BEIRUT — When I ask Mounira al-Solh about a painting in The Mother of David and Goliath, her current exhibition at Beirut’s Sfeir-Semler Gallery, I can almost hear her wrinkling her brow over the phone. “It’s complicated — how to talk about it?” says the Lebanese artist. “Because when I paint, I take the chance to read a lot and things come out impulsively, but the research is very strong usually. And then it evaporates once the painting is there.”
The multilayered narratives of al-Solh’s work glimmer through its often sketch-like surfaces and dashed-off quality, even if the viewer understands little or nothing of the works’s allusions or the ideas that inform it. Her loose style is founded on a bedrock of deep thought and broad curiosity, and frequently combines images and text in pursuit of an idea.
The painting I asked al-Solh about is a large-scale canvas, its background washed in warm red and yellow ochre. Two women are visible in the background, one partially obscured. In the foreground is a jar of what look like makdous, a Levantine preserve made of pickled, stuffed baby eggplants. In this case, each indigo oval contains a roughly rendered fetus accented by crimson-violet paint that recalls blood. The painting is eerie and evocative. It is also electrically narrative, although the particulars of the story evade viewers. “It contains many things at the same time,” al-Solh says with a laugh. “It’s hard to talk about because sometimes it’s better to keep it open.”
One starting point, she tells me, is a mother’s sensation of guilt, and its elucidation by Egyptian poet Iman Mersal. In eggplant season, al-Solh’s family used to receive makdous from their Damascene relatives (her mother is Syrian). And at the same time, she says, “every makdous can be stuffed with a bomb.” Here, the jar becomes a container of embryos. It is “a place to think of motherhood and how to feel not guilty when you become a mother.”
Opposite this painting, a row of plastic bottles lines up along the windowsill. Light refracts through the water they contain, which is from sites across Lebanon. Look closely and you’ll see text, magnified by the water. It is taken from an Arabic lexicon of a Persian grammatician, Al-Thaalibi, that parses the differing levels of thirst codified in the language, from regular thirst to the thirst that makes you die.
The concept for this installation partly emerged from memories about water shortages during the Lebanese Civil War. Following advice from a doctor, the al-Solhs would try to sterilize their hard-won water in the sun. But the work also pays homage to the people who are still following this practice in war-torn Syria and in Lebanon, whose sea and rivers are devastatingly polluted. “It’s impossible to be in Beirut and not reflect on those things,” al-Solh explains. Environmental degradation, she notes, “is our quotidian — it’s what we’re suffering from, lately.”
The works in The Mother of David and Goliath are bound together by environmental, political, and feminist concerns. A new painting series, which includes the title work, is informed by stories of women detained across the Arab world, and by al-Solh’s interpretations of works by women writers from the region (some of whom are heard over speakers reciting their works). “All of them are trying to fight in a way for women’s rights, but at the same time there’s something personal, something ironical in them all,” the artist states.
Narratives about Arab women, Muslim women, or women in the MENA region are often oversimplified. Al-Solh, who splits her time between Lebanon and the Netherlands, is especially aware of this, and her art resists such homogenizing impulses in its specificity, and its rejection of expected characters or sensationalized accounts that proliferate in the media.
In “Mina El Shourouk ila Al Fahmah” (2019), two elaborately embroidered tents, based loosely on Persian tents, become repositories for otherwise overlooked stories. Each contains five narrative medallions — four of which offer everyday, unremarkable stories of harassment, abuse, discrimination, or the firmly held agency of women the artist knows, while the fifth offers an oft-overlooked narrative of remarkable female empowerment from Islamic history.
The tents are delicately embroidered with Arabic words for the day’s hours, as well as botanical motifs, anatomical representations of the female reproductive system, and creatures from the natural world. Al-Solh has been interested in tents since making “Sperveri” (2017), a bed-tent memoriam to the deceased loved ones of those displaced by conflict in the region. The new tents were inspired by the antiquated notion that the number of tents one owned signified the amount of power one held. “I wanted to put in [the tent] not the powerful but the people who are trying their best to gain that power, or to defy the power that is written against them,” she asserts. “A tent also became, for me, like a library — like a little reading room, where you can read those stories and save them from being forgotten.”
One story is from al-Solh’s mother. Her family is at the center of “À la Santé des Alliés” (2019), a video that the artist has been working on since 2004, in which she recounts the story of her paternal and maternal grandmothers — the former Lebanese, the latter Syrian — finding points of similarity. In doing so, she examines political and cultural upheavals in the Levant over the past 70 years, refracted through personal experience.
The fragmented narrative is divided into chapters, introduced with phrases like, “This work could have been titled,” “And a few more titles,” and “This work could have also started like this.” This sense of hesitancy, along with the sharp swings between charming family lore and the vagaries of history, hint at the difficulty of constructing coherent narratives.
Part of al-Solh’s motivation, she states, is about “connecting what’s missing.” In Lebanon, where she was born in 1978, few historical archives are maintained and nothing is taught in schools about the civil war. People of al-Solh’s grandparents’ generation are dying out. She relates, “it’s very important to share, but there’s very little shared.”
Most of the works in her current exhibition grew out of her series I strongly believe in our right to be frivolous (2012-ongoing), sketches documenting the artist’s interviews with displaced people in Beirut and Amsterdam. On paper from yellow legal pads, these rough impressions, surrounded by scrawled text — dialogue from the subject’s interview — humanize and personalize the refugee crisis.
The title, taken from a Mahmoud Darwish poem, evinces the reality that refugees are not only displaced people, but people with histories and aspirations that intersect with the refugee crisis but are not synonymous with it. This series led to embroidered portraits in which stitching traces the pencil lines. In this latter series, My specialty was to make a peasants’ haircut, but they obliged me work till midnight often (2018), the intricate, stereotypically feminine art form, done by skilled Druze women whom the artist met in the Lebanese mountains, is infused with a sense of urgency.
A tangible sense of process, of an agile mind in motion, is evident throughout The Mother of David and Goliath. Al-Solh’s artworks are all “sketching ideas and concepts and thoughts. They’re not just made to make a beautiful painting.”
The Mother of David and Goliath continues at Sfeir-Semler Gallery (Tannous Building, Quarantine, Lb-2077, 7209 Beirut, Lebanon) through August 10.