Remembering Bibi Zogbe: 'La Pintora de las Flores', who holds pride of place in the canon of Modern Arab art

Lebanese gallerist Saleh Barakat tells Myrna Ayad about the encounters that led to him discovering painter Bibi Zogbe. This account, part of our Remembering the Artist series, is based on their interview

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This is the story of an important Arab artist. It spans four continents and a web of surreal coincidences involving a publication, an ambassador, a kilogram of zaatar and a repertoire of flower paintings that can eclipse the most blooming of gardens. This is the story of La Pintora de las Flores, the ­painteress of flowers: Bibi Zogbe.

I was first introduced to Bibi's work through Lebanese painter Nabil Nahas, who was fascinated by her, and who is an avid art collector. Little did I know that not only would I come to covet her paintings myself, but Bibi's work and life would also have a karmic effect on me.

In the early 2000s, I discovered that in 1947, the Lebanese government funded publications on three artists: Omar Onsi, Saliba Douaihy and Bibi, at the height of independence. In the same year, Bibi participated in a group exhibition at the National Museum of Beirut, and was awarded the Lebanese Cedar Medallion of Excellence. Lebanese author Rushdy Maalouf wrote about the show – a feat for Bibi to be lauded by a well-regarded essayist. Though she had emigrated to Argentina in 1907 at the age of 16, she frequented Lebanon enough to be recognised by the country's cultural elite.

Bibi Zogbe. Courtesy Museo Provincial de Bellas Artes Franklin Rawson
An undated photo of Bibi Zogbe. Museo Provincial de Bellas Artes Franklin Rawson

I came to know that Bibi (born Labibeh El Zogbe in 1890) hailed from a well-to-do family from Sahel Alma, a village along the Lebanese coast. A love for art was rooted in her French education, and at 16, she married a wealthy Lebanese-Argentinian man, Domingo Samaja, with whom she travelled to Paris and lived with for a time there, becoming part of the European jet set. But who was Bibi? Why did she have such a love for flowers? And how did she attract the attention of Lebanon's intelligentsia? I wanted to fill in the gaps because there were many.

In retrospect, I think Bibi wanted to be rediscovered, and this Lebanese-Latin odyssey begins in the early 2000s with then Argentinian ambassador to Lebanon Jose Pedro Pico, who frequented my gallery, Agial, in Beirut, at the time. We became friends, he enjoyed the arts, and often discussed the Latin American art market. Unrelated to our friendship, Agial received an invitation to participate in arteBA, the Buenos Aires Contemporary Art Fair. I was intrigued and eager to explore Argentina, knowing it is home to a large Lebanese diaspora. There was, however, immense difficulty in securing a visa, but as fate would have it, approval was granted, and I promptly booked my ticket.

Little did I know that not only would I come to covet her paintings, but Bibi's work and life would have a karmic effect on me

In another curious twist of events, my friend, Leila Rizk, learnt of my trip and told me story after story about her sister Salma's intense hankering for zaatar in Buenos Aires. She asked if I could take her a kilogram of this coveted staple of Lebanese cuisine. I felt uncomfortable at the thought of carrying a sack of blended herbs and spices, and contemplated scenarios of what I would say to the Argentinian immigration officials. In the end I caved, and the kilogram of zaatar boarded with me to Buenos Aires in March 2005.

I walked around the upscale barrio of Retiro, where Salma lived, and which is home to wealthy expatriates, five-star hotels, high-end shops, historical landmarks and the Verbo auction house. Curious, I walked in, and among about 400 artworks, my eyes fell on a painting of a plate of fruit with flowers: it was by Bibi. I had to have it. I walked to Salma's house, we got along instantly, and over nostalgic stories about our homeland, I asked if she could help me buy the painting that I saw nearby. She happily obliged, saying that David Scheinsohn, Verbo's owner, was a neighbour.

"Ah, this is Bibi!" exclaimed Salma as I pointed to the painting. "We grew up together! Her father was the ambassador of Lebanon in Argentina." I was stunned, and then triple stunned when I learnt that not only was this the first time Verbo had offered a painting by Bibi, but also that her painting had not found a buyer and was placed in the "after sale" exhibit. (It's still mine.)

 Lebanese gallerist Saleh Barakat. Saleh Barakat Gallery
Lebanese gallerist Saleh Barakat. Saleh Barakat Gallery

Salma introduced me to David, whose wife, as it turns out, is Lebanese and summered in the popular town of Bhamdoun, at a hotel that my wife's grandfather owned. In true Arab fashion, they invited me for dinner, and over kibbeh and tabbouleh, I decided to extend my stay and explore Bibi. News travelled of a Lebanese gallerist in Buenos Aires wanting to know more about this painter and buy her works. Doors opened.

Among the resounding comments about Bibi was her love for Lebanon, which informed her painting. Her homeland was in many ways her own Garden of Eden, and in her residences in Buenos Aires and Punta del Este, the "Monaco of the South" in Uruguay, Bibi kept her memory of Lebanon alive by planting her own gardens, which many said were intensely beautiful. Several of her paintings are named From My Garden. Bibi gave many of her works as gifts and she produced two types of paintings: smaller, "commercial" versions and large-scale masterpieces using quality materials.

During her time in Paris in the early 1920s, Bibi staged exhibitions, mingled with the cultural avant-garde, and met and befriended Tamara de Lempicka, who painted a portrait of Bibi in 1923, Il Fondo Rosa, which gave way to Bibi's epithet, La Pintora de las Flores.

Though Bibi's marriage did not last, she sought an autonomous life. In the early 1930s, she took classes with Bulgarian painter Klin Dimitrof and in 1934, staged her first solo exhibition at The Witcomb Gallery in Buenos Aires, which was inaugurated by Argentinian president General Agustin Justo. A year later, she showed in Paris's Charpentier Gallery, and had exhibitions in Chile, Brazil and Uruguay, cementing her reputation as a prominent artist in Latin America. Though flowers remained her dominant subject, visits to Senegal and other African countries in 1937 and 1947 produced a superb new, but smaller body of work, of portraits of African princesses.

Buenos Aires in the 1950s and 1960s was a cliquey place. Aristocrats did not mix with the public, but they did through Bibi, who hosted incredible parties and cooked delectable Lebanese cuisine. Everybody loved her, and so did Benito Quinquela Martin, one of Argentina's foremost painters known for his depictions of ports. Though their courtship was serious, Bibi preferred not to remarry, opting to remain independent, and they lived in separate homes. I admire her for that. It must have been challenging to court a master painter (and potentially remain in his shadow), retain independence, navigate in communities that did not perceive you as Argentinian in Buenos Aires, or as Lebanese in Beirut, and paint flowers – a subject many perceive as a cliche. Bibi was not a decorative painter; she was an Expressionist. Flowers are her predilection, but they are a whole other world. I became fascinated with flowers because of her.

I don't think Bibi got the recognition she deserved, and I am keen on paying homage to an important female Arab painter. And I'll say it with her flowers.

Remembering the Artist is our series that features artists from the region