In a 2002 interview with BOMB magazine, Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish declared: “I strongly believe in our right to be frivolous.” 10 years later, Lebanese-Dutch visual artist Mounira Al Solh began working on a series of drawings and embroideries that borrows its title from Darwish’s quote, creating portraits of Syrian and Middle Eastern refugees that she had interviewed. Like an exploded graphic novel, Al Solh’s project combines the portraits of her interviewees with their written stories, emphasizing each subject’s individuality while allowing the collection to form a generalized meta-narrative of the refugee experience. Providing a platform for stories of life under an oppressive regime, the artistic archive acts as a call to action, aid, and compassion to its viewers.

Prompted by the outbreak of war in Syria and the antecedent 2011 uprising, Al Solh has been interviewing Syrians and others from the Middle East who have been displaced to Lebanon, Europe, and the United States for nearly 6 years now. Since then, countless media outlets have desensitized the public to the ongoing crisis and reduced its victims to the political label “refugee.” Part of what Al Solh’s work achieves is a reversal of these effects by taking close care to individuate her subjects and conceding their right to and capacity for frivolity despite their circumstances. As per Darwish’s assertion, Al Solh humanizes refugees and emancipates them from insular representations that suppress their multifaceted identities, making them easier for viewers of the artwork to empathize with.

Mounira Al Solh, I Strongly Believe In Our Right To Be Frivolous, 2012-ongoing

From February 8 until April 29 of this year, Al Solh’s work was exhibited at the Art Institute of Chicago. Indeed, it was in Chicago that Al Solh produced the most recent of the exhibited artworks, having met with immigrant communities in the United States for the first time. Lined up against the museum wall, her portraits are mostly done on lined yellow paper that is evocative of the labyrinthine bureaucratic processes refugees endure while seeking citizenship. To the archival and administrative functions of the paper, Al Solh adds a more personal dimension with her portraits with quotes from her interviewees. Walking across the space, one notices that despite her massive output, Al Solh’s art practice is far from Warholian: each piece is a semantically, thematically, and materially unique.

Mounira Al Solh, I Strongly Believe In Our Right To Be Frivolous, 2012-ongoing

Most of the pieces are multimedia works, featuring some combination of graphite, ink, watercolor, or collage. The portraits range vastly in style from realistic depictions of the sitter to abstracted suggestions of a face, the accompanying texts ranging from several-paragraph accounts to mere names. Some pages include harrowing tales of tragedy and loss while others are more frivolous; two adjacent pieces could respectively be about a traumatizing time in prison and a love for horse riding. The fact that Al Solh creatively varies the way in which she is retelling her sitters’ stories accentuates each one’s individuality. The portraits were drawn as Al Solh chatted with her sitters. While the written component of each piece is a literal transcription of that person’s narrative, “Drawing allows you to record what is happening in a visceral way,” Al Solh explained in her own interview with curator Hendrick Folkerts.  

Mounira Al Solh, I Strongly Believe In Our Right To Be Frivolous, 2012-ongoing

While the drawings were created by Al Solh herself, the embroideries included in the exhibition were more of a collective effort. Using funds she had been granted, she was able to enlist the help of several refugee and minority women in need of temporary jobs. They empowered each other, exchanging stories, skills, and stitches as Al Solh translated her drawings into textile. Her sartorial work culminated in the exhibition’s centrepiece, “Sperveri,” a structure reminiscent of traditional Greek bridal beds. On the bed are several migrant tales Al Solh procured in Europe, while the canopy is embroidered with motifs drawn from Islamic, Greek, and Ottoman visual cultures that form symbolic links with the contemporary stories lying underneath. The parallels between these modern, relatively localized histories and those of the past, spread across the Arab world, create an powerful conversation between past and present that situates the testimonies within a solid historical framework.

Mounira Al Solh, I Strongly Believe In Our Right To Be Frivolous, 2012-ongoing

On the 29th of April, Al Solh was joined by human rights activist Sarah Hunaidi, Northwestern associate professor Wendy Pearlman, and NOW editor Hanin Ghaddar in a panel discussion which closed off the exhibition at the Art Institute. Moderated by Folkerts, the talk used Al Solh’s oeuvre as a launchpad from which to address issues of exile, assimilation, propaganda, and the role of art in mitigating the effects of violence. Having spent four years in Turkey and Lebanon as a refugee herself, Hunaidi now works for RefugeeOne, an organization that helps refugees assimilate into their new communities by providing them with education, health care, and employment. Systematic exile compelled Hunaidi to politicize her identity and devote her work to helping others who were struggling to establish a new life in the United States. “You cannot be apolitical,” she said, “art is political, and politics are personal.” Yet, to be totally consumed by politics was also exhausting.

At least, that is what an activist from Aleppo who Pearlman had met in Turkey told her. Pearlman’s work, like Al Solh’s, has also involved interviewing hundreds of refugees -though Pearlman’s research focuses primarily on exiled Syrian protestors. Her book, “We Crossed a Bridge and It Trembled,” is a collection of testimonials given by Syrian refugees, arranged chronologically to narrate a history of Syria starting from Hafez al-Assad’s regime to the current humanitarian crisis. Both author and artist base their work on face-to-face interactions with storytellers and commence to act as mediators for their stories, creating a living and growing archive. With a background in political science, Pearlman’s approach to this was more scholarly than Al Solh’s; despite their difference, both were united by the goal of politically informing viewers and readers while invoking compassion towards refugees struggling to start new lives.

Mounira Al Solh, I Strongly Believe In Our Right To Be Frivolous, 2012-ongoing

The histories ingrained in Al Solh’s series are ever-evolving; the portraits animate their corresponding stories so that the reader can feel that there is more to the tale than is being told in the mainstream. Through an intensely social and cooperative multimedia practice, Al Solh dissects the “refugee” stereotype to reveal the infinitely variegated textures of personality and identity hidden underneath. By elevating otherwise untold stories to the public’s attention, she is rallying for social change within and without brutal power structures and advocating for the refugee’s right to be frivolous, flourishing, and free.

All images taken by artmejournalist Jad Dahshan at Art Institute of Chicago show.