Woman Artist in Lebanon by Helen Khal (Copyright Institute for Women's
Studies in the Arab World, 1987) -Next-
As a designation,
"woman artist" contains within it a dual and alternate
condition of status and role, both of which demand close and careful
consideration. Unlike her male counterpart to whom work and life
are one, the woman artist suffers from a conflict between her chosen
career and the basic functions of her life as a woman, wife, and
mother. Between <<role >> as artist and <<status>>
as woman, she experiences a provoking undercurrent of tension engendered
by the polarized forces of freedom and restriction that exist in
In her status as woman, she is confronted with certain confining
patterns of behavior and function imposed upon her by society and
tradition. In her role as artist, on the other hand, she is offered
an existence of her own creation, a private identity free predetermined
In examining this diametric condition of our woman artist in Lebanon,
an initial exploration into the separate structures of her status
and role is necessary. In essence, contemporary art and society
in Lebanon provide and determine her role, while her status as woman
continues to be shaped by the wider traditional norms that govern
the conduct and basic function of woman in Lebanon and the rest
of the Arab word.
Status as Woman
For the past thirty years, at least, conditions have been favorable
in Lebanon for the entry of woman into most professions, including
art, which were previously the exclusive domain of men. Given Lebanon’s
high level of social freedom and modernization, as well as the backdrop
of ethnic and religious diversity that has lent unique flexibility
to the democratic life of the country, the woman in Lebanon has
been able to move far beyond the repressive codes that still painfully
bind many of her Arab sisters.
Although remnants of traditional attitudes still persist, particularly
in rural areas, a high rate of literacy, the penetrative influence
of modern communications media, and the proximity of rural to urban
areas have nurtured an energetic cultural and physical mobility
in the society, thus greatly minimizing differences in social behavior.
Receptivity and adaptability to change have long been strong traits
in the Lebanese character and have bred a climate sympathetic to
innovative thought and action.
Within the framework of such apparent advantages, the woman in Lebanon
has been able to pursue an interest or assume a role well beyond
the dictates of her conventional status.
Beneath the surface of this progressive attitude, however, there
still remains an active core of traditional response which, emotional
in essence and without rational control, continues to manifest itself
in certain aspects of female (and male) behavior. Despite vocal
protestations to the contrary and conditioned as she has been to
accept the inevitability of her acquiescent female position, our
woman professional is often uncomfortably closer in practice to
the restricting image of traditional woman than her announced liberation
pretends. She suffers from much the same symptoms of traditional
handicap as women elsewhere in the world. In Arab society, however,
these symptoms are compounded by the presence in her life of a male
whose culturally inbred ego status dominates the relationship and
insists that first and foremost she remain a woman, with any other
interest beyond him and family to be considered as no more than
a secondary and dispensable diversion.
Herein lies the contradiction in her dual function, a contradiction
which remains an unconscious irritant and is often a trying obstacle
in the fulfillment of her professional role. As she attempts to
move beyond an existing male-female hierarchal condition towards
that ideal state of equality to which she aspires, frustrating conflicts
It may be precisely the presence of this conflict, however, that
generates the creative energy of the woman artist. She is seeking
a private world of her own, independent and secure from the invasion
of outside controlling forces. In her art, she attempts to resolve
the painful tensions in her life, to express a true image of herself,
her needs and aspirations and, in so doing, assert her identity
and achieve her ultimate liberation.
Role as Artist
Woman‘s role as professional artist, on the other hand, is played
out within the context of Lebanon’s contemporary art, the background
and present status of which should be outlined before we can define
her place in it.
To begin with brief historical fact, the practice of contemporary
art in Lebanon (and in the rest of the Arab world) began no more
than a hundred years ago and emerged as one of the fringe influences
of the developing foreign interests in the area. It must be remembered
that contemporary art has no roots in Arab cultural heritage that
is originated in Europe and out of the Renaissance tradition, whose
paths of expression were significantly different. For the Arab world
(and for most other regions of the world that also remained for
centuries in a similar cultural isolation), it is an adopted art
form - one which did not effectively penetrate these borders until
the late 19th century, along with the advent of facilitated international
communications, travel and cultural exchange .Until then for centuries
before, the Arab aesthetic experience had remained rooted in Islam,
fed and determined by a civilization in which art functioned as
an integral and intimate expression of the society and which, in
turn, through its abundant genius and at its height, produced some
of the world’s most impressive cultural achievements.
