Simone Fattal's institutional show draws on Gilgamesh and memories of Damascus

This Lebanese-American artist's first major solo presentation is currently running in the UK

Artist Simone Fattal has opened her first major commission in a UK art gallery.

The show, named Finding a Way, at Whitechapel Gallery in London, includes works that span several years, and is intended to be understood as one piece in a reflection on conflict and history, Fattal says.

Staging and scenography are crucial to the work. Fattal has organised the ceramics and works on paper down a central aisle, in which five standing figures appear almost to be walking away from the viewer as he or she enters the room. Four are made in clay, the material with which Fattal has worked for decades.

The Master, a bulbous, friendly-looking fellow, is cast in bronze, with a dark patina covering his bumps and bulges – a recasting of a favourite sculpture of Fattal’s from 1989, which broke apart in its original clay form.

At the end of the gallery is a ceramic flower, mounted on to the wall and opening up in frilly tendrils.

“The men represent us all walking through life and looking for something,” she says. “It's like when Gilgamesh was looking for the flower of eternity. He finds it, and the sky opens up.”

Fattal’s work bats between epic references and opacity, as if she wants to leave space for the viewer to make his or her own judgments about the pieces. Contrast structures the entire exhibition: the calm, classical layout with its main axis, balanced by low-slung works hugging the horizon on either side. Or the luxuriant amorphousness of the clay and its tactile, handworked feel, versus the specific grounding references of Gilgamesh, ziggurats, and the Syrian souqs.

She describes her ceramics as “haunted” by her memories of Syria – “When you leave somewhere at a young age, you memorialise it,” she says – but their luminous coloured glazes evoke California, almost as an index of Fattal’s own peregrinations.

Fattal was born in Damascus in 1942, grew up in Beirut and then studied philosophy in Zurich. She returned to Beirut to work as a painter, and moved to California in 1980. There, she founded The Post-Apollo Press, an important imprint for radical publishing, and took up making the ceramics for which she is best known.

“When I arrived in California, I did not do any paintings,” she recalls. “We were in such a beautiful landscape in Marin County – just stupendously beautiful. I had nothing to add to it. So I started then doing sculpture, and in sculpture came up all the memories of archaeology, heroes and history.”

Fattal recently resettled in Paris and, as if inspired by Europe’s gloomy skies, she began to paint again, in expressive, thick brushstrokes that echo the energy and organicity of her ceramics.

Whitechapel Gallery’s presentation shows a selection of these newer works on paper, drawing out the show’s central theme of maps and route-making. A suite of etchings was inspired by battlefield engravings from the 17th century that Fattal encountered at the Louvre in Paris: maps produced for the military of Metz and Nancy, France’s north-eastern frontier.

“I took from those engravings this elongated shape, which totally spoke to me, and I made them as long as the press could do,” she explains. “I started to reconstruct going through the Hammadiyeh, towards the Umayyad Mosque. Others show how you enter the city, but only how it was; it is not the same route today.”

She paired these long, quasi-topographical maps with ceramics she had made earlier of clouds, their rounded humps rhyming with the curve of the Syrian hills.

The other works show aerial views of Damascus, in rational, schematic drawings that give off little of the chaotic openness of her mottled and torqued ceramics. She even brings this movement towards unrest to her model of a ziggurat, whose mathematical progression of levels sags, as if warped by memory.

“I consider the ziggurat to exist deep in the consciousness of our travellers,” Fattal says in an interview published in the show’s catalogue.

The exhibition's focus on memories and journeys reflect a life of constant change – one inflected by the political events of the past century, above all the Lebanese Civil War.

And it's applicable to so many members of different diasporas. Are you the same person in all the places you live? And how do you remember your earliest identity, removed in time and space?

In her catalogue interview, Fattal compares the epic journey of her five walking figures to that of an everyman, seeking to get married, gain professional success, attain stature: Gilgamesh in a suit with two children and a car. But the accumulation of objects as her five men move towards the flower of immortality redirects attention to all they pass by. Fattal's ceramics are of figures on the move, carrying with them memories of what they left behind.

Finding a Way is on view at Whitechapel Gallery in London until Sunday, May 15, 2022.

Updated: October 13th 2021, 8:24 AM