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In character and out of place

Through installations and conceptual paintings, the young Lebanese artist Mounira al Solh has made a career out of not fitting in.
Stills from Mounira al-Solh's video "A Double Burger and Two Metamorphoses: A Proposal for a Potential Cat, a Potential Dog, a Potential Donkey, a Potential Goat and Finally a Potential Camel," 2010-ongoing.
Stills from Mounira al-Solh's video "A Double Burger and Two Metamorphoses: A Proposal for a Potential Cat, a Potential Dog, a Potential Donkey, a Potential Goat and Finally a Potential Camel," 2010-ongoing.

Of the five artists chosen to represent Lebanon at the Venice Biennale in 2007 - the country's first and only national pavilion - Mounira al Solh was the youngest and least established. The other four had been exhibiting their work both locally and internationally for more than a decade. Solh, who was 29 at the time, had only just finished her formal education. While the artists who first put Beirut on the art world's map did so with poetic and intellectually bracing works addressing the political complexity of the country - the legacy and lived experience of Lebanon's episodic civil wars, for example - Solh adopts a radically different tone, making quirky videos about improbable characters in absurd situations.

One of the two works she presented in Venice, the video Rawane's Song, turns the tables on those older artists, expressing Solh's frustration with being unable to make a meaningful work about the war. As she walks around an artist's studio with her camera pointed down to film her steps in a pair of scuffed red shoes, she describes the pieces she has tried to produce but failed when her focus drifted. A book about women who survived the war, for example, falls apart when Solh dwells too long on the curvaceous figures of her subjects. The irony of Rawane's Song is rich, and it becomes clear to viewers that the frustration of the work is a kind of projection or comic foil. The artist in the video is not Solh exactly but a fictional representation of who she might have been or how the expectations imposed on her could have turned her into someone else.

The other piece shown in Venice was the video installation As If I Don't Fit There, which, by title alone, underscored Solh's status as the pavilion's odd one out. On a split screen, with video portraits on one side and stories about the people depicted on the other, the piece presents four vignettes about artists who have decided to quit being artists. Solh impersonates each character, disguising herself for the portraits, which resemble famous Dutch or Orientalist paintings. From the adjacent stories, viewers learn that all of the artists have emigrated from their homelands and changed careers. None of them express much doubt or regret.

In the months leading up to the biennial, which opened in June 2007, a few of the older, more established artists worried that the pavilion would be hard on Solh, and that exposure in such a high-profile venue would put too much pressure on her work. But four years on, she seems to be doing fine, and has taken it all in her stride. Solh is currently enjoying her first major solo exhibition, at Galerie Sfeir-Semler in Beirut, and she has been producing new projects at a steady pace. Her work shows no signs of strain from either too much attention or too little. Perhaps the reason for this is that having a sense of humour about the precarious life of an artist is so much a part of her practice.

Although she is best known for her videos, Solh began her career as a painter. She grew up in Zarif, one of Beirut's most crowded urban quarters, and went to high school at the Collège Protestant Français. After graduating, she took private drawing lessons for a year from one of Lebanon's leading artists, Hussein Madi - a man famous for his gruff demeanour.

Solh had already enrolled in the Académie Libanaise des Beaux-Arts (ALBA), but Madi convinced her to attend the Lebanese University's Institute of Fine Arts instead. He attended ALBA himself, but he taught classes at the Lebanese University for nearly 15 years. He told Solh she would get more out of her teachers there. With artists such as Mohamad al Rawas, Fatima al Hajj and Ali Shams on the faculty, she certainly did.

From the beginning, Solh's work evinced an idiosyncratic style. Her final project at the Lebanese University was a huge painting, some four metres wide, of a cow being slaughtered by two sumo wresters in Dahiyeh, the southern suburbs of Beirut, where Solh was living with a boyfriend at the time. A gallery scooped up the work and sold it, much to the artist's surprise.

But after five years of training, Solh was tired of painting. She left Beirut to continue her studies at the Gerrit Rietveld Academie in Amsterdam. "It was like detox," she recalls. "It wasn't about painting at all. It was more about conceptualism. The last thing you would do there is painting." When she stopped making paintings in her studio, she started to appreciate looking at them in museums.

"I hated Vincent van Gogh when I arrived," she says. "At the Lebanese University, I had to make copies of his paintings from the yellowed pages of books. When I saw them in person in Amsterdam, I almost fainted." She also developed a fondness for van Gogh's letters, which led to one of the most interesting splits in Solh's practice - the division between what an artist actually produces and the artistic persona, which is largely a matter of complete self-invention.

About half of the works in Solh's exhibition at Galerie Sfeir-Semler, on view through March 19, are attributed to an artist named Bassam Ramlawi. The son of a juice vendor in Beirut, Ramlawi makes paintings and drawings about the people who live and work in his neighbourhood, such as the barber, the butcher and local shopkeepers. He is also obsessed with the work of Otto Dix, Cindy Sherman and the Dutch painter René Daniels, whose career lasted only a decade (he had a stroke at 37 and has not painted since).

Suffice it to say, Ramlawi is a character Solh devised a few years ago, a creative means of finding her way back into painting as well as an homage to a friend, the poet Bassam Hajjar, who passed away in 2009. The exhibition, titled Exhibition #17, includes a series of paintings, a suite of 44 drawings on paper and vellum and a documentary about Ramlawi, played by a mustachioed Solh. The personifications multiply elsewhere in the show.

In the uproarious video Two Metamorphoses: A Proposal for a Potential Donkey, a Potential Goat and Finally a Potential Camel, which is projected onto the back of a large shipping crate the artist found by chance in the gallery's kitchen, Solh acts out the parts of the four animals as they arrive to meet her, one by one, for a conversation about books she has been struggling to read. From Solh, the animals want food. From the animals, Solh wants some kind of intimate interaction. She asks the cat for a dance, the donkey for a kiss. All of the creatures turn her down.

For the 19-screen video installation The Mute Tongue, the Croatian artist Sinisa Lbrovic acts out - and maximises the comic potential of - 19 Arabic proverbs, such as "throw him in the sea and he'll come back with a fish in his mouth" and "let the baker bake your bread, even if he eats half of it" (the funniest ones are the most scatological, and therefore unfit for print).

Rather than concrete politics or historical events, Solh tackles more fluid and contemporary issues such as freedom, identity and the experience of sliding from place to place, whether from the Arab world to Europe or from one microcosmic Beirut neighbourhood to another.

In a sense, the invention of Ramlawi's character is an extended performance piece. The idea is that Ramlawi paints and draws whenever he is waiting for something, whether stuck in traffic or on time for a meeting with a friend who is chronically late. Wherever she goes, Solh carries a black aquarelle box around with her in her bag. The box is beautifully compact, no bigger than her hand. She pulls it out to make watercolours whenever she has time, imagining she is Ramlawi as she paints.

"When I'm making the work, I'm being him, which, as a man, is interesting," she says. "But I'm not consciously playing with gender roles. I feel I am both. For now the character is a man. But with the characters in As If I Don't Fit There, the artists who quit, I was also being them and playing their roles. I'm interested in these narratives and monologues, and I'm interested in the distance between the characters and me. I need this for myself. But in the end, it's clear that it's Mounira."

Kaelen Wilson-Goldie reports for The National from Beirut.

Updated: February 11, 2011 04:00 AM