Multimedia artist Mounira Al Solh is invited to Chicago for her first solo show in the United States.

Al Solh’s ongoing project, “I strongly believe in our right to be frivolous”, collects personal experiences that emerge from the current humanitarian crisis in Syria. Art Radar speaks to the curatorial team about the exhibition’s realisation.

Mounira Al Solh, "I strongly believe in our right to be frivolous", 2012–ongoing. Image courtesy the artist and Sfeir-Semler Gallery, Beirut / Hamburg.

Mounira Al Solh, “I strongly believe in our right to be frivolous”, 2012–ongoing. Image courtesy the artist and Sfeir-Semler Gallery, Beirut / Hamburg.

Lebanese artist Mounira Al Solh, born in Beirut in 1978, presents her ongoing work at the Art Institute of Chicago under the project title “I strongly believe in our right to be frivolous”. The exhibition is the result of personal encounters in various cities with Middle Eastern and North African migrants, who have made – or are making – the status transition from refugees into citizens.

Tackling forced migration

Including text, drawings, embroideries and a sound installation, the documentary project began in 2012 as a collection of “time documents” from Middle Eastern revolutions and subsequent chaos. Like much of the artist’s earlier work, “I strongly believe in our right to be frivolous” approaches the topic of (forced) migration and an ambiguous timeline that escapes more formal archival processes. The project and the production of Al Solh’s portrait drawings follow the artist as she connects to local communities in the cities she visits.

Mounira Al Solh, "I strongly believe in our right to be frivolous", 2012–ongoing. Image courtesy the artist and Sfeir-Semler Gallery, Beirut / Hamburg.

Mounira Al Solh, “I strongly believe in our right to be frivolous”, 2012–ongoing. Image courtesy the artist and Sfeir-Semler Gallery, Beirut / Hamburg.

The oral histories of displaced individuals that Al Solh witnesses are as much legal accounts as personal ones. Several of the portraits are drawn on yellow legal pads, which serve as material indexes of the painstaking bureaucratic processes through which immigrants must go in order to obtain citizenship. The portraits map the geographies of arrival through storytelling, but also through the experience of immigration policies that deeply affect much of the world’s political landscape.

The sonic elements of the work are translations of the Arabic texts in the portraits. It is hard to discern which voice belongs to which text, or even to which person the voice belongs. The ever-expanding oral history situates the stories of migrants within the informal social economies in which trauma, fear, forgetfulness, joy and friendliness unfold. The entanglement of each medium in Al Solh’s project lends insight into the paralleled entanglement between memory and recollection, between storytelling and memorialisation.

Installation view of Mounira Al Solh's "I strongly believe in our right to be frivolous", 2018. Image courtesy the Art Institute of Chicago.

Installation view of Mounira Al Solh’s “I strongly believe in our right to be frivolous”, 2018. Image courtesy the Art Institute of Chicago.

Shift to Chicago

A new phase of the project, “I strongly believe in our right to be frivolous”, started with Al Solh travelling to the United States. With the support of the Syrian Community Network (SCN), she was able to meet with a number of Syrian and migrant families. The journey shifted her thinking to a broader perspective, she claims, not only in consideration of those individuals who have recently relocated (in this case, to Chicago), but also looking at migration from a multigenerational perspective.

Hendrik Folkerts, AIC’s Dittmer Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, speaks about the artist’s shift in location and perspective that is decidedly presented in the Chicago exhibition:

The exhibition shows numerous shifts in the project, for example in 2015, when Lebanon imposed restrictions on visas for Syrian refugees, who, from that moment on, needed a sponsor in the country in order to relocate to Lebanon. Another major shift for Mounira was to meet and draw people in Athens. Being part of the curatorial team of documenta 14, I invited Mounira to participate in the exhibition. This brought her to Athens, which is, for many reasons, a city marked by the politics of our time. She started meeting with people who were not only from Syria, but also from Turkey, Afghanistan and Iraq, mirroring the refugee communities that recently resettled or cam through Athens. In Chicago, Mounira met with various families and individuals in the Syrian community, mostly through the SCN, founded by Suzanne Akhras Sahloul, who emigrated from Syria to the US in the 1990s. I believe this opened up a new direction within the project, considering histories of migration and not only limiting an understanding of the term “refugee” to the current political situation, but from a multi-generational perspective.

Mounira Al Solh, 'My speciality was to make a peasants' haircut, but they obliged me work till midnight often', 2015-2017. Exhibited in "Mounira Al Solh: I strongly believe in our right to be frivolous". Image courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago.

Mounira Al Solh, ‘My speciality was to make a peasants’ haircut, but they obliged me work till midnight often’, 2015-2017. Exhibited in “Mounira Al Solh: I strongly believe in our right to be frivolous”. Image courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago.

It is apparent that much of the artist’s work, dating as far back as the early 2000s, is anchored around geographies: what spaces and borders mean to migrants and stationary citizens respectively. Beyond this, Al Solh’s work continually brings to the fore questions of archiving and memorialisation and how these practices transform according to location and surrounding events. Art Radar asked the curatorial team about their decisions to bring the artist’s stories to America, taking into consideration the current political climate where questions of border, place and nation are under so much scrutiny. Folkerts continues:

To add Chicago to that list [of exhibiting cities] was important, to make our publics aware that the popular uprising and war in Syria, and the stories of dispossession and displacement that emerged from it, are not abstract phenomena, but something that is happening in our very midst. Rather than separating this series of new drawings in the exhibition, we decided to integrate them in the display, together with the existing body of drawings to emphasise the network of relationships that the project embodies, including the refugee community in Chicago. After all, “I strongly believe in our right to be frivolous” is a living history, an evolving archive of stories and experiences that unfolds in the present day, around the world.

