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Jusour wa Kusour: The Work of Doris Bittar, 1989-2007

February 11 - April 1, 2007

 

Doris Bittar was born in Baghdad, Iraq of Lebanese parentage and her early childhood was spent in the outskirts of Beirut, Lebanon. Her family immigrated to the United States where she studied fine art earning a Master of Fine Arts from University of California, San Diego. Bittar is a past recipient of a California Arts Council Fellowship, the author of several cultural essays, and is a lecturer at the University of California, San Diego and San Diego State University. (right:  Doris Bittar, "Folding Linens Araby," 2000, oil on linen.  Courtesy of the artist and David Zapf Gallery, San Diego.)

As an Arab in Western society, Bittar feels strongly connected to the traditions of the Middle East -- the nurturing and hospitality that are deeply entrenched even in the face of political upheaval. While teaching at the American University in Beirut during 2005 she visited a Palestinian refugee camp, and several cities in Iran and Syria. Bittar found the Arabic phrase kul shay (all things) to describe her feeling of the mix of Middle Eastern cultures -- their decorum, abundance and contradiction. The Arabic title of the exhibition translates as "A Bridge and a Chasm" which reinforces Bittar's themes of personal identity and political struggle.

Bittar combines images of Middle Eastern decoration with personal narrative to express issues of immigration and history. Her visual vocabulary is shaped by the design and calligraphy of Islamic manuscripts, the cross-pollination between the European Realist painting tradition, and the perception of the exotic Orient through fabrics of the Ottoman Empire adopted by the French. In the series Semites, her life size portraits of Jews and Arabs are veiled in text-laden sheer fabric that creates shrouded barriers. Many of the images in the series Lebanese Linen come from photographs taken by Bittar's grandfather that capture a close-knit family at the end of the 1960s "golden" period on the verge of a civil war. The patterns in these paintings reflect the ancient past, the colonial past and the recent past tinged with the French decorative style embraced by the Lebanese.

This solo exhibition presents work from 1989 to the present that expresses Bittar's reflections on the cultural landscape of the Middle East and her family's history in the region. It features paintings from the series Lebanese Linen, People of the Book, and The Wandering Ishmae l, and installations from the photographic series Kul Shay/All Things, completed in 2005 during Bittar's six month journey through Lebanon, Syria, and Iran. (right: Doris Bittar, installation view "Jusour wa Kusour: The Work of Doris Bittar, 1989-2007" Oceanside Museum of Art.  Left to right: "Under the Staircase with Tante Muna," 2007, mixed media installation; "Standing Nubian/Seated Arab," 1993, oil on canvas.  Courtesy of the artist and David Zapf Gallery, San Diego.)

Jusour wa Kusour: The Work of Doris Bittar, 1989-2007 opened February 10th and continues through April 1, 2007.

 

Selected wall panel texts from the exhibition:

Curator's Statement
 
The work of San Diego artist Doris Bittar is steeped in history, both the artist's own personal history and the history of the Middle East in general. Bittar was born in Baghdad, Iraq and lived in Beirut, Lebanon before her family immigrated to the United States in the mid-1960s a few years before Lebanon's civil war. These experiences, as well as contemporary events in the Middle East, provide inspiration for works that are at once powerfully complex and intimately beautiful. The Oceanside Museum of Art is honored to present the first retrospective exhibition of Bittar's work to audiences in Southern California.
 
Jusour wa Kusour: The Work of Doris Bittar, 1989-2007 features a survey of paintings from three series, Lebanese Linen, Orientalism, and People of the Book, as well as the premiere of two installations from the photographic series Kul Shay (All Things). The Arabic title of the exhibition Jusour wa Kusour, translated as A Bridge and a Chasm, reinforces themes of personal identity and political struggle that are explored in the artist's work. While the chasm of misunderstanding and fear between the Middle East and the West appears to be widening each day, this exhibition not only acknowledges the fracture but also reminds us of the bridges between the cultures. Through the use of personal narrative, images of the artist's family, and appropriated imagery, Bittar's work leads us away from fear and prejudice toward an appreciation of the shared human experience and the prospect of peace.
 
