Being Modern In Lebanon: Mouna Bassili Sehnaoui

Arie Amaya-Akkermans

Lebanese painter Mouna Bassili Sehnaoui questions what it means to be modern in the contemporary Middle East, whilst engaging with both the complex history of her homeland, and fluctuating notions of Lebanese identity. Her work manifests the complex relationship between nationhood and personal identity, particularly when fractured by conflict and war.

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Ain Mreissy (oil on canvas), 2002 I Courtesy the Artist

‘For me, it was obvious when I finished my art training that there was no point in painting in any other artists’ style. Obvious, too, that the road Western art had taken at that point offered isolation and boredom, as far as I was concerned. Why should only an elite understand a minimalist art work? Why should a cleaning woman in Bordeaux throw out an artwork she thought was just garbage left to get rid of?’
This is how Lebanese painter Mouna Bassili Sehnaoui begins to reveal, in the course of correspondences between February and March 2012, a great deal of information not only about her own work, but also about some of the crucial dilemmas in 20th century art and the ambiguous relationship of Lebanese painting to the Western canon.
The history of Lebanese painting reflects this ambiguity in terms of themes and works, ever since Daoud Corm set for Italy in 1870 to study under Roberto Bompiani. Under the influence and mentorship of European masters—but without established traditions or art schools at home—Lebanese painters were free to develop their own styles. To be sure, they were influenced by European trends, but these artists also remained aware that they simply could not fully embrace the Western perspective; during this period, at the climax of Modernity, European art was immersed in its own battles. The rise of photography and cinema had advanced a concern with either realism or abstraction. Filmmaker Maya Deren notes: ‘Is not the relative poverty of contemporary art at least partly due to the fact that, in taking realism (which is not at all the same as objectivity) as its ambition it has basically denied the existence of art and substituted science?’ (Maya Deren. ‘An Anagram of Ideas on Art, Form, Film,’ in Essential Deren: Collected Writings on Film by Maya Deren, ed. Bruce McPherson (Kingston, NY, 2005).
Lebanese artists in this period were busy with the cause of staging a Lebanese nation and giving certain shape to the Lebanese identity. During the Arab renaissance, or El-Nahda—roughly equivalent to Modernity—portraiture enjoyed certain popularity as did the reproduction of well-known works of European art. The emergence of Habib Srour and Khalil Saleeby in the 1920s, however, gave art its professional status and later, with the birth of a true artistic movement with painters like Yusuf Hoyek, César Gemayel, Omar Onsi, Mustafa Farroukh, and Saliba Douaihy, Lebanese painting acquired a certain European style.Yet far from the surrealism that was exploding the traditional modes of representation, Lebanese artists who left the old portrait tradition explore a late and timid impressionism in the treatment of landscapes and still lifes (Samir Kassir. Beirut (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 2011)).

In his book Dictionaire de la Peinture au Liban (Escalier, 1998), Michel Fani speaks about a certain tension between East and West in Lebanon, but cautions the reader about not taking at face value the history of art in Lebanon as simply the result of this tension. Lebanese art experienced Modernity less as a break with figurative art than as a quest for authenticity. Though a wide array of abstract styles were also found in Lebanon, figurative art predominated in broader lines.
Unfortunately, Fani’s book ends in the period before the Civil War and so does Edouard Lahoud’s L’art contemporain au Liban (Dar El Machreq, 1974). An art history in Lebanon in between the wars or in the post-war period has never been written, although Cesar Namour’s In Front of a Painting: Writings on Painting (Beirut, Fine Arts Publishing, 2003) and Kirsten Scheid’s Ph.D. dissertation ‘Painters, Picture-Makers, and Lebanon: Ambiguous Identities in an Uncertain State’ (Princeton, 2005) have filled a partial gap. Nevertheless, in a country with such diversity of styles, influences, and communities, it would be difficult to pin down systematically what the years of the war and its aftermath wrought in contemporary painting. The oeuvre of Mouna Bassili Sehnaoui is significant in all of these contexts—Western and Eastern, pre- and post-war, modern and traditional—because of how broadly her art is exposed to all of them, but still remains highly idiosyncratic.

