Tales of love, language, and war intertwine in Al Solh’s Beirut solo exhibition
Lebanese artist Mounira Al Solh’s latest solo exhibition, All Mother Tongues are Difficult tells a story of exodus and the continual movement of individuals from their country of origin to new realms. Such journeys are seldom straightforward and unidirectional; humans are communicative beings, and language presents itself as a tool for survival. Naturalisation and migration demand substantial personal changes, as old ways and habits must be ‘shed’ in order for one to adapt to their new environment. Accordingly, in her exhibition, Al Solh uses the current influx of Syrian refugees into Lebanon as a starting point.
As one enters the premises of the Sfeir-Semler gallery in Beirut, they step into a space filled with Damascene clogs – iconic objects safely stowed away in the region’s collective memory – comprising the installation Clogged. Extensively featured in older, popular films, these clogs are typically worn in hammams (bath houses). Audiences in the gallery are encouraged to try on a pair from among the dozens arranged there, and roam about in the space whilst ‘taking in’ the rest of the exhibition. The installation, inspired by the phrase walk a mile in a man’s shoes before you judge him, invokes the notion of travel as well as the continuous wandering of refugees.
Lying adjacent to the scores of clogs, I Strongly Believe in Our Right to be Frivolous presents a series of mixed media portraits. These works constitute a growing body of pieces that will eventually encompass 1,000 portraits. The series is based on illustrations inspired by the artist’s interviews with Palestinian-Syrian refugees who were again exiled, this time to Lebanon. The conversations are depicted through fragmented scribbles that highlight dramatic changes forced upon individuals in times of political turmoil. Al Solh’s practice reflects her intrigue with regard to the human dimensions of political issues; that is, the force politics has on an individual level. The artist takes on the role of a witness here to document human experiences in times of political havoc, using geopolitical forces as backdrops to her subjects’ stories.
In another room of the gallery, one can find two of Al Solh’s video works. Vrijouiligers posits questions about language, as immigrants begin the integration process in their new countries. The video was shot in Atlas in Antwerp, a language centre where the linguistic capabilities of immigrants – the artist included – are assessed in order to begin a Dutch language course. Audiences witness people talking in a multitude of languages with no subtitles, who are interrupted by the artist’s thoughts and questions pertaining to language. Al Solh’s interest in language can also be seen in her earlier works and videos such as 2010’s The Mute Tongue, for which she conducted research on spoken language and its effects on the imagination. In TMT, Al Solh presented in silent vignettes 19 Arabic proverbs and sayings in the Lebanese variant. The Croatian artist and performer Sinisa Labrovic, who does not speak or understand Arabic, was chosen to play the role of the ‘protagonist’ of the proverbs.
Standing in the second half of this room is a gigantic wooden structure, serving as the screening medium for Now, Eat My Script, the artist’s newest video. Once again, using geopolitical tensions and conflicts as a backdrop, the artist tells the story of a pregnant writer trying to write the script of the video being recorded. As she attempts to write, she is distracted by the scene of Syrian refugees entering Lebanon, and dives into her own memories of wartime Beirut. She recalls when her relative from Syria brought a slaughtered sheep in the trunk of a car to Lebanon to celebrate her son’s graduation. Here, Al Solh and the writer become one, as the artist blurs the lines between reality and fiction and the story is narrated in silence by text at the top of the screen. During times of war and violence, the habit of exchanging objects and goods between family members becomes a form of resistance – not towards a specific enemy, but rather, towards violence and the inhibition of life. As well, Al Solh attempts the impossible in communicating trauma, as any attempts to do so are bound to happen retrospectively.
Continuing with the subject of language, Al Solh – inspired by Ahmad Beydoun’s Kalamon, a study of the Arabic language – presents a series of embroideries and curtains depicting etymological and linguistic notions. Those in After Eight portray transcribed linguistic models of mixed dialects reflecting the plight of immigrants in their undertaking of linguistic pedagogy. The embroidered fragments take the dialects out of their vocal and transient spoken context into a fixed and etched state of permanence, weighing them according to their connotations. Other pieces in the series expose the relationship between semantics and phonetics, as well as the role of letters as visual symbols by presenting the etymological significance of Arabic letters embroidered as mirror images on canvases.
Bringing together her and her family’s personal experiences with the geopolitical forces behind the plight of displaced Syrians in Lebanon today, the artist situates both herself and her audiences within a context where histories and biographies intersect
On a similar note, Sama’a / Maa’s is based on the concept of the balcony curtains frequently used in Beirut to shade houses from sunlight, and – more often than not – to conceal private spaces of houses from neighbouring onlookers. Each of the curtains in the work displays two three-lettered Arabic root words. The latter are formed of the same three, albeit arranged differently. The juxtaposition of the sequence of letters creates whole different words with different meanings and implications; thus, audiences’ perceptions change depending on their position and perspective. In essence, Al Solh attempts with this work to contrast one’s point of view and context with the meaning of words and language in general.
In examining routes and places of transition between those of one’s mother tongue and their adopted languages, Al Solh links the concept of languages navigating across boundaries with the recent influx of Syrian refugees in Lebanon, and immigration in the country in general. Bringing together her and her family’s personal experiences with the geopolitical forces behind the plight of displaced Syrians in Lebanon today, the artist situates both herself and her audiences within a context where histories and biographies intersect.
‘All Mother Tongues are Difficult’ runs through July 19, 2014 at Beirut’s Sfeir-Semler Gallery.