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3 Middle Eastern Women Who Inspired Generations
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3 Middle Eastern Women Who Inspired Generations

Picture of By Mai Ardia
Updated: 6 October 2016
With an historically patriarchal art scene, female artists have always struggled to achieve recognition in the Middle East. Despite this however, the region boasts a rich contingent of female artists that have contributed to the growth, development and evolution of the cultural landscape. We profile three of the most influential female artists in the Middle East, each of whom have inspired generations and left a considerable mark on the international art scene.
Mona Hatoum, "A Body of Work",2013, exhibition view at Galleria Continua/San Gimignano | Photo: Ela Bialkowska, OKNO STUDIO, Courtesy Galleria Continua San Gimignano/Beijing/Les Moulins
Mona Hatoum, “A Body of Work”,2013, exhibition view at Galleria Continua/San Gimignano | Photo: Ela Bialkowska, OKNO STUDIO, Courtesy Galleria Continua San Gimignano/Beijing/Les Moulins

Mona Hatoum

Mona Hatoum is a British artist of Palestinian origin, having studied at Beirut University College, Byam Shaw School of Art and Slade School of Art in London.

From the 1980s, Hatoum embraced a visceral performance and video art practice that focused on the corporeal, gradually moving towards large site-specific installations in the 1990s. In 1995, she was nominated for the prestigious Turner Prize and in 2008 was awarded the Rolf Schock Prize for her artistic prowess.

Hatoum transforms ostensibly mundane, familiar objects and banal tools – such as kitchen utensils and other domestic objects – into threatening and dangerous representations of modern society. Her installations aim to destabilize the viewer’s perception of reality, engaging the audience by eliciting conflicting emotions – typically, desire versus revulsion and fear versus fascination.

The human body is rendered deformed and superficially unfamiliar, yet remains strangely recognizable viscerally. Such is the case with Corps étranger (1994) and Deep Throat (1999), in which the artist reveals the interior landscape of her own body through an endoscopic journey. Some of her pieces, such as Homebound (2000) and Sous Tension (1999), feature domestic furniture with electric wires audibly whizzing in the background, an almost humorous combination of detached surrealism with underlying suggestions of impending doom. In smaller works, like Traffic (2004) and Twins (2006), she covers salvaged materials with objects that evoke her own personal sense of nostalgia, connecting viewer to artist on a more intimate, emotional level.

In her 2009 installation Impenetrable, in the Solomon R. Guggenheim, Hatoum used steel and nylon monofilaments to create an ethereal installation that appears to be floating in mid-air. On closer inspection, the work reveals its true nature, becoming menacing across each of its individual elements: barbed wire rods dangle from fishing wire arranged within the perfect, austere geometric form of a cube, evoking the architectural structures of prisons, cells, and fences. Although there is a glimpse of light suspended in the void, this installation provokes intense emotions of oppression, fear and claustrophobia. Referencing violence, conflict and the problems of enforcing official authority, this is an example of Hatoum’s work that draws from her experience as a Palestinian exile.

Photo Courtesy of Haines Gallery
Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian, at Monir Farmanfarmain 2004-2013 opening at The Third Line, March 2013 | Courtesy of the artist and The Third Line

Monir Farmanfarmaian

Monir Farmanfarmaian is undoubtedly one of Iran’s foremost female artists. Having spent most of her life moving between her native Iran and the United States, the impact of her five-decade artistic career has been globally significant. Farmanfarmaian’s practice utilizes traditional Middle Eastern tight geometric patterns and cut-glass mosaic techniques whilst simultaneously incorporating Western modernist abstraction.

Farmanfarmaian was educated at the Faculty of Fine Art in Tehran, the Parsons School of Design in New York and Cornell University. Whilst in New York, she was part of the avant-garde art scene and associated with artists such as Andy Warhol – with whom she collaborated on various occasions – Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Barnett Newman and Joan Mitchell.

Upon returning to Iran in the 1950s, Farmanfarmaian began experimenting with reverse-glass painting and mirror mosaic, figuring these techniques with regard to Sufi symbolism and expressionism. Farmanfarmaian’s fascination and later reinterpretation of the traditional mirror mosaic derives from observing the decorations that have adorned Iranian shrines and palaces since the 16th century. As she herself explains, ‘around 1971, I went to a certain shrine [in Iran] and I became very awed with the way the mirror pieces were reflecting back images of the people there – the beggars, the holy men. It was so beautiful, so magnificent. I was crying like a baby.’Unfortunately, during the Islamic Revolution,which concluded in 1979, most of her works were confiscated, sold or destroyed.

Farmanfarmaian fled to New York in the midst of the revolution and only returned to Tehran in 2004, where she still lives today. Before leaving New York, she donated a work, entitled Luminous Desert, to the Columbia University’s School of Law in honor of her husband, a doctoral alumni of the school.

Having been recently acquired by the Metropolitan Museum of Art (MET) in New York, Flight of the Dolphin (2010) is an ideal example of Farmanfarmaian’s combination of traditional techniques infused with Western modernism. The dizzying, kaleidoscopic surface compiled of minuscule mirror fragments almost moves before the viewer, creating an optical illusion of three-dimensional confusion on a two-dimensional plane.

Her work has been exhibited in important institutions and has stood in pride of place place at significant events worldwide, including the Venice Biennale and Sharjah Biennial, MoMA, the Solomon R. Guggenheim in New York and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London amongst others.

Saloua Raouda Choucair

Saloua Raouda Choucair is a multidisciplinary artist and a pioneer of abstraction in the Middle East. She has worked in almost every medium, from painting and drawing to experimental sculpture, architecture, textiles and jewelry.

She was influenced by a diverse range of interests, including mathematics, science, poetry and Islamic art, all of which have contributed to the fresh and unusual flair Choucair has brought into her own artistry.

Professionally active since the 1940s, Choucair didn’t sell a work in Lebanon until the 1960s. Her practice weaves traditional Islamic artistic practices with western strands of modernism and postmodernism, adapting various materials and reinterpreting Islamic design techniques.

Choucair started painting in the studios of the Lebanese artists Moustafa Farroukh and Omar Onsi and in 1948, she moved to Paris to study under the guidance of Fernand Léger. Whilst in France, she discovered herself to be something of a rarity as an independent Arabic female artist, one of the first in fact, to exhibit at the Salon des Réalités Nouvelles in 1950.

Choucair began to concentrate on honing her ability as a sculptor from the early 1960s and in 1963, she was awarded the National Council of Tourism Prize for a public sculpture in Beirut. She became renowned for the particular use of materials in her sculptures, composing from various elements that could be either assembled together or separated, like the verses of a traditional Arabic poem.

Both science and Sufi philosophy contributed significant inspiration to Choucair, resulting in artistic forms that offered almost infinite points of interaction – between the various elements of themselves and between themselves and their surroundings. In 2013, Tate Modern held the artist’s first international retrospective, with more than 100 works on display, from her earliest paintings to her iconic sculptural artworks. In a review of the exhibition, critic Adrian Searle states that ‘she has made sculptures that can be stacked like bricks or vertebrae, box-like forms whose various parts can be rearranged in new configurations […], forms in polished brass that click together to make columns, sculptures whose parts cleave sexily and jostle aggressively. You can lose yourself among the planes and voids of these interlocking modular sculptures, which recall utopian modernist architecture’.