The Artist

Born in Constantine Cavafy’s Alexandria before the Nasser era (she remarked in another letter from June 2012 that she used to take painting lessons a few doors away from Cavafy’s house), classically trained in art first at Silvio Bicci Art Academy, and later at the American University in Beirut, then at the University of Arizona in Tucson; she has lived since in Beirut. After being exposed to minimal and abstract art, Sehnaoui took a salutary pause and, for a while, headed the graphic arts department at the National Council of Tourism before the war. She took this time to question what was lacking in Western art, placing herself at a distance from the blind spots of this tradition.
In 2011, Sehnaoui remarked to art collector Taymour Grahne: ‘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 there 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 exploration to other fabulous Arab countries; Yemen, Oman, Jordan, Syria, Dubai and Abu Dhabi I realized what a rich and extraordinary treasure we have.’ (Taymour Grahne. ‘Mouna Bassili Sehnaoui’,

Mosque in the Desert (oil on canvas), 2011 I Courtesy the Artist

Certain features drawn from the culture of the Middle East are unique in Sehnaoui’s work: take Byzantine icons and Persian miniatures, for instance, but given a contemporary treatment, unlike the work of the painter Hrair Diarbekirian whose painting work is inspired by icons but treated in classical fashion. There’s also the history and mythology of Lebanon, the palm trees and mosques of Abu Dhabi, and the birds from ancient frescos and medieval Islamic art. While these subjects might seem commonplace, Sehnaoui’s particular technique of flat painting using soft and delicate pastel tones stands out. An intriguing influence on her work, seldom mentioned, is revealed when discussing her own iconography:
‘Walt Disney was, undeniably, one of the great artists of the 20th century. There is no doubt that his cartoons influenced the visual arts of the ‘40s and ‘50s generation. Soon people will forget and think that artists like Murakami or Jeff Koons were original. I wonder if Disney had his inspiration from the ancient Egyptian wall frescos and their almost kinetic illustrations of daily life. Would it be far-fetched to think that he may have seen Persian illustrations of the Shȃh- Nȃhmeh?’
From icons and cartoons Sehnaoui acquires a very particular understanding of space in which the almost mathematical architecture of the impressionist landscape is replaced for a freely expressed perspective, without breaking from the format of figurative painting.
In terms of effect, Sehnaoui’s questioning of the alienation of contemporary art takes on the democratization of art in the age of criticism: ‘Another desire: that my art should be understood by people in all walks of life.’ One is reminded of Sontag’s thesis that interpretation of art—as a profession and tradition—is the revenge of the intellect upon art: ‘In most modern instances, interpretation amounts to the philistine refusal to leave the work of art alone. Real art has the capacity to make us nervous. By reducing the work of art to its content and then interpreting that, one tames the work of art. Interpretation makes art manageable, conformable’ (Susan Sontag. ‘Against Interpretation’, in Against Interpretation and Other Essays (New York: Picador, 1961)). This typical modern gesture transforms the whole content and experience of art into its parts and, ultimately, into what is not visible. Maya Deren explains this best: ‘For the interaction of the parts so transforms them into function that there are no longer parts, but a simple, homogeneous whole which defies dissectional analysis and, in so sublimating the complex history of its development, seems an instantaneous miracle’ (Maya Deren, 2005).
While the seemingly modern, deconstructive attitude is promulgated religiously by art critics, the gesture is typically Platonic; the approach assumes that what is real and true in art is not what appears, but what is hidden and an ideal form. French philosopher Sarah Kofman has called this ‘the imposture of beauty,’ in which an essence is attributed to art in its striving for immortality that deprives it from truly aesthetic qualities. Since its inception, the modern era has done away with the experience of art itself.
In Mélancolie de l’art (Galilée, 1985), Sarah Kofman writes: ‘Writing on art—is that not an impossible task? What is art in general? Can we maintain the same discourse about what is called ‘representative’ art and about ‘modern art’? Moreover, can we speak unequivocally of music, architecture, sculpture, painting, poetry, painting, cinema, photography, etc? Is there one type of art that we might privilege and that might serve as a model, a paradigm? All these questions are based on a primary certainty, that there are works of art, and a hierarchical classification of the arts, which in turn presupposes that the initial ontological question has been resolved: what is art? A question that is itself replete with metaphysical presuppositions’ (Sarah Kofman. Selected Writings (Stanford, Stanford Univ. Press, 2007)).
The formulation expresses one of the crucial difficulties in contemporary art and aesthetics: Something seems to have gone very wrong with the concept of the beautiful since the beginning of the modern era, and in order to fix both the beautiful and the dislocated place of art in a secular society, the two have become merged, so that art and the beautiful are one and the same. As a consequence, art has become merely conceptual and philosophical while the beautiful has become redundant:
The ‘aestheticization’ of the concept of the beautiful began with the religious cult of the works of art and with the cultivation of ‘aesthetic taste’ in the service of this newly found quasi-religion. As a result, aestheticization expands—it encompasses the way of life, the emotional household. The ‘beautiful soul’ is no longer a simple and virtuous soul, but the soul of emotional over-refinement, receptivity, and good taste.
The concept of the beautiful paid a heavy price for having received a comfortable abode in the world of artworks: it became redundant. Beauty became just another work, an addendum, a synonym for perfection or ‘fitting form’ (Stimmigkeit by Adorno). The Moor did his service; the Moor can leave (Agnes Heller. Aesthetics and Modernity: Essays by Agnes Heller, (Lanham, MD, Lexington Books, 2010)).
In Sehnaoui’s work we find a double reading of art which is both conscious and unconscious, conceptual and material, fully restored: ‘In this sense my paintings are a meditation: they deal with actual and visual things, yet they always have them in some subconscious reminder of the awareness of unanswered questions’. The actuality of her work is expressed clearly in her sense of observation: ‘Artists are generally people who have an acute sense of observation and are extremely sensitive to situations, obvious and less obvious. We are affected by everything that goes on around us and within us. The colours, the emotions, the vibrations of the Middle East have always been like particles in my life blood.’
The difficulty inherent in her work for the task of the critic lies precisely in that it is not only readily available to any viewer—regardless of artistic and critical training—but at the same time is also embedded in a series of critical and conceptual procedures that cannot simply be dismissed as traditional or merely craftsmanship:
There is no double without devouring, without cutting into what, without it, might have passed for a full, self-sufficient presence. The double makes the original differ from itself; it disfigures the original, calls up and disturbs what, without it, might simply be identified, named, classed in this or that determinate category. Art is not a matter of some ‘shadow world’ that could be opposed, in any simple sense, to the real world of the living. Art upsets the opposition between these two worlds, causes each to slip into the other (Sarah Kofman, 2007).

