Mona Saudi at work in her studio Image Credit: Courtesy of the artist

“The first time I visited this museum was in the Nineties. They had some of my works inspired by the poetry of Adonis in their permanent collection at that time. When I saw the gallery rooms, I was thinking: ‘My God, how beautiful it would be to exhibit here and have one or two sculptures in each room’. So it takes time, but anyway it has been done,” says Jordanian artist Mona Saudi.

A day after the opening of the Sharjah show, sitting in the open Art Square opposite the Sharjah Art Museum and adjacent to the SAF head office, and enjoying her coffee, the veteran artist reminisced on the show as well as her long journey in art and literature.

On her feelings during the opening of her exhibition, Mona Saudi: Poetry and Form, presented by Sharjah Art Foundation in collaboration with Sharjah Art Museum, she says: “I was very happy with the way the show has been arranged.”

I don’t like frontiers. For me, the whole earth is one. We have one sky, one sun, one moon and I belong to that."

 - Mona Saudi, Jordanian artist

Her first exhibition in the UAE took place in Dubai almost three years ago at the Lawrie Shabibi Gallery in Al Serkal Avenue titled Poetry in Stone and she recalls the reviews and media coverage that her show received. It was a much smaller show compared to the present one in Sharjah.

When she first visited Sharjah, she loved this area as if it is the heart of the city with everything growing around it. “And I have noticed that anyone who visits Sharjah comes to this Art Museum too. It is a beautiful space inside and also occupies a central location.”

“I have tried my best to get the best of my works here from each period — from the painting I had done in 1963 when I was only 17, and the last piece titled Moon Eclipse I did in 2017. And the first sculpture to the right titled Mother Earth was the first sculpture that I did by carving in stone. I have done many other Mother Earth sculptures since then but this one is very precious for me [as it was] done while I was studying in Paris in 1965. When I did it, I felt that I was finding my way in sculpture although my French professor felt that students should stick to studies of models etc. I remember him telling me: ‘Mona, it is very dangerous what you are doing’.”

“He then elaborated: ‘If you have something inside, you can proceed this way. But if you don’t have anything, it is better to learn the technique and not personal expression’. I told him: ‘I am coming from a completely different civilisation and we are abstract in our way of thinking’.”

Mona Saudi, Growth, 2002. Jordanian Jade on marble base.

“But I just felt that I found my way in my sculpture and I found the material which I love, which is stone, and the method — which is direct carving”, she recalls. “And I just spent my life fulfilling my dreams creating this kind of form which I kept adding or changing a little at a time.”

When asked what drew her completely into a life in art, she confesses: “I do not know. It is mysterious. Since 12 years of age, my dream was to go to Paris and be an artist. And I started at that time to draw as well as write poetry while at school.”

“And I spent my life to fulfill my dreams. But really, till now I feel that I have done nothing in life… nothing at all. Zero!”, she says with a sincerity that exposes an innocence and fragility beneath a tough demeanour.

Saudi may have been 12 when she dreamed of going to Paris. But she did go finally when she was 17. “You know, when you have big dreams, you find a way to go. Because it was my decision to do that,” she says.

When she was in school in Amman, she used to go to the British Council Library to look at art books and magazines. And as a child, “I was born close to the Sabeel Al Horyat (Nmyphaeum), the very old Roman ruins in Amman. Our house was only three metres away and when I open the door of my house I could step into the Nmyphaeum, with its Roman baths, columns and scattered sculptures all over. These were literally historical stones. And I used to play in these ruins. That is why I belong to this kind of era, which I feel endures.”

And then one fine day, while still at school, she ran away from home. “I was only 16 years old and was yet to complete the final Baccalaureate year. But I knew that at the Beaux-Arts — the art school in Paris — they do not ask for this certificate to be accepted. So I did not want to waste another year of my life getting my certificate. I told my sister, who was a little older, that I was leaving for Beirut and from there I would go to Paris.”

“I took a taxi from Amman to Beirut where I had my brother. My father had already informed him that I was on the way. My brother was very sweet. He told me: ‘Okay Mona, just get your final certificate so that in future, in case you changed your mind and want to pursue another line of studies.’ I agreed, on one condition that I don’t go back to Amman.”

Thus it was that Saudi spent her final high school year in Beirut at a boarding school in the mountains outside the city. “This year was very important for me, as I met the artists and poets who frequented this very vivid cultural and artistic life in Beirut. They were big names at that time — Adonis being one of them.”