Mounira Al Solh, 'My speciality was to make a peasants' haircut, but they obliged me work till midnight often', 2015-2017. Exhibited in "Mounira Al Solh: I strongly believe in our right to be frivolous". Image courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago.

Mounira Al Solh, ‘My speciality was to make a peasants’ haircut, but they obliged me work till midnight often’, 2015-2017. Exhibited in “Mounira Al Solh: I strongly believe in our right to be frivolous”. Image courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago.

Rethinking institutional archives

Alternative archiving is a common thread for Lebanese artists to follow, particularly in response to their country’s civil war (1975-1990) that left more amnesiac aftermath than absolute certainties. Taking this into consideration, it is evident that Al Solh approaches the war in Syria from a documentative, yet narrative – perhaps, even fictive – manner. On approaching the artist’s series as an active archive of a war-in-progress, Assistant Curator of Contemporary Art Jordan Carter states:

Mounira’s ongoing project takes part in an expanded lineage of Conceptualism, privileging the process of intersubjective exchange over material product; staging a living archive of social and political conflict; and positing the legal notepad—the proverbial site of administration—as a vehicle for institutional critique on a global scale. What we visually perceive in the exhibition is a serial—yet unsystematic—display of 261 drawn portraits on yellow legal pad paper, each secured by a set of paperclips. [The artist’s] choice of medium is a powerful gesture: these administrative supplies are the very tools of bureaucracy that police the bodies and identities of displaced peoples. Mounira reminds [her viewers] that the legal pad is a contested site. One’s story can be reinterpreted an renegotiated by and renegotiated by external forces toward many ends. But here, an individual can reclaim their story in their own words, with their own gestures. Rather than probe or repurpose an existing archive of images or texts, Mounira upsets the notion of the reliable or fixed archive—chronicling the personal dimensions of mass trauma and displacement in real time and eschewing the institutional and mass media impulse to provide linear or monolithic narratives surrounding the humanitarian and refugee crisis.

Mounira Al Solh, "I strongly believe in our right to be frivolous", 2012–ongoing. Image courtesy the artist and Sfeir-Semler Gallery, Beirut / Hamburg.

Mounira Al Solh, “I strongly believe in our right to be frivolous”, 2012–ongoing. Image courtesy the artist and Sfeir-Semler Gallery, Beirut / Hamburg.

Curator as caretaker

Indeed, Al Solh transforms the traditional act of archiving into an imagined network of anachronistic stories linking individuals across time and space. Here, the emphasis on storytelling is apparent and inevitably sheds light on the role of the curators, the ‘caretakers’, in transcribing such intimate and deeply personal histories for public display. Folkerts speaks to Art Radar about his curatorial function:

In developing the exhibition, we’ve often wondered, where and what is the work that is part of “I strongly believe in our right to be frivolous”? Is it the drawings and the embroidered works that one sees in the gallery, or is it the conversations the artist had with the people she met over the years? Are the drawings mere documentation of those moments, those encounters? And the embroiders, made in collaboration with women in Lebanon and Syria, they are as much space of collaboration as they are actual objects. The complexity and subtlety with which Mounira proposes this work as in-between those definition, in fact blurring the lines between them, is one of the strongest elements in the work, in my opinion. For this reason, we emphasised the exhibition as a space for conversation, as much as the work emerged from spaces of conversation. In the open way the exhibition is installed, our visitors are encouraged to use the galleries as spaces of discussion, reflection and conversation about how the stories that they see and read impact them and how it speaks to the politics of our time.

Mounira Al Solh, "I strongly believe in our right to be frivolous", 2012–ongoing. Image courtesy the artist and Sfeir-Semler Gallery, Beirut / Hamburg.

Mounira Al Solh, “I strongly believe in our right to be frivolous”, 2012–ongoing. Image courtesy the artist and Sfeir-Semler Gallery, Beirut / Hamburg.

Fundamentally, the connection between Al Solh’s images and text is a relational one, which leads to – or even encourages – multiple readings. Beyond its visualisation, the exhibition becomes a didactic tool for the propagation and continuation of personal histories. The artist graciously dedicates such an ambitious project to those whose stories were recorded and those who were not given the chance to do so, to those whose memories were, and continue to be, overshadowed by popular or favourable narratives.

Megan Miller

2082

“Mounira Al Solh: I Strongly Believe in Our Right to Be Frivolous” is on view fro 8 February – 29 April 2018 at the Art Institute of Chicago, 111 S Michigan Avenue, Chicago, Illinois 60603.

Related topics: Lebanese artists, identity art, migration, political, portraiture, documentary, events in Chicago

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Brittney

By Brittney

Brittney is a writer, curator and contemporary art gallerist. Born in Singapore and based in New York City, Brittney maintains a deep interest in the contemporary art landscape of Southeast Asia. This is combined with an equally strong interest in contemporary art from the Asian diasporas, alongside the issues of identity, transmigration and global relations.

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