Degree Critical,Spring 2019

Friday 04/19/2019

Simone Fattal. Man in the Desert. 2000. Courtesy of the artist and kaufmann repetto, Milan / New York; Balice Hertling, Paris; Karma International, Zurich / Los Angeles

Simone Fattal: Work and Days at MoMA PS1

bySahar Khraibani (Class of 2019)

Start with the legs: thick, long, bowed, and unwieldy with texture resembling crusty cement on an unfinished sidewalk, or trunks of trees hemmed and ringed by time. Man and Companion(2004), one of Simone Fattal’s glazed terracotta and stoneware figures currently on view in “Simone Fattal: Works and Days” at MoMA PS1, bares the marks of the human hand—raggedy surfaces locked under a glistening coat. It is the case with most, if not all of her figures that their impurities engender a freedom in expression, a letting go of perfection akin to the waters of a torrential rainstorm leaving sudden and ravishing traces on sodden earth. The retrospective, curated by Ruba Katrib, is the artist’s first solo museum exhibition in the United States.

Fattal’s work is influenced by the myriad ways history shapes individual lives and desolates landscapes, and her practice is informed in part by her own diasporic experiences. Born in 1942 in Damascus, Syria, she was raised in Beirut, Lebanon, where she studied philosophy at the École des Lettres before moving to Paris. She continued her philosophical studies at the Sorbonne until 1969, when she returned to Beirut and began producing visual work, exhibiting paintings and watercolors locally until the onset of the Lebanese Civil War in 1975. “In 1980 I realized that the civil war was not going to end, so I decided to leave,” explained the artist during a recent talk at PS1, of her decision to flee Lebanon and settle in California. There, Fattal gave up her painting practice and launched the Post-Apollo Press—a publishing house dedicated to innovative and experimental literary work. In 1988, with the publishing house thriving, she enrolled in a course at the Art Institute of San Francisco, which prompted a return to her artistic practice—only this time in a newfound medium: sculpture and ceramics.

”Works and Days,” which opened March 31st and continues through the summer, brings together a selection of over 200 abstract and figurative ceramic sculptures, paintings, and collages Fattal has created over the last five decades. Drawing from a range of sources and themes that resonate across the artist’s multifaceted practice, the body of work she has produced touches on geopolitical conflicts, landscape painting, ancient history, mythology, and Sufi poetry to explore the impact of displacement as well as the politics of archeology and excavation.

The show opens with Fattal’s first sculpture, Torso Found in Today’s Downtown Beirut, (1988), a marble torso that resembles archaeological objects native to her region of the Middle East. Deliberately choosing alabaster stone for this first sculpture, the artist said she felt guided by her senses and she worked on it gently, allowing its natural forms to direct her process. Her partner, poet and artist Etel Adnan, has written about Fattal’s encounter with this stone that:

“The pink alabaster, luminous, almost sensual, had become the bust of a statue one would have found on an archeological site, only this time the archeology was of a contemporary site. It was as if the war, which was still ravaging Lebanon thousands of miles away, was fusing with this unique piece.” [1]

Simone Fattal. Man and his shadow. 2009. Courtesy of the artist and kaufmann repetto, Milan / New York; Balice Hertling, Paris; Karma International, Zurich / Los Angeles

Standing characters are a recurring theme in Fattal’s work. At the beginning they were small, and she used Adam, the first man, as an early reference point. In the late 1980s, Fattal had immersed herself in Sufism, and Islamic mysticism, and as Adam was known by Muslim mystics to have been very tall. She soon started creating taller sculptures, with very long legs and disproportionate bodies. This prototype informed the works that followed. Her Standing Man(2012) is an example of the imprint that her first sculpture left: the atrophied heads and textured bodies makes these figures look as though they’ve weathered a great storm. Since she considers many of her standing figures “warriors,” they are rendered in a way that shows that they’ve survived. In her figurative sculptures, clay figures are rendered with just enough detail to be recognized as human attuning the viewer to the body’s fragility.

While working at Hans Spinner’s workspace in Grasse, France in 2006, Fattal had access to a large garden space, allowing her to create pieces of increased size. She made figures as tall as she could; characters who seem to come out of the mythology deriving from the Mesopotamian region in Syria. An ancient culture founded in the Mesopotamia region of the Fertile Crescent situated between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, Sumerians are considered the creators of modern civilization as we understand it. But her sculptures, while reminiscent of ancient times, are simultaneously of today. For Fattal, history is continuous, and her practice involves a process of recovery. However, it is not only recovery but also a protest against forgetting.

Fattal’s influences come from epic historical texts as well as poetry, rather than a sculptural lineage. While in Grasse, Fattal made two works, The Guard (2006) and The Wounded Warrior (2008), two characters from the epic of Dhat al-Himma, each one-and-a-half meters high. The Dhat al-Himma is a little-known Arabian epic from the seventh or eighth century that depicts events that occurred under the Abbasid Caliphate of Harun al-Rashid, a period made legendary by Scheherazade’s One Thousand and One Nights. The heroine of the epic, Delhemma, is a “woman of noble purpose”—a knight and warrior who dedicates herself to her ambition and wishes to remain unmarried, although it is against custom. A female djinn (a mystical spirit) falls in love with Delhemma and attaches herself to the heroine until she is eventually killed off. Fattal has depicted characters from this long and adventurous narrative in several sculptures, such as Djinn and Zhat el Himma (2010-2019), a glazed terracotta sculpture that represents two joined figures, and Rider on Mizna the Fabulous Horse (2009), which memorializes a horse celebrated for its beauty within the epic. The warriors in this series reflect Fattal’s reverence for archaeology and lore. Their sturdy arch-like formations become symbols of resilience and fortitude in the long history of struggle in the Middle East. The choice of this epic can possibly be understood as Fattal’s attempt to excavate hints of feminism in old Arabian epics—where chivalry and strength were only attributed to men. Perhaps she saw some parallel between herself and Delhemma: a woman who dedicated herself to her ambitions and who decided walk down a path different than the common one inscribed for an Arab woman.

Fattal’s work creates a microcosmic universe, an all-encompassing temple riddled with totem and ritual. It constructs a world emerging from history and memory, grappling with the losses of time. Grounded in the earth, her practice can be read as an unfinished project coming to form each time in a different medium. Straddling the contemporary, the archaic, and the mythic, Fattal’s work is at once timeless and specific.

Simone Fattal: Works and Days remains on view through September 2, 2019 at MoMA PS1, 22-25 Jackson Avenue, Long Island City, NY 11101.


[1] Nayla Kettaneh Kunigk, Simone Fattal, (Beirut, Lebanon: Galerie Tanit, 2016). Accessed as .pdf file.