Darkness Falls on the Open Arts Café


On Thursday night I entered into a world of darkness and lurid twisted minds. No, I hadn’t just entered the pub with old friends, no, I had stepped foot into The Open Arts Café (cue overdramatic sound effect).

The Open Arts Café is a monthly themed arts event that gives new and emerging artists working in all mediums a platform on which to perform and present their works. It is the brainchild of Maya Levy whom with Tyne Rafaeli established the event in 2008 to give artists a non-intimidating and dynamic environment in order to foster creativity and encourage them at the beginning of their artistic careers.


The theme of the night was “Darkness Falls”, fitting for the Halloween period. As I sat down with some blood red wine and scary snacks the show began. First up was Emily Harrison a Poet who won the Christopher Tower Poetry Prize in 2010, the Bang Said the Gun stand up poetry prize, has been published in Pop Shop and is one of the Barbican’s 15 best young poets between 14-25 in the UK. She came to the front of the stage with a quiet air of confidence and proceeded to read her pieces which were energetic and witty with a sardonic bite. Two pieces stuck in my mind to the point I had to discuss it with a friend afterwards, “Self (Marc Quinn)”, an interpretative poem about Marc Quinn’s sculpture of his own head carved out of his own blood, and a poem about the backstage lives of actors in Disneyworld. She has her very own webpage where you can read more of her works www.blag-jazz.tumblr.com A great live performer with an edge, I would recommend everyone read her works or better yet, catch her live if you can.

Next came Gallit Shaltiel , a Brighton based Illustrator, visual artist, photographer and educator. She recently completed an MA in Sequential Illustration and Design at the University of Brighton and last night she presented us with “Talking Underwater with a mouthful of cement” a piece of animation for which she received a distinction. The animation was made fusing digital technology with handmade elements of paper cutting. There is a quality of the macabre in the monochromatic style and the visuals evoke images of coffins, death and skeletons. You can see more of her works on her website: http://gallitshaltiel.com/

Shortly after we were witness to the musical dexterities of Meadhbh Boyd whose songs like “smelly Defeat” had heads bopping to spooky experimental pop tunes. Having been born in Clare, Ireland Meadhbh now lives and works in London as a musician, Journalist and teacher.  You can find out more about this dynamic musician on her website at http://meadhbhboyd.com/

The interval came and the audience were led into the bar area where we were also treated to some ghoulish displays by two very accomplished artists: Charlotte Orr and Karina Akyopan.

Oxford based freelance illustrator, Charlotte Orr’s works create a sense of wonder and awe in the landscapes and perspectives she portrays. Be it urban or natural, you can be sure that she will present you with an image that grasps your attention in its creativity. Visit her page at http://www.charlotteorr.com/ and have a look at her captivating works.

Karina is a London based artist and illustrator whose works are infused with intricate and repetitive patterns mixed with a dash of kink which maintains the viewer’s gaze. Head to www.karina-akopyan.com to be enthralled in her fetish wonderland.

To bring us back into the nightmarish world of darkness the multi talented Maya Levy,  who along with being the sole artistic director of the Open Arts Café since 2010 is also a singer songwriter, performed some wonderfully humorous  and dark pieces. One particularly funny one was inspired by the story of a school being evacuated due to a black widow spider sighting. Based on the music and witty lyrics you would never have guessed that she had only written it the night before. To end her set the audience were asked to sing along to a mash up of Stand by Me and The Monster Mash, a surreal and thoroughly enjoyable experience.

After Maya’s dynamic performance we were introduced to  the writer Jennifer Leigh Allen who read us an excerpt of her original fairy tale entitled “Lux” which concerns the concepts of light and darkness as seen through a child’s eyes. The story was captivating and her talent can be noted in the fact that when she finished her excerpt, everyone in the audience wanted to know what happened next. We were all spellbound by her story. Jennifer Leigh Allen is also one half of the London based production company “CosmoLeigh” http://www.cosmoleigh.com .

