Crossing borders: Artists of the Syrian-Lebanese diaspora
Find out more about the major Middle Eastern artists whose works have been generously donated to the special Syri-Arts Auction at Christie’s on 7 March
Born in Beirut, Lebanon, in 1925, Etel Adnan moved to the United States in 1955, after studying philosophy at the Sorbonne in Paris. In the US Adnan attended the University of California, Berkeley and Harvard, and went on to teach courses in the philosophy of art and aesthetics in California. Settling in Sausalito, Adnan began to make paintings at the age of 34 — prompted, in part, by her decision to stop writing in French in the aftermath of the Algerian War (1954-62).
‘Painting just happened,’ Adnan would explain. ‘I didn’t know I would become a painter; I didn’t go to art school. When I was teaching the philosophy of art I had access to artists and materials, so I began to paint, and people I trusted liked what I did.’
Adnan paints in oil, using a palette knife to apply the paint onto canvas laid flat on a table. This technique results in blocky geometric shapes in compositions that recall the harmonising landscapes of Nicolas de Staël. Her recent paintings, mainly depicting brightly coloured landscapes distilled into simplistic, pared-down shapes like Untitled (shown above), are painted from memory and recall the artist’s childhood in Beirut and her life in California.
In 2016, Adnan was the subject of a major solo exhibition, The Weight of the World, at the Serpentine Galleries — the first solo exhibition of her work in a UK public institution. ‘Her work is the opposite of cynicism,’ curator Hans-Ulrich Obrist observed. ‘It is pure oxygen in a world full of wars.’
Born in Damascus, sculptor Simone Fattal studied philosophy at the Ecole des Lettres in Beirut and at the Sorbonne in Paris. From 1969 she lived and worked in Beirut as a painter. In 1980, fleeing the Lebanese Civil War which raged from 1975 to 1990, she settled in California and founded the Post-Apollo Press, a publishing house dedicated to innovative and experimental literary work. She returned to artistic practice in 1988, enrolling in a ceramics course at the Art Institute of San Francisco.
Today Fattal lives and works in France with her partner, Etel Adnan (above), producing ceramics in a workshop in Grasse. Her art, which comprises painting, sculpture, collage and writing, often references her Syrian childhood, her life in Beirut, and her time in California and Paris.
Fattal is fascinated by archaeology: specifically the act of digging into the earth and revealing objects and traces of past civilisations. Accordingly, much of her sculpture references ancient archaeological forms. Fattal’s work is shown internationally; she was recently the subject of a solo exhibition at the Galerie Balice Hertling in Paris.
Charming the art world with her distinctive avant-garde style and outspoken character, Huguette Caland is arguably today’s most influential Lebanese contemporary feminist artist. Caland was born in 1931 in Beirut, the only daughter of Bechara El Khoury, Lebanon’s first president following the country’s independence from France in 1943.
She gained fame for her overtly sensual 1973 series Bribes de Corps: large, exuberant and semi-abstract paintings that challenged the dominant patriarchal attitudes of Lebanese society. Caland sought inspiration from leading Western female artists such as Georgia O’Keeffe and Niki de Saint Phalle.
In 1970, Caland moved to Paris, where she later designed a line of provocative haute couture kaftans for the fashion designer Pierre Cardin. Currently, she lives and works in Los Angeles.
The Centre Pompidou recently acquired three of Caland’s works, including a Bribes de Corps from 1973; 23 of Caland’s works were shown in the Arsenale at Venice Biennale in 2017.
Born in Lebanon in 1926, Shafic Abboud studied at the Académie Libanaise des Beaux-Arts before moving to Paris in 1947. Although he would spend most of his life in France, he is considered one of the most influential Lebanese artists of the 20th and 21st centuries.
In Paris, Abboud was influenced by the works of Pierre Bonnard, Roger Bissière and Nicolas de Staël, and began to shift from a Lebanese tradition of figurative and landscape painting to colourful abstraction. In Abboud's work, it is not the suggested narrative which draws our attention, but rather the rich textures and pigments of his canvases.
Abboud’s work has been widely recognised. He was part of Sajjil: A Century of Modern Art, the inaugural exhibition of Doha’s Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art in 2010. In 2011, the Paris-based Institut du Monde Arabe made him the subject of a retrospective; another comprehensive exhibition was held in 2012 at the Beirut Exhibition Center.
Mona Hatoum was born in Beirut in 1952; her family, originally from Palestine, had left their homeland just four years earlier. At the age of 23, Hatoum left Lebanon for what was meant to be a quick trip to London. During her stay, civil war erupted in Lebanon, stranding Hatoum in the UK. This forced displacement soon became voluntary, and she remained abroad for many years.
In a body of work that spans installation, sculpture, video and photography, Hatoum takes up questions of exile, exploring her sense that she has never truly belonged to the places she has called home. Her pieces reflect her ongoing search for identity in a world of impermanence, fragility and conflict.
Hatoum first became known in the early 1980s for her performance and video works, for which she repeatedly subjected her body to various physical ordeals — often interpreted as an examination of a life impacted by war. When Hatoum began making sculpture, a focus on the physical vulnerability of the human body continued to permeate her work. although she insists her art allows for a range of interpretations: ‘I find it more exciting when a work reverberates with several meanings and paradoxes and contradictions,’ she has said.
Born in Beirut in 1949, Nabil Nahas spent the first 10 years of his life in Cairo before moving to the United States in 1968. While he has never had a defined style — he has employed a series of different styles and techniques, including Impressionism, Pointillism and abstraction — Nahas’s work draws mainly from nature and the abstract motifs of early Middle Eastern geometry.
Considered one of Lebanon’s most significant interactive artists, Nahas has been the subject of several solo shows in New York, Beirut and Doha. He has also participated in numerous group shows, including the Venice and São Paolo Bienniales. His work is held in the collections of The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. His pieces have also entered many private collections in the Middle East.
This young abstract painter was born in Belgium to Syrian parents. In creating her paintings, Atassi laboriously grids and masks her canvases with tape before applying oil and glycerol paint. She then adjusts the tape lines and repeats the process numerous times, building up layers of colour.
Still Life in Red Interior, above, exemplifies Atassi’s clean, direct and efficient style, reflecting her fascination with modernist ideas about painting. She cites Fernard Léger as a strong influence; the red interior also evokes Henri Matisse’s The Red Studio. The uncompromising flatness of Atassi’s red paint creates an illusion of space and depth within the canvas.
More commonly known by his first name, Marwan Kassab Bashi is one of Syria’s most prominent modernist artists, and was instrumental to the internationalising of Arab contemporary art.
Born in Syria in 1934, he has lived in Germany since the mid 1950s when he completed studies at the College of Fine Arts in Berlin. Influenced early on by German Expressionism and later by the Abstract Expressionist movement, he broke free of these in the 1960s to develop a style more concerned with colour and texture over representation. Marwan’s work is deeply rooted in Sufi philosophy, emphasising the unity of heart, soul and spirit.
The Syrian war is now in its seventh year and has forced millions into exile. In neighbouring Lebanon, one out of every four people is a refugee. More than 500,000 Syrian refugee children suffer poverty and hunger. More than 250,000 of those children are out of school. Find out more about the work of the Friends of Kayany, which will receive proceeds from the Syri-Arts auction at Christie’s