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Mounira al Solh: Continuity, collaboration and "peculiar personal narratives"

How does art help unravel the contradictions and complications of recollection? 

The work of Lebanese artist Mounira Al Solh deals with themes such as migration, identity and feminism, and engages with “unofficial” and oral history and memory. She is currently showing at documenta 14 in Athens, and her work was also part of the 56th Venice Biennale in 2015. This article was originally published on Art Radar (16 May 2017).

Mounira al Solh, A la sante des Allies, 2015, video still from Venice Biennale 2015. Image courtesy the artist and Sfeir Semler Gallery Beirut and Hamburg.

Al Solh’s art incorporates video, drawing, embroidery, sound and performance. Born in Beirut in 1978, she studied painting at the Lebanese University in Beirut, and Fine Arts at the Gerrit Rietveld Academy in Amsterdam. She lives and works between Beirut and Amsterdam. 

In 2008, Al Solh founded NOA (Not Only Arabic) magazine – simultaneously a publication and a performance that requires an appointment to be read. This was followed up by the NOA Language School she founded in 2013 with curator Angela Serino, which explored language in the context of immigration by bringing together immigrants in Amsterdam with artists, researchers and linguists. 

The artist’s work has been exhibited at the Venice Biennale, The New Museum (New York), Haus der Kunst (Munich), Sfeir Semler Gallery (Beirut), Manifesta 8 and the 11th Istanbul Biennial. In 2007, she won the Jury Prize at VideoBrasil for Rawane’s Song, and in 2015, she was one of the three shortlisted artists for the Abraaj Group Art Prize. She is currently showing an ongoing series of work at documenta 14 in Athens. 

Forced migration and frivolity 

At the Museum of Islamic Art (Benaki Museum) in Athens, a tent hangs from the ceiling as a symbol of refuge for those who have been forced to flee their countries. Covered in embroidery that borrows its motifs from ancient civilisations, Sperveri (2017) holds a number of narratives by displaced people that Al Solh met in Athens and Kassel, the two cities hosting documenta 14 this year. 

Also featured is the artist’s ongoing series of “time documents functioning as witnesses to the current Syrian crisis”. Entitled I Strongly Believe in our Right to be Frivolous (2012-ongoing), this is a series of portraits and scribbled conversations with migrants from Syria who took refuge in other countries. Al Solh is still following their journeys – hence the incompleteness of the project – and aims to continue until she has 1000 “witnesses”. Many of the works are drawn or written on yellow legal paper, symbolising the difficult road to gaining the legal status of citizenship in most countries. According to the artist’s website

Some portraits and the related narratives are being embroidered in collaboration with refugees and displaced women and men, thus creating groups that allow conversations and temporary jobs. 

Mounira al Solh, A la sante des Allies, 2015, video still from Venice Biennale 2015. Image courtesy the artist and Sfeir Semler Gallery Beirut and Hamburg.

“Wrong history” 

Delving into a painful past is never easy, but often necessary, especially when it has been painted over by layers of changing narratives. In the video work À la santé des alliés, Al Solh attempted to separate and connect the threads that make up memories and personal histories. Through the stories of her maternal and paternal grandparents, woven with humour, tenderness and fantastical elements, she approaches subjects like Syria and Lebanon during World War I, the Arab revolutions of the 1950s and 1960s, and the assassination of her paternal grandfather. She told Art Radar

This work is related to what I would like to call wrong history – personal political and historical facts as told by displaced families, as well as objects you grow up with; they haunt you in the same way a certain war has haunted you, or a certain assassination you’ve witnessed – perhaps only witnessed through the stories of your ancestors. Colours and objects become as important as persons; names of people and facts become absurd language, a musical play. Costumes and backgrounds are real and unreal at once. 

She further blurs these “peculiar personal narratives” into more generalised accounts and unrevealable secrets by obscuring the faces of the people in the images, which are taken from archives or family photographs. 

Mounira al Solh, A la sante des Allies, 2015, video still from Venice Biennale 2015. Image courtesy the artist and Sfeir Semler Gallery Beirut and Hamburg.

Al Solh has been working on and researching various aspects of the project, which was completed in 2015, for the last ten years. The multidisciplinary video installation was created for and shown at the 56th Venice Biennale in 2015. In 2016, she explained: 

It involved a lot of reading, filming, watching documentaries, printing images, drawing […] but I still feel I can do more with it! […] It is unfinished, or I have this feeling about it, because it’s about things that are still changing right now. 

Accordingly, she revisits the work in her ongoing series I Want to Be a Party. Here she tells stories from her childhood and her family through the medium of painting and embroidery, using objects and material culture as symbols to personalise and contextualise the Nasserite movements in Syria and Lebanon in the 1950s and 1960s. The series builds on À la santé and utilises further the research that the artist began in 2003. 

Humour and irony 

Although Al Solh’s work is self-reflexive and deals with sociopolitical issues, humour plays an important role. “Humour is a character,” she said, “something that comes out by itself, not an artifice – or it wouldn’t be humourous.” In À la santé, for instance, despite the underlying narrative of displacement, war and death, dark humour ensures that both the narrator and the viewer think more deeply about the nuances of what they are witnessing, forming questions and listening between the lines. In a video interview about the work, Al Solh claims that she is 

like the joker who is trying to take the stories of those two families […] and change them; they become fiction that relates to a broader, bigger history. 

The title of the work is in French, a language that was spoken among elites and ruling classes in Lebanon in the years leading up to its independence, as well as after. According to Al Solh, understanding the relationship of Lebanon and the Arab world with the Allies who had defeated the Ottoman Empire in the First World War is critical to understanding the formation of “modern countries” and borders in the region. “The sentence ‘À la santé des alliés’ was actually said by one of my relatives, a powerful grandmother I had, who taught me irony and reason at once,” she tells Art Radar

Watch an excerpt from Mounira Al Solh’s Rawane’s Song on Vimeo 

Meanwhile, Rawane’s Song (2007), which won her the jury prize at VideoBrasil in 2007, takes us around the floor of her studio, strewn with objects that perhaps signify a confused and restless mind; we hear her footsteps, and silence. The text and subtitles on the screen tell us that this is a work about her inability to talk about Lebanon’s war and her own identity – while ironically ending up doing both. It is as much a comment on the artistic process as anything else; Al Solh’s work is always in progress, in flux, in conversation with its creator and her other creations.