Mouazzez Rawdah


(1906 - 1986)

“I look upon my work as a collection of poetry expressing the conditions of human life on this earth. They are silent poems which take shape at dawn while the world is asleep: they are conceived in the cold hearts dwelling in small rooms in crowded cities cluttered with so many things other than art. In the material of stone or wood, in my hands give form to the essence of human emotions; there is in the process a kind of mysticism. I believe that beauty exists only in the mind and through the consciousness of man. Nature gives us the various elements with which to compose this beauty, but it is man himself who creates it."

In 1926, a young Turkish woman came to Beirut on a visit. Within two weeks she met and married Dr. Yusuf Rawdah, one of the city's most eligible bachelors. Her name was Mouazzaez Pertev, and she had come from a country whose progressive leader frowned upon the veil and all it represented. In Lebanon, also, the veil was losing ground, but behind its stubborn remnants of tradition she found an acquiescent class of women whose freedom was still bound by rigid social mores.

By nature and upbringing a non-conformist, Mouazzez Rawdah refused to relinquish one iota of her freedom and rights as an individual. Unmarried or married, in Turkey or in Lebanon, she would in every way be free and equal to man. If men rode horses, she would ride a horse (and did, astride and in pants). If men drove cars, she would drive a car (and did become one of the first two women in Lebanon to acquire a driver's license). If her husband was a free mason and she, as a woman, was not permitted to attend meetings because "women don't keep secrets," she would convince him that this was unacceptable discrimination that he should not go to the meetings, and he didn't. If she shocked the Beirut society of that time, she pleased her young husband, who agreed with this avant-garde attitude.

"I came from a family of four girls and one boy. My mother wanted another boy, and had me instead. So she treated me as a boy, instilled in me aggressive qualities at an early age, and I grew up reacting strongly to any ideas of the privileged male. I wasn't born a boy, but I was determined that whatever rights he had would be mine, too."

To all outward appearances, however, Mouazzez spent a conventional girl childhood. She was given music lessons - oud, violin, piano, and cello. She was taught how to sew and embroider (though she says she did it badly); and she was given lessons in painting. In a word, she was trained in all the proper accomplishments of a young lady of comfortable means.

After marriage, she continued with the violin and guitar, but despite her love for music, was unsatisfied with the results. Poetry was another love, and she composed poems in Turkish - but was frustrated that they had to be translated into Arabic to be read in Lebanon.

For the first ten years of her marriage, there appeared to be no urgency in her search for a creative outlet. Life was full and exciting; there was a whole new life, a new country, new friends to explore; and there was a daughter to rise. For one brief period during those years Mouazzez had her first experience in painting when she was given lessons by Mustafa Farouk, a friend and well-known Lebanese artist whom she commissioned to paint portraits of her husband and daughter. He set her to work copying scenes from postcards; and although it was fun for a while, the results were modest by any standard and hardly to be considered creative, she thought. Besides, she had just taken her driver's license the year before, and that was a much more satisfying activity for her volatile energies.

It would be 17 more years before Mouazzez would turn again to painting. She was almost 50 then, her daughter was married, with a life of her own; her husband's medical practice took him away for long hours each day; women and their social milieu bored her; and she needed a new challenge in her life. But what? In conversation with her old friend, Farouk, he voiced her growing dissatisfaction with the inactivity of her days. Force and energy, and aggressive, dynamic temperament were still there, and they needed and outlet. Farouk advised her: "Paint... go enroll yourself at the Academy... that's enough challenge for anybody... something to keep you busy for the rest of your life..."

The next day, Mouazzez went off and enrolled at ALBA, where she started the training that eventually made her an artist. She spent three years there, then moved on to AUB's art department for another nine years, taking one course after another - drawing, painting, graphics, ceramics, design, history of art, and sculpture. She concentrated most on painting, but it was in sculpture that her talents moved with more ease and expression became more free and personal. It was here, in solid, three-dimensional form, that Mouazzez found the medium best suited to her temperament, and found finally the direction she sought. Her professor, Arthur Frick, who had become her friend and mentor, advised her, "You are a sculptor, Mouazzez; your hands feel the material... a chisel and hammer are your tools, more than brush and paint." She listened, turned completely to sculpture, and was gratified when Frick helped organize her first exhibition.

