DOHA, Qatar — Huguette Caland was born in 1930 to a Lebanon on the cusp of decolonization. Her father, Bechara El Khoury, became the president of the first Lebanese Republic in 1943, a position that burdened her with the rigid demands of public life, but accorded her a certain class mobility as she attained degrees in law and later on in art. Caland began charting her own life after her father’s passing in 1964, entering a world of her own. Her resistance to labels and her devotional love for experimentation transcends her practice, using different mediums from oil to ink to sculpture and textiles. Her varied and wildly compelling works come to life in the exhibit Huguette Caland: Faces and Places at Mathaf: the Modern Museum of Arab Art.

In the Beirut of the 1960s, an era often labeled in the fraught and classed prism as“the golden age,” Caland shed the tight-fitting and western clothes of her class and adopted the caftan. The radicalism of her sartorial choices is not to be underestimated. The caftan was not a desired dress in French-minded elite circles as it represented an ideologically Arab aesthetic. In designing and wearing such garments, she used the breeziness and loose-fittingness of the caftan to resist the Eurocentric male gaze universalized through haute couture.

Installation view of Huguette Caland: Faces and Places, 2020, Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art, Doha

At an exhibition talk, organized by the curator, Mohammed Rashid Al Thani, Caland’s daughter, Brigitte, indicated that Caland did not label herself as a feminist and simply wanted to live comfortably. The caftans on display at Mathaf demonstrate Caland’s gaze unto her body, which was loving and playful. Some of the caftans designed with Pierre Cardin had an elegant futurism to them, switching between colorful lines and reliefs. On others, she splashed paint, creating exuberant colors and blurring the lines between art on the canvas and as a mode of living.

In labeling the exhibition galleries after the cities Caland lived in, the curators highlight the importance of migration and geography to her practice. Her life chapters are understood through a restlessness and a desire for change be it physical or ideological. Each city inspired Caland to employ different materials and instilled new intellectual curiosity. 

In Paris, Caland radicalized her representation of the body while still following her devotional love for drawing a line, from which faces, curves, and sensual worlds emerged. “Bribes de Corps” (1973) painted with oil on linen, stands as a conceptual map to her abstract work on the body, in which fleshy and curvaceous forms illuminate the canvas, leaving iconic and small white patches in between. In “Sunrise” (1973), a geological landscape gives way to bodily figures. A yearning for love permeates the painting.

Huguette Caland, “Espace Blanc I” (1984), oil on linen, 200 x 200 cm

Caland’s erotic interpretations of the female body were not well received in the Parisian art circles at the time, when actors like Brigitte Bardot and Catherine Deneuve represented the norms of feminine beauty. However, it is important to note that Caland was not alone in her avant-garde approach, creating as she was alongside other Lebanese women artists such as Helen Khal and Salwa Rawda Choucair. The power of their friendships and innovative artworks was previously demonstrated at the Sursock Museum in Beirut. 

Leaving the rigid urbanity of Paris behind, Caland spent time in California, during which a lucid happiness enveloped her work; the California weather and mode of life manifests in deep blue seas and colorful suburban houses dotted her canvases. In “Apple Green & Green Tomatoes” (2010), Caland’s worlds collide beautifully, cross-stitched together on a canvas, forming a poetic elegy. Lines give way to more colorful ones forming Arabic phrases, curiously drawn creatures, and whimsical landscapes. Craftwork and stitching was important to Caland, who later formed the NGO Inaash, employing Palestinian women living in precarious refugee camps in Lebanon — a move that was not accepted in the Maronite political circles of her late father. 

Installation view of Huguette Caland: Faces and Places, 2020, Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art, Doha

Viewing Caland’s work after the harrowing port explosion that rocked Beirut on August 4, one cannot help but think about the promise of beauty in her work and her resolve to politicize and complicate beauty. Caland insisted on practicing and painting love — a sobering message — as we watch Beirut being ransacked by loveless politicians. 

Huguette Caland: Faces and Places continues through November 30 at Mathaf: the Modern Museum of Arab Art (Education City, Doha, Qatar).

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