Nadia Saikali

modern artist

(b 1936)

The movement has always interested me very much. Physically, I need to move; and my paintings must move, too, whether figurative or abstract. But this movement can be either an inner movement or an actual one. It can be expressed through many obvious gestures, or through one subtle manifestation of life, like quiet breathing. A painting breathes and moves, becomes, expresses its own life. This sense of movement in life, of cosmic energy, grows out of me, enters the painting, and becomes a separate, living entity."

The drawing of the lion was too accomplished for a ten-year-old, thought the teacher. Surely it must have been traced and copied from a photograph, she decided - and accordingly graded it with a zero. Nadia Saikali still remembers, with indignation, that early, unjust evaluation of her creative efforts. On the other hand, she remembers with satisfaction the caricatures she drew of her mathematics teacher on the blackboard and how, when the misconduct was reported, the principal was more amused than reprimanding when he saw them.

When you ask Nadia Saikali how long she has been painting, she replies: "All my life." As soon as she could control a pencil in her hand, her father (a fine draughtsman himself) began to teach her drawing. He made the learning of art a game for his children, providing them with colored chalks and permitting them to use the tiled balcony floor as a drawing board. In his dental laboratory, they were given the clay and plaster and wax of his profession to mold into miniature figures; and in the kitchen, there was the left-over pastry dough to play with.

"There was so much that my parents encouraged us to do, Nadia recalls, "and very early I became interested in many different forms of expression - in the drawing, painting, ceramics; in music, dance, theater. For the first eighteen years of my life, I didn't know which to choose, which to concentrate on. When I finished my Bacc studies and enrolled in ALBA, I was taking both music and painting there... and meanwhile also continuing with ballet lessons at another school. I loved dancing most of all, had a tremendous pleasure in the physical movement of it, and really wanted to be a ballet dancer. But here, my parents said no; not a dancer, they said... you can't take that up seriously... that's not a proper life for a girl of your background..."

Providentially, the ballet school shut down, and Nadia was left to concentrate on art and music at the Academy. But another decision had to be made, and it was her music teacher who finally forced it. To become a good pianist, he told her, you must practice a minimum of five hours a day... and to do that, you'll have to give up your other interests. Too full of physical energy, Nadia couldn't imagine sitting in one spot for hours at a time; she decided to give up piano. By such process of elimination, Nadia arrived at painting; and when finished her art studies at ALBA, she went off to Paris to continue there.

At 20, Nadia fell in love. After a whirlwind romance she married the handsome young Welshman who dramatically had saved her from drowning soon after they met in Beirut. The first year of their marriage, he took her to live in Glasgow. To Nadia it was a dismal time - "The world there was so cold and grey, I thought I would die... I missed the Mediterranean sun so much. "They soon returned to Lebanon, but nine years and two children later they divorced.

In talking about the compatibility of marriage and art, Nadia's views are perhaps typical of most women artists who have married: "It's a very difficult matter, and depends a lot on the kind of husband a woman has, how much of her time and attention he demands, how traditional his attitudes are toward marriage and the obligations of a wife. Most of the time the priority must be given to the marriage, and in our society, the woman is still too bound by tradition and feels guilty if she doesn't fulfill her duties as a conventional wife and mother. Even though my husband traveled a lot in his work and I was left with much time to spend on my painting, I still felt torn between the two obligations of home and art, especially after the children arrived. It's motherhood, really, more than marriage that poses the greatest obstacle, especially when the children are young. A woman must have a tremendous amount of energy to cope with that and art, too, at the same time. It's exhausting, physically and emotionally."

Throughout her married years, however, and even with young children to care for, Nadia never stopped painting. She always had in the household her own working space - first only the corner of a room, then later an entire room to which she could retreat from wifehood and motherhood for as many hours as she could salvage from the daily demands of family.

Nadia's working habits, the paint-spattered and disordered atmosphere of her studio, could well fit into an ideal scenario of "the bohemian artist at work." She uses no easel, paints either on the floor or against a wall. Canvasses, large and small, surround her; pots and tubes of paints, brushes knives, rags clutter the floor. She moves through this confusion of materials with the sure swift grace of an antelope, and when she paints, her whole body, the body of a dancer, moves into action; the gesture which is expressed in paint flows from a total arm and torso movement, spontaneous and yet controlled. She says, "I need to move in a rhythmic way, a total way. There has always been this kind of movement in my work. At first, the physical gestures were a series of limited statements expressionistically made, but now the 'dance' I am doing is more total and contained, more interior and of the spirit than of the body. Maybe it's maturity, to be able to express life in one long, slow sweep across the canvas, rather than in a series of small, quick nervous gestures."

