Mounira Al Solh
Lebanese artist Mounira Al Solh is a gatherer of stories. She shared her own with David Whetstone.
A beautiful tent has pride of place in Mounira Al Solh’s exhibition at BALTIC and it would be enough just to stand and admire its rich colours and fine embroidery.
Originally published April 2022
But this exotic tent, so at odds with the gallery’s industrial aesthetic, is a portal to other worlds, as you’ll find if you step inside.
“It’s like a library for me, this tent, where I’m always introducing women’s stories,” said the artist who is described on BALTIC’s website as living “between Lebanon and the Netherlands”.
There have been other tents.
BALTIC curator Emma Dean saw one of them in 2017 in Kassel, Germany, where it was part of the city’s famous Documenta survey of contemporary art which takes place every five years.
There were portraits of women, all displaced from their country of origin. Emma remembers a bakery where you could get food and a girl playing music.
“It was a wonderful experience for me and very convivial.
“Mounira builds relationships with the people she meets and tells their stories, making them visible. Women’s stories are often hidden. I identified with that.
“It made me think of how we connect here through our Neighbourly programme (aimed at refugees and asylum seekers as part of BALTIC’s commitment as a Gallery of Sanctuary).
“I really wanted to bring Mounira to Gateshead.”
So she came to meet the women whose stories now feature inside the glorious centrepiece of her first UK solo exhibition.
They are women from many countries who ended up here for different reasons. Mounira said some of the stories she heard were “incredible”.
One that stuck in her mind was told by a woman who escaped from the 1970s civil war in Angola after becoming separated from her parents.
Clearly a good listener, Mounira writes what she hears onto yellow paper and then deftly paints a portrait of the speaker to accompany the words.
Every woman who shares her story is offered a portrait to take away.
“In the end, everyone has a story,” said Mounira. “That’s what’s really amazing.”
Mounira, of course, has her own story, remarkable to anyone who has only ever known peace,and it explains that intriguing “between Lebanon and the Netherlands” reference on BALTIC’s website.
She was born in 1978 in Beirut, a tourist destination until the civil war began in 1975, to be followed by further conflicts involving neighbouring Syria and Israel.
Bombs and bullets were the norm.
“I was born in the Lebanese Civil War. It was the only thing I knew so I didn’t see any other option.
“There was a time, for example, when I would make a friend at school and they would disappear.
“Maybe their house was bombed and their parents had decided to flee. That was sad for me.
“Also, sleeping under the bombs – that’s not so nice.
“I remember as a kid, if the bombing was strong, I would hide next to my parents in the night, just thinking, I’ll be safe now because if we die, at least we die together.
“I didn’t want to be an orphan. That was the strongest fear.”
Because Mounira’s mother is from Damascus, they would sometimes cross the border and seek refuge in Syria – now itself a country at war.
Art, she recalled, helped her cope when things seemed beyond her control.
Mounira attended and helped at a school run by her mother. “I would make posters. We did everything by hand.”
Her Lebanese father, meanwhile, helped his mother to run another school for people with special needs and Mounira would help there, too, designing logos but also preparing bread.
“In a war, who thinks of people with special needs? My father came up with this idea to make a bakery, so they could bake bread and sell it.
“It meant some income to keep the school running and it helped people to feel active in society.”
Eventually the bakery was bombed but her father carried on helping the poor and marginalised. It was the bakery Mounira was recalling in that Documenta exhibition.
After studying painting at the Lebanese University in Beirut, Mounira knew she must get away.
Israel and Syria were out of the question for political reasons, but her brother was married to a Dutch woman and living in the Netherlands.
When Mounira went to visit them, quite by chance there was an exhibition of work by Arab artists in Rotterdam and they were all people Mounira knew.
In the gallery a student told her about the Gerrit Rietveld Academie, an art and design establishment in Amsterdam. She went for an interview and was accepted.
When a later outbreak of fighting prevented her return to Beirut after graduating, she applied for and won a place at Amsterdam’s famous Rijksacademie, meaning she could stay.
“It’s an outstanding place,” she recalled. “It provided a studio and a grant for two years.”
Now with a Dutch passport, she leads what she calls a “double life” between Amsterdam and Beirut. Her daughter, born in 2011, converses fluently in Dutch and Arabic.
Mounira has exhibited widely, making a name for herself as an artist and hearing stories of displacement that have become integral to her work.
She said she understood the suffering in Ukraine because Putin and fellow dictator Assad had used the same ruthless tactics in Syria.
From brutality to beauty… when Mounira discovered the lavishly embroidered ‘bed tents’, known to the Greeks as ‘sperveri’, she knew she had the perfect platform for her stories.
These canopy-like creations were made by women to afford privacy in the nuptial bed. For centuries, in Rhodes and other Greek islands, they were given as part of a girl’s dowry.
Because they were huge, they were often cut up afterwards, so complete sperveri are very rare.
When Mounira saw one in a museum in Athens, she was “really charmed”. But it had cultural resonance for her too.
“My Syrian grandma always made a dress if someone was getting married.
“She was so proud. She’d work for all year preparing this dress with great care and skill.
“This practice of women getting together to make a piece is sacred, I think.”
Mounira went on to make a series of tents – her “syndrome of tents”, she said with a laugh –using them to highlight different issues.
One, prompted by turning 40, focused on ageing with pictures of women’s body parts, including her own, abstracted and artfully displayed.
These tents, her eye-catching signature exhibits, are 3D story anthologies, memorials to victims of war and monuments to women’s creativity and resilience.
Possibly the one at BALTIC is the finest, made by groups of women using designs inspired by the iconography Mounira has found in places like the Benaki Museum of Islamic Art in Athens.
Stylised birds decorate the roof and below them is a series of embroidered words – Mounira loves words – spanning a spectrum from sadness to happiness.
Happy to be at BALTIC, Mounira said: “I like the energy here.”
She hoped her daughter would be able to visit the exhibition in June when there might even be some singing in the tent.
Her exhibition, A Day is as Long as a Year, is at BALTIC until October 2. Details: www.baltic.art/mounira-al-solh