In Europe, meanwhile, an art of new concept and purpose had developed,
and this was the one finally to reach Arab shores. Throughout the
Renaissance centuries, art had been utilized as the disciplined
servant of European society. But by the end of the 19th century,
there bad emerged an “art for art’s sake” concept, which proclaimed
that art was a free agent and that prophecy, critical comment, interpretation
or the private emotional continent of the artist would henceforth
give art its meaning and purpose. And so “The Artist” was born -
an individual dedicated to total freedom, who would create first
to serve himself and then the people. In the process, the artist
became an outsider to society and at the same time appointed himself
its judge and mentor.
It was at this point that Arab artists entered the arena. Faced
with more than a new art tradition and the simple learning of foreign
techniques of brush and paint, they also had a new peer, “The Artist”,
to emulate. And as infants, they moved cautiously. In 1910, while
Lebanon’s first artist were still learning how to paint in the classical
and romantic style or, with more adventurous spirit, in the then
prevalent impressionistic manner, a number of European artists were
engaged in a dramatic revolution with the past and had already invented
the bold styles of cubism, abstraction and surrealism. It would
take Arab artists two more generations to catch up, to assimilate
and adopt the substance of these new ideas. Decades of experience
would be needed before they could identify with and finally seek
entry into that international legion of contemporary artists whose
creative loyalties now lie beyond all man-made borders and belong
to that wider horizon of one universal art.
As her male counterpart today, the woman artist in Lebanon also
aspires to his international identity; she is no content with provincialism
in her art and is directing her creative purpose beyond the confines
of regional achievement. On this level, she departs from her existing
duality as woman–artist in Lebanon and finds herself assuming an
asexual role in the pursuit of her professional aspirations. This,
in turn, again aggravates her condition and adds pressure to the
already burdened compromise she has accepted in her function as
a woman-artiste within her own society. In extending her horizon
as an artist, she also exposes herself as a woman to further and
more drastic change, thus adding new complications to the ambiguities
which still assail her life at home. She insists, however, that
her basic desire is to transcend tradition limitations of status
without forfeiting her essential womanhood, which she still cherishes
and wants to retain. She believes that as an artist she can do so.
are the conditions of status and role that currently confront the
woman artist in Lebanon. She enjoys advantages and suffers difficulties
much to the same extent, though of different content, as do woman
artists in the West. In the United States, for instance, in addition
to the similar challenge of reconciling the demands of her life
as a woman with those of her profession, the woman artist has to
contend with a further obstacle. Although during the past several
decades she has gained greater legal and social freedom and equality
as a woman, the American female artist still faces the problems
of covert discrimination and unequal opportunity in her career.
The conflicts and challenges experienced by the woman artist in
America have been a recurring theme in publications of the last
decade on the subject. To quote one example, an article by Jill
Robinson in Art World (January, 1980), declares : "… there
has always been a duality of roles for woman artists. Few male artists
have had to consider their lives as men as distinct from their work.
Few have had to fight so hard to avoid making that distinction ,
to defend the priority of the creative identity."
Apart from the
personal woman-artist dichotomy in her life that she attempts to
resolve, the American woman artist’s primary concern has been to
penetrate a male-dominated profession and achieve equal recognition
in the field. In museums, galleries, and group exhibitions across
the country, the presence of works by woman artists until recently
has been minimal and very often little more than a token gesture
towards a professed equality. Few women artists in America were
able to establish a public prominence equal to that of the country’s
leading male artists. The names of only a handful are well known:
Mary Cassatt, Isabel Bishop, Georgia O’Keeffe, Louise Nevelson and
Helen Frankenthaler. Their works have been accorded equal recognition
and appear in museums alongside works by America’s top male artists.
The woman artist in Lebanon, on the other hand, has not and does
not suffer from lack of recognition in her profession. Her primary
concern lies instead in harmonizing her dual functions as a woman
and as an artist, Through her life and work as an artist, she seeks
the freedoms still denied her as a woman and as a person.
general observations to details of the woman artist’s development
in Lebanon, we begin with the who, when, and how of her entry into
the field. Although there were certainly some women privately engaged
in painting earlier, it wasn’t until the thirties that women artists
first appeared before the public. In 1931, L’Ecole des Arts et Métiers
in Beirut organized the first group exhibition of contemporary art
in Lebanon. Alongside the works of the country’s leading artists
hung those of several women, among them Blanche Ammoun, Marie Haddad,
Gladys Shoukair, and Mrs. Bart. Their paintings were commented upon
in a critique which appeared in the French monthly publication Tout
(Beirut, January 1931), signed simply with the initials “R.C.” It
merits, particularly for the relevance of its penultimate paragraph,
the following full translation:
The exhibition organized by L’Ecole des Arts et Métiers
was a definite success in the number of works shown and in the number
of visitors. Everyone was impressed by the prolific Lebanese talents,
which proved interesting and show a promising artistic effort.