The final treat of the night was the talented musician, Nick Edward Harris Nick is a guitar/harmonica player, songwriter and teacher based in London . His music is a mix of Andy Mckee’s brilliant percussive use of the guitar and John Martyn’s melancholic atmosphere. His debut album “Chimera” was produced by Nick Trepka and features collaborations with Ted Dwane of Mumford and Sons as well as Emma Gatrill of The Mariner’s Children. You can buy his album on his website where you can also find out more about this talented and inspiring musician,  http://www.nickedwardharris.com/. If you have the chance to see him live, I advise you take it as he will surely grip you with his musical talents.

All in all, it was a great night full of jaw dropping, talented and ghoulish artists.  Maya Levy never fails to do a wonderful job picking the best artists and performers for her themed night which are always thoroughly entertaining.

The next event at the Open Arts Café will be on the 28th of November. To find out details or to be kept informed of events, you can visit the website at http://www.openartscafe.com/ and also follow them on facebook at https://www.facebook.com/openartscafe.


“Women don’t paint very well.”

This quote was made by the artist Georg Baselitz in an interview with Der Spiegel in January 2013. The full article can be found here:


Georg Baselitz is a German postmodern artist who works as a painter, draughtsman, printmaker and sculptor. His career exploded in the 1960s after his painting “Die große Nacht im Eimer“(The Big Night Down The Drain) was seized by the public prosecutor’s office for being immoral because of its provocative, offending sexual nature.


Die große Nacht im Eimer” by Georg Baselitz

He is currently a professor at Hochschule der Künste art academy in Berlin.

I first came across this interview in a post on YouTube presented by the Southbank Centre as part of their Women of the World Festival. Every year the Southbank Centre puts on this festival of talks and lectures to highlight the issues affecting women around the world and each one is recorded and subsequently put online for public viewing.

This lecture was called “Women don’t paint very well – It’s a Fact”. Well I didn’t take very well to this statement at all. It was especially poignant as I am currently reading Whitney Chadwick’s “Women, Art and Society” (Thames and Hudson,  2012) a book all about the overlooked great female artists in history, dating back to Marietta Robusti, Tintoretto’s daughter and had just read an article in the National Geographic that claims a new study discovered that most paleolithic cave art, previously thought to have been made by men, were actually produced by women.

Handprints in ancient cave art most often belonged to women, overturning the dogma that the earliest artists were all men.
Handprints in ancient cave art most often belonged to women, overturning the dogma that the earliest artists were all men.

Considering this, my indignation regarding this title was understandable, I simply had to watch it and I hope you enjoy it as much as I did

Sally Tallant, Director of Liverpool Biennial, Marin Alsop, one of the world’s leading female conductors and artist Alexis Teplin, investigate Baselitz’s statement :

I hope you found that enlightening. I wish to some degree that they had challenged the statement in question more and had brought up the reasons why it is still a commonly held view that women can’t paint, despite all evidence to the contrary. Other points they could have expanded upon would have been the language of the Art world, the lack of expertise on historical female artists in the educational system, the belief that artworks can be defined by their femininity and masculinity when these are completely arbitrary man-made constructs. However, considering the time limit and the range of the subject, I was very impressed by the panel. Many of Marin Alsop’s opinions in particular rang true, especially about the lack of successfully mediocre female artists, as greatness only exists in its relativity to mediocrity.

Indeed, in relation to Baselitz’s statement, Griselda Pollock, co-author of another great book on women and art “Old Mistresses: Women, Art and Ideology”, said: “Only few men paint brilliantly and it’s not their masculinity that makes them brilliant. It’s their individuality…Baselitz says women don’t paint very well, with a few exceptions. Men don’t paint very well either, with a few exceptions.” She goes on saying that although many factors contribute to holding back female painters, the main one is the “myth of the painter. The image in the West of a lonely, tortured white man. I could run rings around you with great women artists but there isn’t space in the cultural imagination.”

That great female painters exist and have always existed is irrefutable but much more needs to be done to change the prevailing perception, particularly in an industry that deals with subjectivity, that female artists are not on par with their male counterparts.

