Lebanese artist explores the emirates on canvas

December 19, 2011

In the great Persian poet Farid ud-Din Attar's masterpiece The Conference of the Birds, the humble hoopoe is the wisest of all the feathered assembly. With black-tipped crest quivering on its head, the hoopoe plays the wise Sufi master in the poem, leading the birds back to clearsightedness.

"Come you lost atoms to your centre draw, and be the eternal mirror that you saw", is one of the book's most famous lines. "Rays that have wander'd into darkness wide, return and back into your sun subside."

This spirit of holding on or returning to one's essence is at the heart of the Lebanese artist Mouna Bassili Sehnaoui's solo exhibition at Salwa Zeidan Gallery in Abu Dhabi, continuing until December 30.

Sehnaoui spent two weeks travelling through the Emirates, absorbing the natural grandeur of Sir Bani Yas island while sketching and painting the birds that pass through that part of the country in a palette of soaring colours. One of the finest of those included in the exhibition is that of the hoopoe - Sehnaoui shows the boisterousness of the bird's call in v-shaped lips, and the fan of colours on its head seems to lilt like waving fingers.

But while her birds hint at some of the appealing, colourful boldness of American artist Ed Ruscha's robin, Sehnaoui explains that finding her own voice on canvas only came once she "threw out the window" everything she learnt during a spell at the University of Arizona, at a time when minimalism was at its apogee."I came back to Lebanon and just froze in front of the canvas. Eventually, I realised I needed to draw what I felt like drawing. Being in the States made  see the region differently, as a place with a lot of history to be inspired from."

This, she explains, is what has charged the flat-plane style she's gone for - taking precedents from early Levantine art, mosaic and flashes of Byzantine icon painting.

"Flat painting is in my genes," says Sehnaoui and she brings this to a representation of the Sheikh Zayed Mosque in Abu Dhabi, giving the scene a harmonious, exhaling order.

But birds are recurrent images in Sehnaoui's work and she has included a vast number of these small canvases. "I'm very interested in archaeology in the Middle East," she says. "I have noticed that over the centuries the bird motif has been used over and over again in mosaics, silverwork and pottery from this part of the world.

"In the past, birds represented peace, spiritual life and freedom. For me as an artist, I notice that birds are free to cross borders without visas - almost like the global connection that the internet has today - and are a reminder that justice has to be the same for everyone." To reflect this, perhaps, both Latin and Arabic letters seem to mingle together amid the birds' feathers, suggesting a meeting of East and West in the wings that allow them to migrate.

Sehnaoui ascribes a silent personality to these birds, trying to capture their simple, inscrutable joy in being. Myna birds, egrets and a wonderfully chirpy portrait of the na'al, a cross between a nightingale and a canary, are all represented in these small canvases, as well as two facing peacocks. "I was fascinated in Yemen and the Dubai Museum by the rooms that resembled traditional bedrooms - I kept finding images of the double peacock, but wondering why it was placed in the bedroom? Then, I saw this inscription: 'God grants to those who have patience.'

"When I came back to Beirut, I met a man who had a huge collection of birds, including a pet peacock that answered to his call. The peacock's tail was missing, and he explained that these birds lose their tail in summer. I realised then that the peacock I'd seen in the images of bedrooms was a very old fertility symbol in the Middle East."

This feeds into Sehnaoui's representations of the birds. But elsewhere in the show, she's chosen to look at the purity of the desert landscape and reflect on the brilliance that it must have taken to adapt to this harshness.

"On the surface it looks so barren and arid, but once you give a bit of time to the desert you realise all the gifts it can give to man. It's no coincidence that the founders of the three monotheistic religions sought deserts for contemplation."

Abundant palm trees and carefree horses prance light-footed through a difficult terrain. The abundance of the desert, these works suggest, is something that must be found and arduously learnt. Sehnaoui says these works are a plea to those who've inherited this that they should not let it go. "I worry that if they lose touch with this tradition that they're all about, it will leave a great emptiness behind."


Mouna Bassili Sehnaoui: Arabian Roots continues at Salwa Zeidan Gallery in Abu Dhabi until December 30