In evidence were many beginners, many childish works, about which
no more can be said except that their charm lay in their defects.
Among the best painters exhibiting, we mention Mrs. Bart‘s solid
and well-defined still lifes, Mrs. Haddad’s tormented brush, Miss
Shoukair‘s rigorous and somber heads; Kober , for his Lebanese and
Syrian landscapes full of taste and personality; Mourani, for his
bright colors; Farrouk, solid as always; Gemayel and his very beautiful
crayons; Azem , primitive but original; Onsi, about whom much good
is said but who needs to work, shows very much originality and some
interesting compositions; Serour , the master of Lebanese painters,
always discreet in tonality and solid in allure; Lecocq, impressionist
painter, an obsolete genre today; Dr. Geoffrey for some good studies;
Miss Ammoun for some ideas well expressed.
Among the beginners, even among those who didn’t study in Western
schools, one senses a false effort, very false, toward a modernism
that they don’t understand. Most of them are not trying to be original;
they are trying to be modern, and this is frightful. I like more
a sincere artist like Gemayel, perhaps backward, but who knows what
he is doing. This is a serious weakness which must be overcome.
Another observation is that the only local painters who succeed
in being very good, who have done interesting things and remain
original, are the women .The best painters of this exhibition are:
Mesdames Bart, Haddad, and Shoukair. We say this without hesitation.
These ladies are superior to all the scholarship-grantee (boursiers)
specialists and professionals in this art .There is in this a fine
encouragement for local feminism. Is there significance in this?
In summary, an excellent initiative, which marks a first artistic
activity and which presents authentic Lebanese elements, thus providing
for an evaluation of individual efforts and a comparison of temperaments
and talents and establishing, in a sharp manner, the actual physiognomy
of Lebanese painting.
This laudatory recognition of the woman artist in Lebanon upon her
first public appearance may be explained by two relevant factors.
The penetration of French cultural influence at the time was at
its strongest, and painting was a new and fashionable pastime for
the young ladies of an existent Francophile elite. Also, the women
exhibiting were pupils of a Polish artist, Jean Kober, who undoubtedly
stimulated his students to exhibit and also, one may deduce, assured
their recognition by the press as well. Another review of the exhibition
by the same “R.C.” (Tout, January 31, 1931) was devoted entirely
to the work of Kober’s pupils and included this remark: “His school
in effect, commands attention from all by its great qualities, its
original and personal technique. In all the works exhibited by his
students, one feels a unanimous will, a secret bond which links
them, a force which directs them towards artistic perfection. “This
declaration is followed by a lengthy commentary on the works of
the four women artists mentioned previously.
This significant fact, however, is that with this exhibition women
artists definitely and publicly asserted their presence in Lebanon.
During that decade, a few other women appeared sporadically on the
scene. In the Arabic publication Al-Maarad (July 4, 1934), for example,
one finds a painting by a Waddad Nassif reproduced among others.
Only two artists of that period, however, continued seriously to
paint - Marie Haddad and Blanche Ammoun. Details of the life of
the latter are related in one of the profiles in this study, white
the story of Marie Haddad remains largely a mystery. She was the
first woman artist to have an individual exhibition (both in Paris
and in Beirut in 1933) and was a writer as well (a collection of
her short stories was published in Beirut in 1937). She disappeared
completely from the public scene during the forties, however, and
spent the rest of her life until her death in the late sixties in
almost complete seclusion and under the total domination of Daahesh,
a self-styled psychic guru.
Clearly, the climate at the time was receptive to the presence of
women artists. In contrast, women were able to enter other professions
only with difficulty. Blanche Ammoun, as we have seen, was recognized
as an artist, yet in her pursuit of a law degree she faced an entirely
different reaction. She relates her experience in the late twenties,
when she and Nina Trad were the first women to apply for admission
to the Jesuit faculty of Law in Beirut. Despite strong opposition
they were admitted, but only upon the condition that they study
privately and not attend classes. The reason for this, they were
told, was that ‘‘the young men are not yet prepared to see women
in a university.” Accepting this unusual condition, the young women
didn’t attend classes, studied at home, and passed the final examinations
in 1931 (the same year Blanche exhibited at L’Ecole).
