Brigitte Caland reflects on the passion and sacrifice of her mother, Huguette Caland, whose relationship with art was always passionate, though not always easy. She spoke to Myrna Ayad as part of a series called Rewind, produced by Art Dubai, in which family members share their thoughts on the life and personality of a Modern artist from the Middle East, Africa or South Asia
In Christine Macel’s Viva Arte Viva is a gallery with delicate, minimalist works on paper by Huguette Caland, examples which focus on female sexuality. This cluster of 1960s and 1970s pieces at the Venice Biennale hang alongside some of the Lebanese modernist’s textile works — caftans that also echo sensuality. In the last month, SKIRA published a tome on Caland’s erotic works and the American University of Beirut conferred the University Medal to the octogenarian artist. In 2016, she was celebrated at the Hammer Museum through the exhibition Made in LA and in the same year, a curated selection of Caland’s work was exhibited at Art Dubai Modern through Galerie Janine Rubeiz, one of the Arab world’s oldest and most respected cultural institutions that has worked with Caland for 25 years. As with many regional modernists, the recognition is happening only recently.
Now 86, the daughter of Bechara El Khoury, Lebanon’s first president after independence, lives in her home country, where she has been based since 2013. Caland’s daughter Brigitte, a professor at the American University of Beirut and a trained chef, talks about life in Beirut, Paris, New York, Los Angeles and back to the Lebanese capital with a mother who dedicated her life to her art.
“I remember Sunday lunches with 40 people at the table, including artists such as Waddah Faris, Aref El Rayess, Helen El Khal and others. I remember the laughter. The atmosphere was so fun, with interesting, out-of-the-box people. That was all Mom. Everything was poetic at home. Her flower arrangements, which are still so vivid in my mind, were so beautiful; she’d pick flowers from the garden and put them in different arrangements all over the house.
We’d moved to that house in Kaslik from Beirut when my grandmother died and Mom took care of my grandfather. When he died in 1964, she started painting and took a course at the American University of Beirut. She knew she was an artist and wanted to be one. This was her way of expressing herself. She built her studio at the end of the property towards the sea; it included a metal chimney that she designed. It was her space. It was beautiful. As children, we were not allowed in there. She had a very defined notion of space and spent all day there, always a workaholic, up at 6am with her paints and brushes until the evening.
In 1970, she moved to Paris, where she had a lot of friends and could express her art. In Lebanon, she was that person out of the norm; in France, she was freer. Her lines changed, she expressed differently. by this time, my parents had separated and there were moments when it was not easy, but it’s part of the process of growing. She was so right to leave, to pursue her career, her dreams. She set an example for all of us.
I’d lived in New York and then Paris and had seen a number of exhibitions and could evaluate her work and it was in the late 1980s when I realised that she was beginning a serious series, and I told her. As a researcher, I am intrigued by things and noticed a shift and tried to figure out why; you get to know a body of work really well, and you question the reasons that make something shift from one area to another. She wanted me to work for her; she had a vision and wanted me to do it, to handle the business side of things.
In 1987, following the death of her companion, my younger brother suggested she visit Los Angeles and she ended up living there. I moved there in 1996. The LA years were wonderful years, and sometimes difficult. In the beginning, she wanted to be integrated in the artistic scene; she was part of it but still an outsider, and that hurt her for a while. She worked prolifically, had open houses and parties and welcomed many, but she would be a little sad that people would come over and eat and drink and no one would visit her studio, or make the effort to walk from the dining room to her workspace. The recognition is [only] happening now, unfortunately.
By 2012, her health deteriorated and by the end of the year, she stopped working altogether. In early 2013, she had her retrospective at the Beirut Exhibition Center and in the same year, decided she wanted to say bye to Dad, who was unwell. He died two days after she arrived. She wasn’t in great shape and we were advised not to travel; things aligned, everything fell into place and we’ve been in Beirut since.
She has been my best friend for the last 20 years. She was a great travel companion, so much fun. I miss her. We had happy moments even in difficult times. My goal is to fulfil Mom’s desire to preserve her estate, to place her work in important museums. It is a privilege for me to be her daughter. She has been an amazing role model as a mother and as a person who took charge of her life and went for it, at any price — and she did pay a high price. She never complained. She was so elegant. Even in the worst moments of her life, she had a way of dealing with things and that taught me lifetime lessons. She always told me never to go to bed feeling upset with someone. You never know what happens.”
Featured image: Huguette Caland, photo courtesy Waddah Faris, Saleh Barakat Gallery and Agial Art Gallery.
A version of this article appeared in print in Selections, A Dialogue Between Generations of Arab Women in Art #42, pages 44-47.