Remembering Etel Adnan: the Lebanese-American artist and writer dies aged 96

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Photo credit: Catherine Panchout – Corbis
Photo credit: Catherine Panchout – Corbis

“The world needs togetherness, not separation. Love, not suspicion. A common future, not isolation.” So wrote the great artist, poet and author Etel Adnan in 2017, and these moving words resonate throughout her legacy.

It was confirmed on Sunday that Adnan had died at the age of 96 in Paris, one of the three cities the Lebanese-American polymath called home during her life. Another was Beirut, where she was born in 1925 to a Greek mother and a Syrian father. In 1949, she left Lebanon to study philosophy at the Sorbonne in the French capital; and just a few years later, moved to America to pursue postgraduate studies at Berkeley, Harvard and the University of California. She settled in the latter’s state and began teaching the philosophy of art and aesthetics at the Dominican University of California.

Photo credit: Tristan Fewings
Photo credit: Tristan Fewings

A powerful voice in international feminist and political discourse, writing in French, Arabic and English, she participated in the poets’ movement against the Vietnam War, which she cited as having been her initial motivation for taking up writing. She later responded to the clashes in her native Lebanon, rising to prominence in 1977 with her novel Sitt Marie-Rose, set during the Lebanese Civil War.

When conflict broke out in Algeria, Adnan – who was by then 34 – made the decision to stop writing in French, choosing visual art as her channel for expression. Although she tended to use writing as a direct tool for social criticism, as an artist she was more celebratory. Her brightly coloured, abstract works, created by applying swipes of oil paint to the canvas using a palette knife, exude the beauty and vitality of the natural world, while her tapestries were inspired by Persian rugs. Adnan’s dual proficiency in verbal and visual languages came to the fore in her trademark leporellos, the accordion-like booklets that she filled with drawings of landscapes, Arabic poems and fragments of text.

In her last decades, Adnan embraced a more reflective creative process, painting conceptual landscapes from memories of those she had encountered throughout her life – the sunny horizons of California and orange light of Beirut. She captured the attention of the international art world in her late eighties, when, in 2012, her canvases featured in the contemporary exhibition Documenta 13 in Kassel, Germany. Subsequently, her work was the subject of solo shows at London’s Serpentine Gallery and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; and in 2014, she was awarded the Order de Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres, France’s highest cultural honour.

Her vibrant work Surge featured on the 2016 cover of Bazaar Art, in which we paid tribute to Adnan’s extraordinary breadth of expression. Long may her creative and intellectual vision for a more united world inspire us all.

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