These talks and many more are available to be viewed on the Southbank centre YouTube website:


And the next Women of the World Festival will be held at the Southbank centre from Friday 7 March 2014 – Sunday 9 March 2014. You can obtain day or weekend passes from their website








Saloua Raouda Choucair


Little known outside her native country of Lebanon, Salouda Raouda Choucair is an artist born in 1916 whose work is the subject of an exhibition at the Tate Modern that places her rightfully as one of the pioneers of abstract art.

It’s also a very important exhibition to witness for another reason. This exhibit is the first in the Tate’s 13 year history to be dedicated to a solo artist who has rarely been seen or known of outside the Middle East since the 1950s. This marks a courageous step for the gallery, from being an institution that deals exclusively with already well established artists towards a gallery that not only presents us with what we know but pushes the boundaries of what to expect, in this case in respect to the art in non-western regions of the world.

Some 120 pieces, paintings and installations, are currently housed in four rooms, in what can only be described as a very intense exhibit. The most astonishing thing about Choucair’s works is their diversity. It would be understandable if upon seeing them, one were to think they were witnessing a collection by many different artists. She is an expert manipulator of style and form.

At the time that Choucair began her tutelage under the leading Lebanese artists Mustafa Farroukh and Omar Onsi, impressionist and realist styles were in favour in Lebanon. The self-portrait, one of her earliest works on display, was created during this period and the influence of the times can be clearly seen in it. However, making this piece a poster for their Salouda Raouda Choucair exhibition, Tate Modern has done her a disservice as they have chosen the least representative of all her works to represent her. Indeed, walking into the first room, the self-portrait, although expertly executed is dwarfed and overshadowed by Choucair’s other paintings which are heading in a completely contrary direction to it.

Room 1

An interesting aspect of her paintings is the fact that although very different styles can be seen, from her nude paintings to the abstract, they were not transitional. One style did not develop into another, instead she worked in many styles during the same period, exploring and experimenting in many directions. In a sense, she is the ultimate free artist in that she never bound herself to any one style or school. She did as she pleased and she did it with great skill. Perhaps this was due to the fact that her art was not tied to her financial survival. She led a happy life within her family and did not need to brand herself in order to sell her works, so her art was dictated by nothing other than her intellectual ambitions.

As seen through western eyes, Choucair’s works can seem inherently western. After all, in 1948 she did leave her native Lebanon and travel to Paris for three years where she studied drawing, mural painting, sculpting and engraving at the prestigious Ecole Nationale Superieure des Beaux- Arts. It was here where she encountered abstract modernism and met/became the pupil of the cubist, figurative painter Fernand Leger. Indeed, the domestic scenes she portrays in Les Peintres Celebres are likely to be based around Leger’s Le Grand Dejeuner.

In fact, many of her paintings in this room bear a resemblance to those of western artists such as Ben Nicholson, Joseph Albers and  Ellsworth Kelly can all be considered to have similar elements. Whilst it would be true that there are elements of Western modernist styles and techniques, even to Choucair herself, suggesting that her work represents western ideals would be to miss the point entirely.

In 1943, Choucair had taken a trip to Cairo where she fell in love with Islamic art and architecture filled, as they are, with geometric patterns, calligraphic scripts and structural features. If looked at with a more discerning eye and with the awareness of Middle Eastern history, the Islamic, and perhaps more importantly, the Arabic influence and sovereignty in her work becomes apparent. Abstraction lies at the heart of Choucair’s work and it is working within this realm that she is not turning to modern western values in art but rather returning and embracing the traditional and historic Middle Eastern values of non-representational, geometric and mathematical beauty.

Representational art as the foundation from which all modern and experimental artworks diverged is a foreign concept in Middle Eastern art, whose convention lies in abstraction and for which to create representational art would have been the ultimate divergence.  

If another look is taken at Les Peintres Celebres series, it is possible to see the geometric shapes the nudes conform to. Choucair has turned figurative painting on its head and instead of using shapes to portray figures, she uses figures to emphasis shapes and patterns that evoke designs often found in Arabic script and Islamic art. 


