Two colourful abstract paintings in a gallery
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Collection Highlight: Huguette Caland’s Beginnings (1964-69)

28 March 2023

By Noora Abdulmajeed

The permanent collection of Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art includes a work by one of the most prominent women artists from the Arab world.

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From her line technique to independent fashion choices and her quest for personal autonomy, understanding the core of Huguette Caland’s (née El Khoury) practice starts with a reflection on her beginnings.

Born in 1931 Beirut, Caland embarked upon her journey of extensive art production in the Lebanese capital, later establishing her first studio in the town of Kaslik. Her early works from the 1960s highlight the foundations she would build on later in her six-decade career. This period is considered the defining chapter in understanding Caland’s artistic identity and her vibrant oeuvre.

Caland’s father, Bechara El Khoury, was the first elected Lebanese president following the end of the French mandate in 1943. She expressed a yearning for independence at an early age, despite the pressures of being in the public eye. Along with other creatives from the Arab world, Caland challenged conservative attitudes toward women’s standing in society, becoming a liberation figure in her own right.

In 1964, El Khoury, whom Huguette was very close to, passed away, leading her to create her earliest painting, Soleil Rouge (Red Sun), formerly titled Cancer. The same year, at thirty-four, while married with three children, she enrolled as a mature student at the American University of Beirut (AUB) for a formal education in the fine arts. It was at university that she mastered using the line delicately, like a thread, in her drawings and paintings.

While she was studying there, an American artist of Lebanese descent, Helen el-Khal, joined the university in 1967 as a faculty member to teach painting and became both a mentor and a friend to Caland. In parallel, Caland had started questioning the physicality of the female body, dismissing the weight of expectations based on her status.

A photograph of a woman wearing a caftan sitting on a bench outside, holding her bag on her lap.

Huguette Caland wearing a caftan in Yarze, Lebanon (ca. 1968). Photo: Mustafa Ariss. Courtesy of the artist’s family.

Instead of European haute couture, which was popular in Beirut at the time, Caland decided to wear caftans – or abayas. She believed that the loose-fitting design of the caftan liberated women from traditional ideals of beauty. Compared with western-influenced styles, Caland appreciated that the caftan was free-floating and did not reinforce the male gaze. The changes that she experienced during this time translated into her body of work, as shown in her abstract patterns.

Shortly before her passing in 2019, Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art started planning the largest solo exhibition of Huguette Caland’s work, titled Faces and Places, which opened to the public in August 2020. The exhibition was organised around the three locales that influenced her personal and professional life: Beirut, Paris and Venice, California. The Beirut section displayed several caftans, from the earliest ones created to selections from the Nour collection in collaboration with Pierre Cardin, to drawings and abstractions inspired by textiles.

An old woman working on one of her artworks.

Huguette Caland working on one of her artworks in Venice, California (2009). Photo: Souheil Michael Khoury. Courtesy of the artist’s family.

Her early painterly style, as seen in Untitled, 1968, and Suburb, 1969, both shown above, exemplifies the start of her distinctive cross-stitching technique. In her later years, while living and working in Venice, California, she developed this approach further, producing large-scale paintings intertwined with playful details recalling the memories of her native city and childhood. Most recently, Suburb, 1969 was added to the permanent collection display at Mathaf, highlighting the wide-ranging practices of women artists from the region and their lasting legacies.

Visit Mathaf to see Huguette Caland’s Suburb, alongside other highlights from Mathaf’s permanent collection. Caland’s work also features in Beirut and the Golden Sixties: A Manifesto of Fragility, on show at Mathaf until 5 August 2023.

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