Lebanese pavilion reinvents mythical tale at Venice Biennale

Multimedia artist Mounira Al Solh uses drawings, paintings, sculptures, embroideries and video in her exhibition

Mounira Al Solh was inspired by the mythical tale of the Abduction of Europa in creating the Lebanese pavilion. Photo: Federico Vespignani
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The Lebanese pavilion at this year's Venice Biennale of Art has transformed the industrial Arsenale hangar into a Mediterranean coastline, complete with a blue-grey horizon, winding wooden pier and half-built Phoenician boat.

Envisioned by multimedia artist Mounira Al Solh, the boat acts as a central installation for the pavilion, titled A Dance with her Myth. Curated by Nada Ghandour and associate curator Dina Bizri, the exhibition comprises 42 artworks – drawings, paintings, sculptures, embroideries and video – that seek to scrutinise and rewrite the ancient Phoenician myth of the Abduction of Europa.

“It is a great opportunity to highlight our Phoenician mythology heritage, which became an integral part of the Greco-Roman Pantheon to such an extent that few people know that Europa is Phoenician,” Ghandour tells The National. “At the same time, from the history of art point of view, I had to show what is new about the way Mounira is presenting this subject, since it has been painted throughout history by very important painters such as Titian, Veronese, Picasso and Botero.”

The original myth tells of Princess Europa of Tyre, lured away by Zeus in the form of a white bull, who rapes her and takes her to Crete. The resulting child, Minos, becomes King of Crete and founds the Minoan dynasty, fabled to be the ancestor of all European civilisations.

Al Solh’s artworks turn the myth upside down, returning agency to Europa and reclaiming the myth from Greco-Roman history, to tell her own reimagined version; exploring what contemporary connections can be made with Lebanon’s past, in an effort to heal and navigate through the country’s recent crises.

“I find the myth is very patriarchal and all the women are sacrifices, martyrs or die tragically, always written by men about us,” says Al Solh. “It's also a bit orientalist, saying he took her from Lebanon to the 'better place' Greece, showing a relationship of power between our eastern side of the Mediterranean and their western side, even though we collaborated a lot, but there are so many examples of them re-appropriating our stories and myths to their side.

“The myth has been written supposedly 100 years after Europa's abduction is said to have happened by male Greek poets and authors. I wanted to change this perspective,” she adds. “I'm interested in how I can relate to these stories, playing with them, changing them, making them mine – even breaking them apart and having fun with them, from a female perspective.”

As visitors walk alongside the wooden pier, they embark on a journey with Europa as she adventures to Crete and manipulates a foolish Zeus to achieve her own destiny.

The story is told through humorous paintings and drawings, some hanging from the ceiling, and a procession of archaic clay masks, which embody the conservative forces of society. The scenography by architect Karim Bekdache works to immerse viewers and transport them through space and time.

“All of that is to feed into the idea that it's not Zeus in my story who kidnapped Europa to Crete, but it's her who's turned his head upside down and led him around,” Al Solh says.

I'm interested in how I can relate to these stories, playing with them, changing them, making them mine
Artist Mounira Al Solh

The paintings show Europa carrying the bull away and walking across the sea or tossing him with her feet like a toy, inverting the power balance of the dominating god and dominated princess. The artworks are created with papyrus, as a nod to the many Phoenician relics that did not survive the humid climate.

At the centre of the pavilion is the boat filled with fishing cages hung with healing sage and eucalyptus. A 12-minute video is projected directly on to the boat’s sail, decorated with embroidery by Al Solh. The ship was made by one of two remaining families in Lebanon still handcrafting Phoenician boats, using walnut wood instead of the now-protected cedar.

“Instead of the horse head typically found on Phoenician boats – a symbol of strength and power both on land and water – I made a donkey's head to be the leader of the trip,” she says. “The film consists of poetry pieces I wrote about the story and how I changed it.

“We grew up with the myth of the Murex shell, something almost sacred to our history, how we invented the purple dye textiles, but you needed 40,000 snail shells to dye just a tiny little piece of cloth. So ecologically, it's really bad, but we’re brought up to be proud of this heritage,” she adds. “The myth says the Phoenician god Melqart’s dog found the shell, so in the film I imagine it was a female dog.”

The film includes acted-out rituals and theatrical scenes by Al Solh, embodying Europa on her new adventures, bits of poetry and her process of dying cloth “Murex” purple using red onion skin and cabbage.

The exhibition, while grounded in ancient myth, also aims to connect with our contemporary society, where topics of gender stereotypes, inequality and women’s strength in the face of adversary are still debated.

Al Solh also sees a repeated pattern of exile and return in Lebanon’s past and present, from war and natural disaster in the Bronze Age, fleeing during the civil war, to the more recent crises plaguing the country.

“It's about how we as Lebanese are all alike, all the way back to our roots. As someone who now lives in a kind of exile, in the Netherlands, but my grounding is here in Lebanon, I can see the Phoenicians did the same during disasters,” she says.

“Many times wars came and so they left, but then there was an earthquake or volcano eruption in the new place and then they came back. They would come back en masse at the same time, just like what we witnessed today with the Lebanese when they are in trouble abroad, they will come back to their ground zero.”

A Dance With Her Myth will be on view from Saturday until November 24 at the Pavilion of Lebanon at the Arsenale, Artiglieri Building, Venice, Italy

Updated: April 20, 2024, 3:13 AM