We are grateful to Amy Corton and Carl Eibl, Bob Gagnon and Inge Johannsen for lending work from their collections to the exhibition with assistance from the David Zapf Gallery, and we appreciate the technical support of Bryan Palmer, John Odam, and Edward Sweed. My heartfelt thanks to Doris Bittar whose work inspires and enlightens.
 
-- Catherine Gleason, Curator

 

Lebanese Linen
 
Like many contemporary artists, Doris Bittar works with appropriated imagery borrowed from a variety of sources, including the work of French artists Henri Matisse (1869-1954) and Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863). From the late 1990s through the present, Bittar has worked on the Lebanese Linen series, inspired by photographs of her family living in and around Beirut prior to Lebanon's civil war, which began in 1975 and ended in 1990. 
 
In these beautiful and poetic paintings, we see members of Bittar's family in a bucolic and peaceful environment. And while the viewer cannot know exactly who is depicted in each painting nor completely decipher the narrative, the subtle palette and veiled intimacy communicate the gentleness with which a family cares for one another in advance of the approaching chaos of war. The delicate patterning of graceful arabesques that veils the figures while they fold linens and tend to their daily lives can be interpreted as a metaphor for the variety of aesthetic influences within Lebanese culture as well as a metaphor for familial relationships. Additionally, images of the Eiffel Tower serve as a reminder of the French colonization of the Middle East. Through these everyday images of Lebanon, Bittar emphasizes the similarities rather than the differences between the East and the West. In Keeping Company, members of Bittar's family (on the right) are joined by soldiers -- one of them an uncle -- in the Lebanese Army (on the left) as the reality of civil war approaches. 
 
In addition to work from Lebanese Linen, this gallery includes four small-scale still lifes referred to as Conversation Books, which highlight Bittar's explorations with patterning, Arabic calligraphy, and appropriated imagery. 
 
 
Orientalism and People of the Book
 
These two series explore issues of colonialism and occupation in the Middle East and contain some of the earliest paintings of Doris Bittar's career. Landscape, history, and culture figure prominently in the work of Bittar who turns to her heritage as a source of inspiration for the articulation of her ideas. For example, in Nahr al Barad, from the Orientalism series, a valance of fabric floats above the Palestinian refugee camp of the same name, located in Northern Lebanon. The landscape depicted reflects the Arabic idea of baladi -- the fusion of place and culture -- while the fabric is reminiscent of textiles in the artist's childhood home. You Open Your Eyes Under the Oblivious Sun of the West appears in bold Arabic script on the bottom of the painting bearing this title and reveals the beginning of the use of calligraphy and overall, abstract patterning, as seen in the Lebanese Linen series in the opposite gallery. While the figures have been appropriated from War and Peace by the eighteenth-century French artist Jean Honoré Fragonard, Bittar recasts the images to address contemporary events in the Middle East.
 
Bittar's series People of the Book references the biblical children of Abraham-Isaac, Ishmael, Jacob, and Esau. The story of Jacob is shared by Muslim, Jewish, and Christian religions, and parallels have been drawn between this story and the struggle for peace in the Middle East. In Bittar's painting Watching Jacob I, the imagery has been appropriated from Eugène Delacroix's painting Jacob Wrestling with the Angel which hangs in the church of Saint-Sulpice in Paris. The Arabic calligraphy translates as, "He who denies his face shall be renounced by all the birds of paradise." Throughout her career, Bittar has been inspired by the work of Delacroix and Henri Matisse, nineteenth-century French artists who traveled to the Middle East and depicted the region in their paintings. The figures on either end of the large-scale Standing Nubian/Seated Arab have also been inspired by figures in Delacroix's notebooks as well as by Matisse, while the powerful imagery in the central panels of this painting refers to events of the Persian Gulf War in the early 1990s.

 

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