Les Peintes Celebres (1948-9) © Saloua Raouda Choucair Foundation



Untitled (1948-9) © Saloua Raouda Choucair FoundationImage

Abstract paintings in Gouache done during the same period as the more figurative designs © Saloua Raouda Choucair Foundation 


In the middle of the first room of the exhibition stands a piece unlike any that surround it. A wooden carved sculpture is simultaneously our first indication as well as her first venture into where she was heading in a mid and later career. In this piece can be seen the architectural elements that are found in Islamic buildings as well as the ideas of eternity prominent in Sufi poetry.  The curvature of the lines is reminiscent of the infinity sign and creates a sensuous introduction into the next room.

Room 2

Choucair’ s painting’s developed in the late 1940s into what she termed “Fractional Modules”,  which indicate her interest and study of algebraic geometry with its emphasis on plane curves and line intersections.  These elements can be clearly seen in her oil painting Composition in Blue Module 1947-51 



Composition in Blue Module (1947-51) © Saloua Raouda Choucair Foundation



Rhythmical Composition in Yellow (1952-5) © Saloua Raouda Choucair Foundation

It’s possible to mistake Choucair’s Rhythmical Composition in Yellow  (also in the second room)  as a piece by artists such as Jean Arp, Robert Delauney, Juan Gris, László_Moholy-Nagy, EL Lissitzky or Alexander Vesnin

This is deceptive as this painting is another circumstance where one can compare it to artists reaching the same destination from opposing directions. The jagged lines, block forms and colours can simultaneously be described as Western as well as Middle Eastern

In the second room of the exhibition, we predominantly see the continuation of Choucair’s inevitable progression into the realm of sculpture.  After a brief stint in America, where she studied enamelling techniques and jewellery making, Choucair returned to Beirut in the early 1950s to concentrate on executing her ideas in three dimensional forms.

The potential infinite trajectory and variability of the line was the focal point of her earliest sculptural series. One such example is her Sculpture with One Thousand Pieces 1966-8


Sculpture with One Thousand Pieces 1966-8© Saloua Raouda Choucair Foundation

This piece seems simple upon first viewing, but a greater understanding and appreciation of the intricate craftsmanship that was needed for its creation develops on closer examination. The block houses intricately carved and highly complex internal forms as perplexing as the ancient puzzle balls of China. These forms, taken together, indicate a possible infinite pattern that extends beyond the visible material world.

However, this piece is not only interesting as an art piece but also as an insight into the life of the artist. The assistant curator of the exhibition, Ann Coxon, informs us that this piece along with all of Choucair’s sculptural works, were either put to use or strewn about the artist’s house. This one in particular was used as a lamp, with a light bulb being placed inside it. The gallery’s decision to not include the light bulb was an understandably difficult one as either way, something would have been lost. As it currently is, we are deprived of being able to view the piece as it was used by the artist herself, and so lose the personal touch. However, although it would have been interesting to see, we are given the original intellectual intention of the work unfettered by any overt personal elements, which may have been considered irrelevant by Choucair.

The stress on the irrelevancy of the artist and any political/personal interpretations of her works is admirable. She is not a confessional artist. She is not here to sell her ego, nor is she interested in the transient and limiting politics that surround her. She works on a purely intellectual basis, a realm that values mathematical and scientific principles above arbitrary or subjective notions of identity and politics.

This room also showcases Choucair’s experimentation with materials, ideas and her fascination with the forms of Sufi poetry. One of the defining characteristics of Sufi poetry, be it Rumi, Hafiz or Farid ud-Din, is the fact that each stanza of a poem may stand alone or be taken as part of a whole, and so it is with Choucair’s sculptural series entitled Poems. The flexibility and variability of these pieces work in the same manner, their parts may be taken individually or as a whole. They are intended to be interactive, however in order to last the exhibition, people are asked not to move them.

 One of the series called Infinite Structure 1963-5 consists of twelve rectangular stone blocks that may be piled on top of each other, taken apart and arranged in any manner. It was made in part as an homage to Constantin Brancusi’s (1876–1957) project Endless Column, version1 1918  (now at MoMA, NY) but with the carved geometric flavour of Islamic interrelated forms.  Choucair considered each block to have its own unique character, while still forming part of the whole. The photo below shows it grouped respectively into 4 and 8 pieces but this is a decision the curator had to make in presenting it. It is possible to have it displayed a number of ways and the point of the piece is that it is changeable, it is fluid with many possibilities, it is infinite yet it’s one piece and yet also one of a series.



