Obituary: Etel Adnan (1925–2021)
By HG Masters
A celebrated poet, the author of a seminal novel about the Lebanese civil wars, and a painter of vivid colors honoring the beauty of the natural world, Etel Adnan died in Paris on November 14 at the age of 96. Known in both literary and artistic circles, across the Arab world and in the United States as well as in Europe, Adnan inhabited many cultural milieu. Later in life, she became increasingly visible as a painter, with major museums around the world holding exhibitions of her paintings, tapestries, and leporellos (accordion-pleated books).
Born in Beirut to a Greek mother from Smyrna (now İzmir) and a father from Damascus who was a high-ranking officer in the Ottoman Army, Adnan learned French in her school years. She went on to study philosophy at the Sorbonne in Paris in 1950 and attended graduate school at the University of California, Berkeley, and then at Harvard University. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the brutality of French-Algerian war prompted her to stop writing in French and begin painting; some of her first poems to be published were written in reaction to the American war in Vietnam; she taught philosophy at Dominican College in San Rafael, California. She returned to Lebanon for a few years in the early 1970s, working at Francophone newspapers as an editor and critic, while also exhibiting her own artwork. Following the outbreak of Lebanon’s civil war in 1975, she wrote the novel Sitt Marie Rose (1978), about a teacher of deaf-mute children who joins the Palestinian resistance and is kidnapped and killed by a Christian militia for being a traitor to her own sect.
As a writer, Adnan published numerous volumes of poems and essays. Among the most renowned were the book-length poem The Arab Apocalypse (1980); Journey to Mount Tamalpais (1986) with drawings and essays about her beloved mountain in Marin County, California; and Of Cities & Women (1993), of letters to historian Fawwaz Traboulsi. Adnan’s artworks were brought to prominence again starting around 2010 when Sfeir-Semler gallery in Beirut mounted a large survey of her abstract paintings, which led to her artworks, both paintings and tapestries, being exhibited in 2012 at Documenta 13 in Kassel. In 2014, she was named a chevalier (knight) of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres (Order of Arts and Letters) by the French Minister of Culture. That same year, her paintings and tapestries were featured at the Whitney Biennial in New York and in a retrospective at Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art in Doha. She held a solo show at London’s Serpentine Galleries in 2016, and an exhibition of her recent works at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in 2018. Her 2021 exhibition “Impossible Homecoming” at Istanbul’s Pera Museum surveyed the many media in which she worked, including film.
She told Daniel Kurjaković in a 2016 interview published by ArtAsiaPacific: “I am touched by the world. I love the physical world. Ever since my childhood a little stream enchants me. As I was an only daughter, I lived more with things than with people. When I was small, before we relocated, we had a garden and I was talking to the flowers. The external world has always been my life companion. I love the external world. And this is expressed in my paintings.”
An exhibition of Adnan’s work is currently on view at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York through January 10, 2022. She is survived by her partner, the artist Simone Fattal.
HG Masters is ArtAsiaPacific’s deputy editor and deputy publisher.