Before the graduation ceremonies, Hamid Frangieh, who was to award
the degrees tried to persuade the two young women not to appear
on the podium to receive their diplomas in public .When they objected,
he gave them a polite but firm ultimatum: “If you walk up before
me like all the men, I will not mention your names in my allocution:
but If you remain discreetly in the audience, I will announce your
names”. Preferring to be seen rather than merely mentioned, they
chose the podium.
One can surmise that the reason for this contradictory situation
lay in a difference of evaluation between the two professions. Art
was not considered a serious male occupation; law was. And women
were not supposed to intrude upon any serious domain of men. On
the other hand, art was a refined and harmless occupation, like
music or embroidery, for a young woman to undertake; and in that
period of dominating French cultural influence, it was very much
encouraged .This difference of attitude, still persisting today,
facilitates woman’s venture into the arts. In contrast, men are
discouraged from becoming artists; their function is accepted to
be one of practical and economically productive endeavor.
A second generation of women artists began developing in the mid-forties,
when the Academie Libanaise des beaux Arts (ALBA) were established
as the country’s first art school. The proportion of women students
to men at that time was approximately 50 percent, a proportion still
maintained today. At the Institute of Fine Arts of the Lebanese
University (established in 1963), the proportion has been about
30 percent; while at the Fine Arts Department of the American University
of Beirut (AUB), it was in the range of 75 percent the Department
was dissolved in 1976 .Beirut University College (BUC), which was
previously the Beirut College for Women (BCW) and exclusively a
women’s college, is now coeducational. Its student body is still
predominantly female, however, with a minority of male students
in every department, including art.
However, few of these students (male or female) continue beyond
training to become professional artists. The majority go on to become
teachers, work in the commercial art world, or drop out of the field
entirely. This is typical of art students everywhere; among the
many thousands all over the world, only a dedicated minority chooses
to endure the hardships and insecurities of an artist’s life.
Number of Artists and Extent of Recognition
To find some common circumstances that could account for the large
concentration of women artists in Lebanon, we correlated the information
we obtained from the artist concerning their origin, art education
and economic background, and established that:
--Almost one-third of the artists were of non-Lebanese origin (either
other Arab or foreign).
--Almost half of the artists received their training outside of
Lebanon and one-fourth were self-taught or received private instruction.
--Many of the artists, whether of Lebanese origin or not, spent
their formative years outside of Lebanon.
--All the artists except one came from family back-grounds whose
economic status was either average or above average, whose parents
(one or both) were educated, and whose childhood environments provided
good cultural exposure and sometimes actual experience in the arts.
Favorable personal circumstances helped many become artists, and
other circumstances sometimes disruptive and forced brought or returned
a significant number to Lebanon. In Lebanon itself, as mentioned
earlier, the social advantages of a progressive society and its
heightened in the arts encouraged not only the presence of women
artists, but also provided opportunity for further development of
Numerical presence, however, does not in itself lead to an actively
functioning, recognized presence (as indicated by the status of
women artists in America). To find reasons for this recognized presence
in Lebanon the following question was asked in all the interviews
conducted: “Did you know that the proportion of recognized women
artists to total number of artists is higher in Lebanon than in
most other countries, whether in the Arab world or in the West;
and that four out of the twelve leading artists in Lebanon are women?
How would you explain this?”
The answers from people in various fields provided a wide range
of opinion and resulted in his composite summary:
--They have time, with nothing else to do; it’s an easy, fashionable
diversion that adds glamour to their lives.
--They don’t have to worry about earning a living; most of them
are supported by husband or family, have servants to do their housework,
and can afford the luxury of being an artist without any of the
--It’s all part of Lebanon’s modern society; woman has more freedom
here, is educated, cultured and all professions are open to her.
--The standards of appreciation are lower here; we recognize anything
put on public exhibition, no matter who produces it.
--We indulge her in this harmless pastime, as we do a child who
proudly shows us its first drawings… and we applaud. It’s all part
of attention, protection and support a woman‘s family and the community
--Women here are spontaneous, daring, have a kind of arrogant confidence
that they can do anything; they‘re not awed by Art, not intimidated,
and don’t hesitate to try it themselves.
