Writing Art History Since 2002

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The Lebanese Ministry of culture has entrusted Mrs. Nada Ghandour, Heritage Curator, with the project of Lebanon’s participation in the 60th International Art Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia.

Mounira Al Solh, 2023. Photo by Whitten Sabatini © Whitten Sabatini

The Lebanese Pavilion has invited Mounira Al Solh (Beirut, 1978) to create a bridge between myth and reality within its walls at the 60th International Art Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia, from 20 April to 24 November 2024. Her extensive multimedia installation A Dance with her Myth, composed of 41 pieces – drawings, paintings, sculptures, embroideries, and video – are spread across the 180 square meters occupied by the Pavilion at the Arsenale. By revisiting the myth of the rapt of Europa, the artist offers a perspective on the aspirations and challenges faced by women today. On canvas, paper and screen, her creative process combines allegorical narrative with a documentary approach, appropriation with diversion, and gives realistic, poetic, and very contemporary representations.

All peoples inherit foundational or exemplary stories, including the Lebanese, whose myths date back to their ancestors – the Phoenicians. The history of Phoenicia is little known. The people who invented the alphabet left few written records. Nevertheless, cities such as Byblos, Beirut, Saida and Tyre attest, through their vestiges, to a glorious past. Phoenicia is part of the history of the great powers that would subsequently dominate it: Alexander the Great’s Greece, and the Roman Empire. Famous Phoenician myths such as the union of Adonis, citizen of Byblos, with the goddess Aphrodite; the myth of Hercules and his dog finding the murex on a beach in Tyre; and the abduction of Europa in these very same locations have entered more or less literally into Greco-Roman mythology. Mounira Al Solh also pays tribute to this rich multi-millennial and still thriving cultural heritage.

Mounira Al Solh has chosen to use the myth to express herself on the fate of women and their capacity for resilience, following the example of the Phoenician princess Europa, whom the artist rescues from her plight.

Over the centuries, the interpretation of myths has often been used both in dissent and in subversion: all of these dimensions are present in the installation. The myth has, in and of itself, the fundamental quality of being a public and universal discourse – which makes it forever contemporary, and ready to be reclaimed and revisited.

In the ancient narrative, on a beach in Tyre, Zeus takes the form of a white bull to seduce Europa, the beautiful Phoenician princess and, through a ruse, carry her on his back to the shores of Crete, where he marries her. In her installation, the artist matches the present with the myth in an unexpected way; she suggests an alternative and even inverted reading of it, which allows critical distance and humour. The search for Europa, which the artist invites us to participate in, contributes to the fulfilment of a female destiny free from “gods” – that is, assuming, without being subjected to it, the role and responsibility of men, and wishing for gender balance.

Written and devised by men, the ancient narrative expresses the desire for domination and submission of women. Europa’s journey to Crete at first glance evokes that of a spoil of war taken from the Phoenicians by the Cretans. Over the centuries, particularly in Western painting, the representations evolved from abduction to consent. Yet it is still the point of view of men that is expressed. Mounira Al Solh, instead, chooses to promote a relationship based on gender equality, reinterpreting the myth with the eyes and beliefs of a woman of today, determined and free. She upsets the balance of power between the dominating god and the dominated princess. Princess Europa cooperates with Zeus and manipulates him; it is she who holds him and carries him away by walking on water, she who tosses him around with her feet, as if he were a kicking ball. In her quest, the artist pushes the deconstruction of gender stereotypes to the extreme, by reversing the roles and the sexes, and, in particular, by transforming Hercules’ dog into a female canine.

A Dance with her Myth is set up around a boat, inviting visitors on a symbolic journey of emancipation and gender equality. Its unfinished structure indicates that the journey is not fully completed. The itinerary of the installation is rooted in a power play. In the center, the skiff is located half-way between the paintings and the graphic works that advocate the questioning of gender norms and the struggle for equality, and the masks embody the conservative forces of society. The objects present in the space also play a role in the 12-minute film projected on the boat’s sail-screen.

Mounira Al Solh’s drawings constitute the narrative of the central pattern developed in the paintings which defy traditional iconography. Transposition, deviation, and distortion are the tools used in the artist’s strategy. Various archetypical figures of Phoenician culture or of mythology populate, in an explosive and at times comical way, an intermediary world between allegory and reality. The temporality of A Dance with her Myth is not that of the myth, but that of the artist in dialogue with the viewer, here and now. The scenography, designed by the architect Karim Bekdache, with no reorganisation or partitioning of the space, allows a total immersion in the display. It contributes to a progression towards an endless horizon painted in blue-grey – the colour of the sea and the skies of Tyre – as well as the long, winding pontoon that crosses the Pavilion from side to side, and creates the link between land and sea. The encounter between the works and the visitor occurs throughout the visit.

The exhibition will be on view from the 20th of April until the 24th of November, 2024. For more information, please visit the 60th Venice Biennale.

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