The latest exhibition of work by celebrated artist Mona Saudi is a birthday gift transformed into a memorial for what’s passed. “Homage to Mahmoud Darwish,” a show of seven silkscreen and watercolor works, provides a glimpse into the artist’s past as much as it does the works’ point of inspiration.
Assembled for the first time at Hamra’s cozy Art Circle gallery, each of the seven images was inspired by Darwish’s poetry. Completed between 1977 and 1980, the works were only recently resurrected.
Saudi returned to the drawings in 2008, after a hiatus of 30 years.
“I chose seven of them, which were supposed to arrive to Mahmoud Darwish as a surprise for his birthday,” the artist recalls, “but then he surprised us by his eternal absence.”
The poet passed away in August 2008, when Saudi had completed silkscreens of just two of the seven works. Again the project was placed on hold until a few months ago, when she decided to complete it as a tribute to the late poet. The two had been friends since his move to Beirut in the early 1970s.
“Sometimes I go back to something that I have done a long time ago and if I think it is still okay for now, that means it’s timeless,” Saudi explains. “I like this idea of timelessness because all my work is a chain of things that are related to each other.”
Despite the many years that have elapsed since the drawings’ creation, the connection between Saudi’s drawings from the ’70s and her more recent sculpture is evident.
The seven black-and-white line drawings depict a series of bold, curved shapes. Some of these are obviously human figures, while others are more abstract – almost cubist. The bold black lines in each piece are contrasted with a translucent wash of watercolor in earthy greens or golden browns.
Extracts from Darwish’s poems are hand written in Saudi’s distinctive script, forming a delicate counterpoint to the bold black lines about the figures.
“Homage to Mahmoud Darwish 2” is particularly striking. The text of Darwish’s poetry is written in broad horizontal bands across the page, forming a backdrop to the central image – a bold black-and-white rendering of an abstract female figure.
The woman sits, knees bent, with one arm behind her and the other raised to her head, forming a pleasingly symmetrical rectangle. Above her head are two objects. One (a hat perhaps, or a giant coffee bean) is nearly spherical. The other is a complex many-sided form like a folded knife blade.
Though the image in each piece is unique, inspired by the poetic extract, the silkscreens share many similarities. One of the more subtle motifs is the inclusion of a leaf in each drawing.
“For me, all nature is vital. It’s like us human beings,” Saudi says. “I think plants are just everlasting – they never die and even if they die they just grow again.
“We perhaps not,” she laughs. “But the plants stay always plants.”
These images are listed as limited edition silkscreens and are numbered out of 50. While the black lines are reproduced using a silk screening technique, the watercolor is applied by hand to each print, making each one unique. This is demonstrated by Saudi’s “Homage to Mahmoud Darwish 6,” of which two versions are exhibited, one accented in green, the other a quiet ochre.
“Sometimes people tell me that I should just sign them one over one,” Saudi says. “But in the end it’s something that is multiplied so ... I like to be generous with my work.”
The exhibition’s main impact is the elegance of the shapes themselves – a blend of Brancusi and Henry Moore that are so reminiscent of Saudi’s distinctive stone sculptures – in spite of their relative complexity – that they could almost be blueprints.
“I never draw a sculpture before doing it,” she avers. “But as sculptor my thoughts are sculptural – I don’t draw as a painter.”
Nevertheless, the silkscreens stand as a tantalizing testament to the power of Saudi’s sculpture, one of which was recently selected for the British Museum’s permanent collection.
For fans of Saudi’s sculpture, these drawings will provide an interesting insight into her development as an artist and enduring love of the written word and Arabic script.
Unfortunately, they may also leave the viewer yearning to see the organic shapes transposed into three-dimensions. Some are so clearly sculptural in form that they almost seem trapped on paper, as though waiting to be transferred to stone.
This feeling may be partially satisfied by the fact that Saudi has included a single sculpture in the exhibition. Titled simply “The Poet,” it is a small piece of granite carved into a simple, impressionist bust.
The head and body are two elegantly misshapen rectangles, separated by a long neck, marked with a series of horizontal indentations, reminiscent of African neck rings.
“I borrowed the sentence said by Saint-John Perse,” Saudi says of the idea behind the sculpture. “‘Et le Poète encore est parmi nous.’ – And the poet remains always among us.
“I like this sentence and have even used it in my other exhibitions,” she continues, “because this is my feeling for poetry and the poets.”
Saudi’s love of poetry is well known, and many of her sculptures are inspired by the Arabic alphabet and script or by poetry, both that of others and her own.
“Sometimes I write poetry directly as I am drawing,” she continues, explaining that as an artist her poems are about the creative process.
“Homage to Mahmoud Darwish” offers testimony to how poetry and visual art go hand-in-hand for Mona Saudi – or at any rate have done for the past 30 years.
Mona Saudi’s “Homage to Mahmoud Darwish” is on display at Hamra’s Art
Circle Gallery until April 28. For more information please call 03-027-776.