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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 1 March 2021

Remembering Mounirah Mosly: 'She was a real humanitarian and a real artist'

Saudi modernist Abdulrahman Al Soliman shares memories of fellow artist Mounirah Mosly with Myrna Ayad. This account, part of our Remembering the Artist series, is based on their interview.

Saudi Arabian artist Mounirah Mosly in her studio in 2010. The artist, who died in 2019, incorporated materials such as copper, papyrus, wood and dye in her powerful pieces. Courtesy the Mosly Family
Saudi Arabian artist Mounirah Mosly in her studio in 2010. The artist, who died in 2019, incorporated materials such as copper, papyrus, wood and dye in her powerful pieces. Courtesy the Mosly Family

I first met Mounirah in Dammam, when she was teaching art to girls at a charity institution and in parallel, working on publications at Saudi Aramco. I remember her staunch support of those girls; she had this unwavering desire to help and encourage them. It was awe-inspiring. Mounirah liked to give and, as I got to know her more, I realised that it was what made her happiest.

My first impression of her was that she was a serious person who was resolute about art, and whose works were extremely precious to her. They carried pieces of her soul and beliefs in them, and it was so difficult for her to sell any. As I got to know her more, her warmth emanated. She was, no doubt, a real humanitarian and a real artist. So much about her personality and character made her a memorable person and a devoted artist. Fundamentally, at her very core, Mounirah was humane – powerfully connected to her intuition, committed to her heritage and absolutely empathetic with the human condition.

Artist Mounirah Mosly in December 2015.  Images are copyrighted and in courtesy of Mosly Family.  PERMISSION TO USE ONLY ONCE. 
Artist Mounirah Mosly in December 2015. Courtesy the Mosly Family

Of course, I’d heard of her before. In 1968, along with fellow Saudi modernist Safeya Binzagr, she showed her works at Jeddah’s first art exhibition that was inaugurated by a prince from the Saudi royal family and staged at a girls’ school. A lot of pomp and circumstance surrounded that exhibition because it was a first and it also vigorously energised our young art scene at the time with the government and individuals actively patronising the arts.

She was intolerant of superficiality and always wanted to delve deeper into a subject. This was reflected in her work – one could sense the respect, culture, intellect and empathy

Abdulrahman Al Soliman, Saudi artist

Today, some, especially in the West, look to that exhibition as merely a “two-woman show”, which is such a limited and narrow perception. Mounirah was not concerned about being a woman artist. It wasn’t an issue and it never affected her or her work. Mounirah was first and foremost an artist, and she was incredibly proud to be Saudi. I don’t think she feared anything actually. She had the confidence to face anything.

In 1985, I co-founded a group called the Friends of Fine Art Society in the GCC that included names such as Abduljabbar Yehya, Mohammed Al Saleem, Fahad Nasser Al Rubaiq and Nabeel Najdi from Saudi Arabia; Abdel Rasoul Salman, Thuraya Al Baqsami and Jassem Bu Hamad from Kuwait; and Balqis Fakhro from Bahrain. When Mounirah joined the group, our friendship grew stronger. She was excited, eager to give her opinion and always contributed with her thoughts in what was such a refreshing engagement. She didn’t take spontaneous decisions; she thought things over, reviewed aspects and paid such passionate attention to detail. This is really who she was: incredibly organised and a perfectionist through and through.

Artist Mounirah Mosly with the Queen Of Spain at the GCC Group Exhibition in Madrid 1987. Images courtesy of the Mosly Family PERMISSION TO USE ONLY ONCE
Artist Mounirah Mosly with the Queen Of Spain at the GCC Group Exhibition in Madrid 1987. Courtesy the Mosly Family

For a decade, the group made a big impact in the region and staged exhibitions at major institutions worldwide, first in the GCC and then across the Arab world and Europe.

In 1990, Mounirah and I worked together on a dual show that was to take place in Jeddah and Riyadh, and met several times to discuss curatorial aspects. Unfortunately, the show was cancelled with the onset of the Gulf War.

'The Wound And The Cotter' (1988) by artist Mounirah Mosly. The work is a collage of mixed media on copper bulap and leather. Images courtesy of Mosly Family.  PERMISSION TO USE IMAGES ONLY ONCE
'The Wound And The Cotter' (1988) by artist Mounirah Mosly. The work is a collage of mixed media on copper bulap and leather. Courtesy the Mosly Family

Last year, with the lockdowns that came with the Covid-19 pandemic, I came across my notes of all of these discussions and I am awed at the level of detail that we considered.

Looking back, I am reminded of how contemporary a perspective Mounirah had. Perhaps part of it was innate, just how cultured she was, how weighted her thoughts were. She was intolerant of superficiality and always wanted to delve deeper into a subject. This was reflected in her work – one could sense the respect, culture, intellect and empathy. Indeed, these were paintings, but they were invitations to intellectual discussions, too. Her work reveals a departure from the cliche, from the simple; she always aimed to go further, deeper.

'The Two Companions' by artist Mounirah Mosly. Images coutesy of Mosly Family   PERMISSION TO PRINT ONLY ONCE. 
'The Two Companions' by artist Mounirah Mosly. Courtesy the Mosly Family

Her exposure to Arab, European and American cities – having studied in universities in Egypt and the US – contributed to her thought. She was avant-garde in many respects. She had many questions and always sought to get answers. One way in which she did so was by incorporating various materials in her work, which she felt lent her pieces an element of surprise. Copper, papyrus, wood and dyes, among others, featured in some works, all of which nod to her heritage, of which she was so proud.

What was fundamental to Mounirah was humanity. She was very sympathetic to and sensitive about plights, whether of children or other causes, and she couldn’t help but address the need for humanity. It was her ambition to help, it was a priority, a necessity even. Her very make-up was concerned with the human condition. She was happy when others were happy and sad when others were sad.

'The child of Rub AlKhali' (1993) by artist Mounirah Mosly. The work is a collage of mixed media on old wooden windoe from the northern region of Saudi Arabic. Images courtesy of Mosly Family PERMISSION TO USE IMAGE ONLY ONCE
'The child of Rub AlKhali' (1993) by artist Mounirah Mosly. The work is a collage of mixed media on old wooden window from the northern region of Saudi Arabia. Courtesy the Mosly Family

Arab land was a core concern of hers, which she addressed through series on the Palestinian cause; the power in these paintings is palpable and they are charged with her thoughts and feelings. Mounirah never hesitated to support charitable endeavours, and we worked together on a few, one of which she organised herself in collaboration with the Saudi Ministry of Culture and Information for the Children of Gaza in Riyadh in 2009, whose proceeds were donated to Palestinian children.

I believe that Mounirah had ideas on what she wanted to do with her art and the messages she hoped to transmit. Perhaps an institution that would gather her paintings and writings and document her life in art.

I hope to see this done by her family, patrons or the government, because she is part of an important story about our homeland and its cultural modernity.

She crosses my mind every day and I smile when I see our joint artwork that hangs in my studio. She was my friend, and she is unforgettable.

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

Published: February 3, 2021 08:40 AM

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