Themes of gender identity and women’s rights pervade Mounira Al Solh’s art

Lebanese-Syrian artist Mounira Al Solh has a singular artistic expression that encompasses painting, embroidery, performative gestures, video and video installations. Her powerful work often tackles political issues, examining how political events can have a violent impact on personal lives. Her current solo exhibit, The Mother of David and Goliath, runs until August 10 at Sfeir-Semler Gallery in Beirut. She talks with Selections about her show and about what inspires her work.

Mounira Al Solh, The Mother of David and Goliath, 2019. Oil on canvas, 209 x 266.5 cm. Courtesy of the artist & Sfeir-Semler Gallery Beirut/Hamburg.
Mounira Al Solh, The Mother of David and Goliath, 2019. Oil on canvas, 209 x 266.5 cm. Courtesy of the artist & Sfeir-Semler Gallery Beirut/Hamburg.

Q: Throughout your work, you have been denouncing injustice, and in the exhibition The Mother of David and Goliath, you notably focus on women. Tell us a little bit more about this engagement.
A: I’m not working from an activist perspective, this is a misreading. I’m dealing with my own traumas through actual daily problematics. It’s unavoidable, [my work] deals with women’s stories, rather than women rights I would say. Stories that make us think of women empowerment and surprising positions of liberation.

Q: Your work often references issues of human displacement in the context of historical unrest. How and why do you approach such humanitarian tragedies?
A: My urge to meet people who came to Lebanon as displaced stemmed at first from an attempt to capture moments of huge historical changes in the Arab world, and on the ground in Lebanon, where many Syrians were arriving in 2012, and bringing the energy of change at that time, which soon was used to be transformed into a war unfortunately. In I Strongly Believe In Our Right To Be Frivolous, I write down the stories and conversations born in the seconds when I’m meeting each [displaced] person and drawing her or him… I am gathering a living memory of actual voices, with so many interesting references, about various political views and positions, but also often about [daily lives], about love. It’s also as if I’m recollecting my own Syria, the one I know from my childhood, from my mother’s family.

Q: What drives you to create art?
A: If I don’t make art I can’t survive, so that’s also why maybe my art is about surviving, collecting or writing our collective memories, thinking together about the wars we produce and their after-effects, our languages, being women and resisting the “victim” position.

Q: What do you think is the social function of art today in the Middle East?
A: There is an utmost necessity for art! Many voices want to be heard and many women are involved in creating art spaces and magazines and art associations in the Middle East notably; it is only empowering and refreshing. Without art we can’t breathe, we can’t think together, we can’t exist.

Q: Tell us about the most touching or emotional artistic moment you’ve experienced.
A: Lebanon in the 1990s, right after the Civil War: that once-closed space started to attract people from all around us, and many Lebanese returned and brought back their “new cultures” with them. The Ayloul Festival and the first public interventions then, such as the Sanayeh Ashkal Alwan. Another is my amazement these days in witnessing the voices of women writers coming out of the Arab World, and recently more and more from Saudi Arabia.