To Be or Not to Be (gouache on paper), 2010 I Courtesy the artist

O Lebanon

Any discussion of a contemporary Lebanese painter would be incomplete without considering the Civil War. Al-Hawadeth (the events) refers not so much to a war between ‘each other’, but rather of others on Lebanese soil.’ (Esther Charlesworth. Architects Without Frontiers: War, Reconstruction, Design and Responsibility (Maryland Heights, MO: Elsevier, 2006)). Samir Kassir (2011) notes that at the start of the war in 1975, the Lebanese used Al-Hawadeth in the spring and the word ‘war’ began to be used in the fall that same year) Says Sehnaoui:
‘True, we live an area of constant turbulence, nothing new, although it seems to be happening all at once, all over, at the moment. For us Lebanese … something of déjà vu or rather déjà lived. Were we aware over the terrible years of war, which I refuse to refer to as Civil War, that this state of affairs would go on for so long? No. I don’t think we could have survived if we knew how long it would last.’
In an unusual gesture to many Lebanese artists who are trapped in either the memory or denial of the war, war paintings are only one aspect of her work. Rather, she insists on the point of showing happier and more positive sides of life inspired by the Middle East, its history and traditions: ‘I still do paintings that reflect my feelings about what goes on politically. However, I rarely show these works or want to sell them. I only sold two of these paintings and regretted it and tried unsuccessfully to buy them back’. Early in the 1970s for example, she drew a party in Beirut with women sipping drinks and a gunman hidden in the bushes, a token to the sense of foreboding chaos that she felt. Overall, Sehnaoui remains optimistic; her work is the clearest manifestation of her feelings about the region:
‘For me the Middle East is life: Vibrant and pulsating, stupid and loving, cunning and wise, kind and cruel, simple and mysterious. A place where cold mathematics could be proved wrong, a place where God and the Gods have chosen to appear. Life has the power to overcome when coupled with love.’ Entirely comfortable with her multicultural heritage—Egyptian, Lebanese, Western—she beams: ‘I feel privileged to have a foot in each culture; it is not a handicap as far as I am concerned. I don’t think that my multicultural background has been a handicap in the long term. Thanks to this dual heritage I believe I have found my home.’
The complexity of the colors, streams, and influences that convene in Sehnaoui’s work reminds one of what Amin Maalouf writes in Les Identités Meurtrières (Grasset, 1998): ‘The identity of a person is not the juxtaposition of autonomous belongings, it is not a mosaic: It is a drawing on tense skin; it suffices to touch only one of those belongings to make the entire person shake’ (Amin Maalouf. Les Identités Meurtrières (Paris: Grasset, 1998)). Sehnaoui’s uniquely Lebanese art is traditional and contemporary, colorful and melancholic, Persian, Byzantine, Arab, Western, and all of these belongings—for want of a better metaphor—are both hers and the world’s. The undeniable resilience in her work is succinctly expressed in the last stanza of her 1993 poem ‘One More Painting’:
Life to go on a while longer.

One more day, one more color,

One more painting.

After Two Months (installation), 2008 I Courtesy the artist

By Arie Amaya-Akkermans
Originally published in The Mantle – A Forum for Progressive Critique.

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