The evolution of Nadia's work was a gradual process of following aesthetic not uncommon in the development of most contemporary artists. Her entry into kinetic, however, marked an important departure in her career; it bought her the distinction of being the first artist (male or female) in Lebanon (and perhaps in the Arab world) to work quantitatively and successfully in that technological medium.

The transition from paint and canvas to the three-dimensional volumes of color, light, and movement occurred organically, out of a need to give concrete substance to the strong impulses she had always had, as in her love for dancing, for the expression of volume and movement in space. It all began with a large collage of nails and other materials on canvas and her fascination with the incidental play of light and shadow the protruding materials created. She was at the time deeply into the study of Zen philosophy, which stimulated her vision to perceive mystic qualities in the moving life of these projected shadows. Excited by these new possibilities of expression, she explored one material after another through constructions on canvas: from nails to straw, and then to bamboo, all dealing with the movement of form in space. The volumes of plexiglass and steel quickly followed, first using a simple revolving light to activate shadows and then building complex electrical mechanisms to direct rhythmic, moving symphonies of transparent color and light. In order to achieve these works, Nadia had to go back to a study of the chemistry of kinetics in 1970; she utilized the services of skilled technicians to help her realize her ideas.

Today, she can build the kinetic constructions entirely by herself - form intricate electrical wiring to the exacting job of cutting, fitting and polishing all component parts. Her long fingers, lacquered and feminine are now expert at wielding hammer and steel.

She still looks like a ballet dancer.

By Helen Khal

Featured Works

Abstract painting on canvas by Saikali
Rivage sud, detail, Oil on canvas 120 x 120 cm, 2001
Fragments, Oil on canvas, 150 x 150 cm, 2002
Bourrasque, Oil on canvas, 81 x 65 cm
Still life, Oil on canvas 60 x 50 cm - 1950
Sans titre, Feuille d'or sur bois, 20 x 20 cm, 2002
The Enigma of Time, 1985, china ink and watercolor on Japan paper laid on canvas, 73 x 60 cm
Cantate orange, 2003, Oil on wood, 20 x 20 cm
1974, Oil on canvas, 80 x 90 cm

Along with the concentration on kinetics, Saikali continues to paint. In 1972 she begins to explore the concept of color stripes. About them, she says: "They are like a tissue of nerves, a fiber, a surface; no object, no drawing. The line is no more a line, but the line exists; it is a surface which is undulating one way or another, inward or outward, and is an entity in itself. Because it grew out of me, it is moving and alive; but now it expresses its won life, lives in its own dimension."

Starlight - 1969 - 70, optic fiber, chrome and aluminum, 50 x 50 cm

Still seeking a more intensely living quality in her work, Saikali turns to energy of light and movement as a medium. The kinetic work now begins in earnest. She goes back to textbooks of physics and chemistry, and seeks out the technicians to assist her in realizing her ideas in these new materials. Underneath the construction is an electric motor, which feeds colored light to the tips of the optic fibers and also causes them to revolve slowly, throwing moving patterns of color across the polished chrome surface. Her Beirut exhibition in 1970 marks the first of kinetics in the Middle East and probably in the Arab world.

A Japanese Haiku - 1969 - 70, bamboo, collage, and light on canvas, 110 x 110 cm.

Saikali's involvements in Zen philosophy becomes on her work. Pursuing a "less is more" approach, she dispenses with any form, color, or gesture that is not essential to the idea. Here, wanting to give more concrete form to the graphic elements in her Zen-inspired compositions, Saikali uses actual bamboo sticks to represent lines, whose shadows create other lines. The moon is paper collage, and the bamboo sticks pierce the canvas. A Plexiglas frame encloses the panorama, and a slowly moving light suspended next to the construction creates a continual play of floating shadow lines. The haiku which inspired this piece: Autumn of the full moon, All night I went, Around the lake.

Untitled - 1973, plexiglass, collage, detail, full size 80 x 30 cm.

Another Saikali innovation is the superimposition of layers of plexigalss, with each segment of the composition sandwiched into separate sheets. The combination of elliptic form and graphic line, which began with the Zen paintings, is apparent here and is given life in actual three-dimensional space.