“All of them took care of me because I was so young. I also held my first exhibition there at that time. One of the paintings being shown here in Sharjah is from that exhibition in 1963 titled Lovers done in oil colour on panel,”

She recalls that an Armenian family had bought the painting at that time and recently the Sharjah-based Barjeel Foundation had acquired the work for their collection. “I was happy when I saw this. Till then, I did not have any picture of that painting with me.”

After finishing her studies in Paris, Saudi came to live in Beirut. “A few years after the civil war in Beirut, I went back to Amman for a few years. But I mainly live in Beirut,” she says. “I don’t like frontiers. For me, the whole earth is one. We have one sky, one sun, one moon and I belong to that. Besides, all these frontiers that we see today, did not exist 200 or 300 years ago. These frontiers keep changing and people quarrel over nothing. The main thing is to have this ideal in your thoughts, and maybe if enough people think this way, this idea may spread.”

Saudi expresses her admiration for the multicultural atmosphere in the UAE. “For example, see all the foreigners living together in this small, cosmopolitan city of Sharjah, it is very much like New York,” she exclaims.

Her participation in the student revolution of 1968 in Paris gave her an “awareness that I belong to this part of the world — mainly the Middle East.”

Saudi decided to come back to the Middle East and to Jordan, her home country, where she decided to work with children in a Palestinian camp. “It was a great experience. I was not teaching, but just letting them to express themselves,” she says.

And out of that experience she did the book In Time of War, Children Testify. It is part of the display of archival material at the Sharjah exhibition. “It was the first book in the world whereby you can explain a difficult situation through children’s drawings. It was a huge success all over the world. I think there were at least 10 films that were made out of this experience,” she says. “When I had gone to Paris, I had only the experience of drawing. But the forms that I did were very sculptural. So I joined the Sculpture section in the direct carving department and I continued in that.”

“When you go to art school, what makes you an artist is not just studying there. It is how much you work on yourself. I used to see all kinds of exhibitions in galleries and museums of old civilisations. And then I just continued. One has to produce art. The school is just the first, small opening towards something. Then one has to study by oneself,” Saudi says.

The six months she spent in Carrara in central Italy, the centre of the marble industry, was to prove decisive and productive for Saudi. She was initially supposed to spend only three months there but at the end of six months, she had done five or six sculptures. The stay there helped her to grasp other essentials of working on stone, like handling big stones and machinery, installation and even packing, which would prove useful throughout her career.

She says of the experience: “For me, things have always worked out as if everything was arranged. When I have something on my mind, I find that suddenly everything paves way for that to happen. The thing that is very important is that you dream and then you try to work to realise your dreams. And this is how it happens.”

Saudi’s main themes are her “relation to earth, nature and human beings.”

The subject of her works — in sculpture as well as drawings are — mother earth, lovers, meditation or nirvana, sun/moon eclipse (because I like these phenomena in nature which are abnormal), plenitude, continuity and growth. Although she has lived in one of the most politically seismic region of the world, her works are not overtly political. “In my work, you can always see the positive as well as contemplative side of our universe,” she says.

One of the influences in her sculpture style is Brancusi, a pioneer of modernism, who set the standard for the abstract style and broke away from the tradition of Rodin’s figurative style. “But my main source of inspiration were the very ancient civilisations of the Middle East — the Nabataeans, Egyptians and the Sumerians,” she says.

Literature and poetry has also influenced her work as can be seen in her drawings and paintings at the Sharjah show. “I loved poetry when I was very young and used to draw as well as write poetry when I was 14 years old.”

Friendship with some of the literary greats such as Adonis and Mahmoud Darwish made her a part of the Modernist period in the Arab world. Saudi has also experienced the turmoil of the Middle East at close hand. The bombings of the Lebanese civil war destroyed some of her works as bombs went off in her garden, sparing her because she was not inside the house at that time. “I have lived with it, you know. I am lucky to survive” she says smiling. “ I just went on working.”

Regarding the continued violence in the region, she says: “This war and destruction… it is very painful. And all these divisions, and this sectarian approach, which we never experienced before. More than the destruction of material things, what is painful is the killing of people.”

N. P. Krishna Kumar is a writer based in Dubai.

- Mona Saudi: Poetry and Form will run at the Sharjah Art Museum until June 7.