It is a curious contradiction in the personality of Mouazzez Rawdah that with all her aggressivity, her apparent self-confidence in all other activities of her life, it should have taken her so long to be convinced of her talents as an artist. She says that it was not until 1967, when from among hundreds of participants she was awarded a major sculpture prize in a Lebanese government competition, that she could finally look upon her work with complete confidence and believe herself an artist.

One must look to both her painting and sculpture to find the two faces of Mouazzez. A virile, physical force wields the hammer and chisels that cuts so decisively into huge blocks of stone and wood. On the other hand, in the soft and frequently tender imagery of her painted nudes and landscapes, there is revealed the poet, the romantic, the dreamer.

This duality of character is also apparent in her life as a women, where she assumes the responsibilities as well as the freedom of a male in whatever she undertakes (political involvement at one point earned her a brief stay in prison). When she wanted her own independent life as an artist, she decided to live separately from Dr. Rawdah, but continued to maintain with him strong bonds of affection and respect. When she returned to his home again ten years later, nothing in their relationship had altered.

In physiognomy, Mouazzed is robust, of solid, sculptural flesh, indomitable; yet, with a concern to remain woman with all her feminine, seductive attributes, she insists on smooth, silken skin, carefully manicured nails, and hair styled in a soft allure. to her body she gives the same kind of dedicated attention she gives to the finish of one of her sculptural pieces, whose surfaces often have the hand-rubbed quality of a master cabinet-maker - - smooth, polished down to a glowing sheen, with impeccable respect for a material itself.

Mouazzez has had no problem at all in her life as a woman and as an artist. She admits that she has been fortunate, that nothing has ever stood in her way - - neither social pressures nor lack of support, whether moral or financial. "I have lived a very easy life," she says, "I've always done what I wanted to do. This has given me a tremendous freedom in my attitude toward my art. I don't have to worry about selling; I can afford to buy whatever materials I need: I can hire stone-cutters for the backbreaking job of first cutting into a huge block of stone; I have more than enough space to work in - - the huge garden of my Aley house and a smaller studio space in Beirut. In this respect, I suppose I am one of the privileged few... and being a woman has always been the least of my problems. My only problem now is how to attack that beautiful piece of marble, how to turn it into a living form."

Featured Works

 Agony - 1972, bronze, 32 cm length
Agony - 1972, bronze, 32 cm length

In both painting and sculpture, the nude is a favorite Rawdah subject. This bronze began as a plastecine creation, was cast into plaster, and then into bronze. It shows a further refinement of form, as Rawdah’s dialogue with the materiel develops into a more intimate expression of sensual feeling.

 Dabkeh - 1970, marble, 140 cm length, 90 cm height
Dabkeh - 1970, marble, 140 cm length, 90 cm height

A contrast of sharp angles here heightens the physical energy and rhythmic movement of the dabkeh. The characteristics of the dance are stated in the tight repetition of the vertical forms, in the locked arms, and in the swinging unison of legs.

 Nude - 1968, marble 40 cm length
Nude - 1968, marble 40 cm length

Many of Rawdah's sculptures are first conceived in plastecine. The small, hand shaped models are then executed in larger dimensions in wood, stone, or marble. Slight modifications may occur during cutting, but the emotive rhythms and tensions of the original idea persist. This marble nude was realized in this manner.

 Refusal - 1975, marble, 16 cm height
Refusal - 1975, marble, 16 cm height

There is a poetic quietude, an increased feeling of intimacy, in Rawdah's later works. Her exhibition in 1975 contained many pieces like these two small figure studies. Form now is more simplified, and the surfaces flow with heightened sensuality. In Rawdah's hands, stone becomes living, flesh and body.