--It’s something she can do at home, one of the few safe occupations
in whish she can exercise her individuality without endangering
her protected position, and one which provides her with the satisfying
recognition of being more than “just a woman.”
--It’s one of the best ways to express a repressed personality,
which is what the woman in the East is -repressed and oppressed.
In art, even more than in writing, she can be intimate, honest,
about her most private feelings. It’s the most satisfying, most
direct medium of expression she can have, faced as she still is
with so many prohibitions imposed by society… and by herself on
--For so long women have been second-class citizens. Now that is
changing , and they move with impatient aggressive energy to grasp
whatever opportunities they have to establish themselves as equals.
--It’s one of the few permissible windows in her “harem”. Through
it, she can discreetly express all that she feels and thinks. She
paints now as in the past she embroidered poems to her beloved on
a soft, silk handkerchief, with care and fine taste for “Zakhrafeh”
(decoration) as well as for depth of emotion. Most of them now still
paint poems, but for a few it is their path to liberation.
Despite the specific phraseology of our question concerning recognition,
many of respondents confined their answers to the fact of numerical
presence instead. When pressed, the replies were vague and assumed
recognition as a natural and established fact concurrent with number.
Despite this lack of differentiation, two separate though related
attitudes in the above summary were revealed and deserve definition.
One attitude, which is clearly a patronizing one, regards women’s
participation as little more than amateur and says: We have many
women artists because it’s a pleasant and easy hobby and they have
the time and economic status to afford it; because our level of
aesthetic appreciation is still immature and undiscriminating; and
because, regarding it as a harmless freedom, we indulge her in this
unthreatening and non-competitive occupation.” This attitude accepts
the extent of recognition, but gives little value of that recognition.
Inherent in the other attitude is a more respectful opinion that
says the woman artist in Lebanon is worthy of serious consideration.
It voices a qualitative response in suggesting possible reasons
for motivation, as well as for the extent of recognition .Here we
find a reply which, in effect says: “Woman in Lebanon has tasted
freedom, and reacts with tremendous energy to hold on to it and
extend it. Though the skirt she wears still trails behind her in
the sands of tradition, raising clouds of obstacle, and though the
comfort and security of the ‘harem’ still entice her, she is determined
in her purpose and moves rapidly. She is a transitional who is trying
to hold on to the best of two worlds and plays it safe by asserting
herself and communicating her private feeling and needs through
art , which she views as the most effective medium for her particular
revolution . The intensity of her efforts, her serious purpose,
If the woman artist herself aggressively pushed toward recognition,
there were a few other elements which also contributed strongly
to the extent of her public recognition and help explain why it
was higher in Lebanon that in other countries:
--It was not difficult to exhibit in Lebanon. Beirut had become
the art center of the Middle East and provided many easy facilities
for exhibition in its numerous galleries, cultural centers, educational
institutions, and business establishments. Any artist, even the
rank beginner, who wanted to exhibit, could find a receptive wall.
Approximately 150 exhibitions, group and individual, occurred in
Lebanon each season - which was much more than in any other country
of the area and higher by proportionate measure than in many countries
of the West.
--Cultural activities in Lebanon received wide coverage in the press,
radio, and television media. Cosmopolitan on one level, Beirut society
was still a small community where practically all events were reported
and any artist (male or female) who exhibited was given media recognition.
--Because women in the professions were still a relatively new phenomenon,
even in modern Lebanon, whatever a woman did was publicly noticed.
Since recognition depends on effective means communication and exposure,
which for artists depends on the availability of exhibition facilities
and media coverage, we studied our interviews with gallery directors
and art critics in Lebanon for further clarification on the woman
artist’s public stature.
Gallery directors were about equally divided in their opinion of
women artists. Some them not as professionally oriented as men and
hesitated to arrange exhibitions for them, while others saw no difference
and based their decision to exhibit an artist purely on aesthetic
quality of the work. About one-third of the exhibitions conducted
by Beirut galleries were for women artists. There was no significant
difference in the amount of work sold; prominence and popular appeal
of the artist determined sales, regardless of the sex of the artist.
Hotels, where many exhibitions were held, provided facilities without
discrimination to any artist who could pay the rental fee and arrange
his or her own show.
Critics on the whole, made no difference at all between men and
women artists and declared that their judgment was based solely
on merit of work. They gave as much attention and space in their
reviews to exhibitions by women artists as they did to those by
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