiative to make the situation right, and ended up holding Choucair’s retrospective at the Tate. The Tate also bought several of Choucair’s works for their own collection.
The exhibition at the Tate is beautifully organized, showcasing and highlighting a variety of Choucair’s styles and works. Her works are deeply inspired by Islamic art and architecture, geometric patterns, and calligraphic scripts. According to the catalogue essay that accompanies the show, “Choucair was interested in using the two basic elements of Islamic design- the straight line and the curve- as a starting point to create simple shapes which she duplicated in various combinations and divisions across the picture plane.” Some of her sculptures look like architectural studies. A key component of her work is the flexibility of the sculptures, allowing one to change round parts of the sculpture, forming different configurations. She uses many mediums in her sculptures including stone, wood, metal, plastic and fiberglass.
Ibrahim El Salahi: A Visionary Modernist
3 July – 22 September 2013
Ibrahim El Salahi, a pioneering Sudanese artist who was born in 1930, also currently has an exhibition at the Tate. This is highly significant as Ibrahim is the first African artist to be given a retrospective at the Tate. This exhibition features more than 100 works, encompassing over 5 decades of El Salahi’s career. As written in the show’s catalogue, “His work draws from an imagination deeply rooted in the Islamic traditions of his homeland, which he fuses with an extraordinary mastery of the Western canon, a profound knowledge of African abstraction and an inventive representation of Arab calligraphy.”
El Salahi’ work references both African and Arab modernism. El Salahi was a founder of the Khartoum School, aimed at creating a distinct Sudanese aesthetic. His meticulous line drawings are highly impressive. El Salahi was educated at his father’s Quranic school, where he mastered calligraphy. He currently lives in Oxford, England.
Meschac Gaba: Museum of Contemporary African Art
3 July – 22 September 2013
The Tate also currently has a large exhibition by the Benin artist Meschac Gaba. The show, titled Museum of Contemporary African Art, features twelve different rooms, fusing art and daily life. The artist, who created this show over a period of five years (1997-2002), questions the nature of the idea of museums and how African art is perceived. The exhibition is highly interactive, allowing viewers to read books at the exhibition’s library, and eat at its restaurant.
After touring the 3 exhibitions, I decided to take a walk around some of the exhibition rooms housing some of the Tate’s permanent collection. It was very exciting to see 2 stunning works by Iranian artist Monir Farmanfarmaian.
Farmanfarmaian, who was born in Iran in 1924, is famous for her mirror mosaic works, which were inspired by her childhood in Qazvin, Iran. These mirror mosaics were at one point used to decorate interiors of Iranian homes. The origin of these mirror mosaics is very interesting: in the sixteenth century large mirrors were being shipped from Venice to Iran, but many of these shipments arrived with the mirrors broken into pieces. The Iranians didn’t want to throw away the precious pieces, so they put the fragments in plaster, and used for decoration.