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Etel Adnan

Born in Beirut

Writer and artist Etel Adnan (1925−2021) began painting in the early 1960s. Widely known for her poetry, novels and plays, she moved fluidly between the disciplines of writing and art and was a leading voice of contemporary Arab-American culture. A multi-linguist who had a nomadic existence, Adnan made work that traverses cultures and disciplines, drawing its inspiration from a deep engagement with the world. After studying philosophy at the Sorbonne in Paris, Adnan moved to America in 1955, where she attended U.C. Berkeley and Harvard, and then taught Philosophy of Art and Aesthetics at Dominican College in San Rafael, California. Settling in Sausalito, Adnan began to make paintings, a move that was prompted, in part, by her decision to stop writing in French following the Algerian War. Adnan said that ‘colours exist for me as entities in themselves, as metaphysical beings, like the attributes of God exist as metaphysical entities’, and this idea continued to be a key characteristic of her work.

She painted in oil paint with the canvas laid on a table, using a palette knife to apply the paint in firm swipes across the surface. Her elemental colour field compositions exude an intense energy, recalling the block-like slabs of colour in the late French landscapes of Russian artist Nicolas de Staël or the paintings of Paul Klee. During her time in Sausalito, Adnan began to focus on the surrounding landscape, in particular Mount Tamalpais which was visible from the windows of her home. Like Cézanne's relationship with Mont Sainte-Victorie, the mountain became an immutable reference point which she drew incessantly, capturing its ever changing moods and dynamic at different times of day, in all seasons. This series culminated with her 1986 book, Journey to Mount Tamalpais, a meditation on the relationship between nature and art.

Alongside painting, Adnan continued to make leporellos, pocket-sized books that unfold to several metres long, like a scroll, and also tapestries which translate the vivid colours of her paintings into wool. The leporellos combine verbal and visual observation and are lavishly illustrated, filled with landscapes and transcriptions of Arab poetry by writers including Mahmoud Darwish and Yusuf al-Khal as well as Adnan’s own writing.

Adnan’s later work was painted from memory, featuring landscapes distilled into their definitive features: like after-images of an experience that remains particularly vivid. Horizon and sky are represented as square masses or triangular, pyramidal shapes in thick, undiluted colours. Floating circular shapes rendered in yellow, orange or green and bands of pure colour suggest sun, sea or sand, and recall the shadows and light of her childhood in Beirut or the landscapes of California. These works reflect Adnan’s idea of vision as ‘multidimensional and simultaneous’, a meeting place for many images, coalesced into one sensorial experience.

Born in Beirut, Etel Adnan (1925–2021) was one of the leading voices in contemporary Arab-American literature and visual art. In 1950 she moved to Paris to study philosophy at the Sorbonne and then to the US to attend the University of California, Berkeley and Harvard. She taught philosophy at Dominican University of California, San Rafael, before returning to Beirut in 1972 to work as cultural editor for two daily newspapers. In 1977 her novel Sitt Marie Rose, set before and during the Lebanese Civil War, was published in Arabic, immediately winning the France-Pays Arabes Award. It has since been translated into over 10 languages.

Adnan has had solo exhibitions in institutions around the world, including Pera Art Museum, Istanbul (2021); Aspen Art Museum, Colorado (2020); MUDAM, Luxembourg (2019); San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (2018); Zentrum Paul Klee, Bern (2018); and lnstitut de Monde Arabe, Paris (2016). Her work has featured in numerous international art festivals, including the Sharjah Biennial, UAE (2015); Whitney Biennial, New York (2014); and Documenta 13, Kassel, Germany (2013). Adnan has received many honours for her contributions to culture over the years, amongst them the Ordre de Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres, France’s highest cultural achievement, which she was awarded in 2014.

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