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Remembering Etel Adnan: Between nature, art and belonging

Remembering Etel Adnan: Between nature, art and belonging
6 min read
02 December, 2021
Putting pen to paper and brush to canvas, Etel Adnan's influence in the Arab world cannot be understated. Tackling themes of displacement and exile, her career epitomises Arab creative brilliance within a Western-centric art establishment.

When I heard the news of Etel Adnan’s passing on November 15, I immediately looked for my phone where I had saved her favourite artwork. Logging on to social media, I joined strangers in thanking the artist for a pioneering life of love and generosity – grateful for the radiance of her paintings, poems and essays flooding my screen, as a testament to the many lives she touched.

Born in 1925 in Damascus as the daughter of a high-ranking Ottoman official father and a Greek mother, Etel grew up in Beirut, a place which would never leave her, together with the remanence of her ancestral lost home of Izmir.

Displacement and alienation, understood as both a physical and symbolic errancy, have most contributed to shaping Etel’s personal and artistic journey. Over a century marked by independence, civil wars, returns and exiles, her various art forms lean from the timely to the timeless, engaging with historical events while meditating on life’s transience and the permanence of memories.

She studied philosophy at the Sorbonne University in Paris, then pursued her education in Berkeley and Harvard, before briefly returning to Lebanon as a journalist in the early 1970s, until the outbreak of the civil war when she was forced to leave.

She spent the rest of her life between Paris and California, as an artist in exile, engagée, transgressive, challenging truths that others impose on us, choosing to remain free and decisively ahead of her time.

'Le poids du monde 1-20' by Etel Adnan [Getty Images]

Adnan’s literary career was prolific and wide-ranging, encompassing novels, essays and poems. In 1977, she wrote the war novel Sitt Marie Rose which narrates the story of Marie Rose Boulos, a social worker abducted and killed by militiamen during the Lebanese civil war whom Etel knew. Her poem To Be in a Time of War (from the collection In the Heart of the Heart of Another Country, 2005) contains the ruminations of a pain-afflicted generation: 

"The Weight of the World" by Etel Adnan [Getty Images]

Violence and war become as indelible as the vibrancy of a red Mediterranean sun. The poem is a palimpsest. It’s about Lebanon and one can read it with the destruction and sorrow of Iraq, Libya, Yemen or Afghanistan in mind. It conveys the brevity and breathlessness that comes with bearing witness while standing at the margins.

Etel began painting while in California, as a self-taught artist at the turn of the 1960s. Art, and abstract art more specifically, allowed her to transcend the representational confines of space, time and language.

In the 1950s, during the Algerian war for independence, she reflected on the politics of language as a means to claiming a personal and intellectual emancipation. She claimed that she “would paint in Arabic,” becoming a leading contributor to the self-affirming Hurufiyya movement which became popular in the Arab World. During the Vietnam War, she chose to write in English, more than in French.

Etel was already an established writer when she turned to painting. She acknowledged the influence of abstract artists such as Vasily Kandinsky and Paul Klee and we also find a romantic devotion to the consuming and transcending power of nature and landscape in her work.

For instance, the series The Weight of the World (2016) contains familiar motifs and characteristics found in many of her other abstract paintings – vitality, repetition, a mountain, a sea, and the persistence of a red square or circle which encapsulates a reimagined, revived Western Asian coast as a place of sunrise (“Mashreq”). Painting and literature communicate. “More irreversible than death is the sun,” she wrote in The Arab Apocalypse (1989), adding, “In the sky a solitary coffin is floating from one horizon to the other.”

Her paintings are small-sized. They capture the essence of a pure feeling; the metaphor of the tide connects with nostalgia and the places left behind. For Etel, the sea holds the feminine and the absolute. The shape of Mount Tamalpais in California, with whom she fell in love, blurs with the possible silhouette of Mount Lebanon, Taygetos or Ararat.

She also experimented with textiles, tapestry and paper-based art such as the playful format called leporello, an accordion-like booklet. In the latter, she often mixes naïve drawings with philosophical inquiries which channel vulnerability (“why is solar ray burning my eye when the sky still lies in ice?”). Yet her visual art is also poetry and it would be a disservice to apply simplistic labels she so resisted. 

The mainstream art scene paid late attention to Etel, while she was well into her 80s. When an influential international curator came across her leporello art in early 2010s, she was suddenly “discovered,” conforming with the cliché that ageing women in art are curious oddities whose “real” talent can only be validated through an external (white, male) gaze.

“In the beginning, every article started with [mentioning] my age. I thought it was funny but I got a little annoyed,” she said in a 2018 interview. Yet this encounter propelled her international stature with appearances in the Whitney Biennial (2014), Sharjah Biennial 12 (2015), the Museum of Modern Art (2017) and the Paul Klee Center in Switzerland (2018) among others. Her works feature in the collections of the Pompidou Museum in Paris, the new M+ in Hong Kong and more, with a first retrospective in the Netherlands scheduled for May 2022 at the Van Gogh Museum.

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When I visited Lights New Measure at the Guggenheim Museum last month for her first solo exhibition at a New York City institution, I didn’t know that it would also be the last to take place during her lifetime. At the time, I regretted that Etel’s works, displaced on the lower section of the museum’s rotunda, almost seemed removed from a conversation with Kandinsky, as if the downside of recognition included a form of isolation.

Etel Adnan did not become the architect she wanted to be. Instead, the visual artist and writer built scaffoldings, temples of memory, nostalgia and justice which we cannot always see in physical expression but inexpressibly and intimately feel in our hearts. Her legacy on contemporary Arab culture and beyond is immense. She is survived by her partner, Simone Fattal.

Farah Abdessamad is a New York City-based essayist/critic, from France and Tunisia.

Follow her on Twitter: @farahstlouis