Infinite Structure (1963-5) © Saloua Raouda Choucair Foundation

Another series, Duals, plays with the idea of interaction, balance and harmony. The artist uses wood, stone and silver to create forms of intimate embraces. These sculptures also consist of more than one part but unlike the poem series, the parts in Duals cannot stand alone, they need their partners to complete them. 



The Screw (1975-7) © Saloua Raouda Choucair Foundation

The screw is carved out of wood of three different colours and consists of three interlocking parts that can only be fitted together in one particular way in order to complete the piece. This work, perhaps unintentionally, resembles a set of human lungs and can be considered a metaphor for human connections and the idea that life can only exist in an interconnected manner 



The Screw dismantled (1975-7) © Saloua Raouda Choucair Foundation

In this room, the versatility of Choucair’s craftsmanship can be seen as she also worked in plastic, metal and was one of the first to experiment with fibreglass in sculptural form.

Room 3

The third room of the exhibition fastens around the belief that art and daily life ought to be linked. In a large display there can be seen various small maquettes that were created throughout Choucair’s career. There are models for public sculptures, fountains, park benches along with smaller items that are to be used in personal households such as jewellery and salt and pepper shakers.  To Choucair there is no barrier between art and daily life, these two elements informed and complemented each other.  In 1963, she was awarded the National Council of Tourism Prize for the execution of a stone sculpture for a public site in Beirut.

Above one of the displays is a painting entitled Two=One, a piece that again speaks to the infinite and of the connection between duality and unity. This work is significant for another reason; it is the first and only indication in her art of the context in which the artist was working. It is a modular piece from the 1940s which was pierced by shards of glass from Choucair’s apartment window when a bomb hit nearby during a bombing raid in the Lebanese civil war of 1980’s. Many holes and a piece of glass are still visible upon close inspection of the piece. 



Two=One (1947-51) (complete with hole at its centre) © Saloua Raouda Choucair Foundation

This is a piece more anthropological and archaeological in nature, in the sense that it tells us more about the artist and her life than it does her art. Unfortunately this piece is overshadowed by its historical experience, and I fear that it is appreciated more for what it’s been through than for its artistic elements.

This leads us to the astonishing pieces in the fourth and final room of the exhibition.

Room 4

You would be forgiven for thinking that you have stumbled into a very different exhibition upon entering this last room. 

 The sculptures in this room are made of acrylic and nylon wired, spun steel and glass and instantly take your mind to artists such as Barbara Hepworth in their sculptural abstraction. These masterpieces permeate with the Sufi sense of infinity, movement and the beauty of mathematics.  



In one piece, Choucair uses one single piece of thread to emphasise the multi dimensional dynamic possibilities of curves and lines. This room also shows the artist’s continuing fascination with the possibility of sculpting with water. She designed fountain heads, such as Water lens, 1969-71, which led translucent streams of water to follow the “trajectory of the line” in a kinetic interplay between light and motion. 



Waterlens 1969-71 © Saloua Raouda Choucair Foundation

The 1980s and 1990s issued forth some recognition and awards for her work. In 1982, Choucair was commissioned to create a major public sculpture by the Lebanese Lions’ Club and further commissions followed including one which currently stands in the Gibran Khalil Gibran Garden in downtown Beirut. Then in 2011, the Beirut Exhibition centre held a major retrospective of her work.

The Tate’s decision to hold an exhibition of Choucair’s works is commendable, but this a recognition long overdue for an artist who has worked ceaselessly and innovatively for the best part of five decades, always keeping the visual potential of abstract intellectual ideas at the core of her work. Let’s hope this exhibit is an indication that the art world is catching up with this visionary and pioneering artist.


This exhibition runs from April 17–November 17, 1013, at the Tate Modern, London.
Admission £10 (£8.50 concessions)
Open 10am to 6pm every day and 10pm on Friday and Saturday.
020 7887 8888



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