PRINT February 2022


ETEL ADNAN (1925–2021)

Etel Adnan, Turkey, ca. 1973–74. Photo: Simone Fattal.

IN SHIFTING THE SILENCE (2020), her last book of poetry published in her lifetime, Etel Adnan begins with the word yes and ends, just seventy-four pages later, with an image of night falling like snow, erasing a landscape she has conjured from memory or imagination. In between, Adnan assembles a delicate inventory of the places and ideas she loved over nearly a century. Her colorful and unabashedly cosmopolitan life crisscrossed a world of upheaval—the aftermath of the Ottoman Empire’s collapse; the cruelties of French colonization; the breakdown of the state in Lebanon; wars in Algeria, Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq—and yet one nevertheless finds again and again in her work something resembling equanimity.

Like all of Adnan’s writings, from Sitt Marie Rose (1978), her canonical novel of the Lebanese civil war, to The Cost for Love We Are Not Willing to Pay (2011), her revelatory essay on how to live with intensity, passion, and enchantment (part of her multilayered participation in Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev’s Documenta 13), Shifting the Silence is remarkably powerful for a text so brisk and unadorned. But while her previous books addressed crises of and among the living, in this one Adnan uses her classic economy of phrasing, her quick metaphysical turns, and her decidedly cinematic imagery to still the restlessness of her spirit—for just a moment—and reflect with astringent honesty on her own mortality. She wonders what death will mean to her when it arrives and whether she will experience it as freedom, radical passage, or the end of language.

Places were eminently important to Adnan, and in Shifting the Silence, she remembers Greece, where her mother was born, and Syria, where her father was from. She celebrates California, Mount Tamalpais, and the Pacific coast, geographies she inhabited for decades and painted primarily in oils hundreds, perhaps thousands of times, with a circle for the sun, a triangle for a mountain, and a line of horizon separating bands of color for sea and sky.

Adnan’s mind (and pen) wanders to Beirut, where she was born, in 1925, and where she proceeded into and through adulthood alongside Lebanon’s independence (in 1943), golden age (in the 1960s), and subsequent self-destruction (in 1975). She honors “the skies in the Orient . . . the ones of the Eastern Mediterranean . . . dripping light over silent villages, for hours and in between hours, turning the air into luminescence, creating the mystery of hues, as the sun itself melts in waters.” She grapples with the difficulties of her long and complicated relationship with France. Adnan grew up during the French mandate in Lebanon, attended French schools, and read Charles Baudelaire and Gérard de Nerval with enthusiasm at the French-administered École des Lettres in Beirut. Her exit from Lebanon was a scholarship to study philosophy at the Sorbonne.

Only later, having moved to the United States to start a doctoral program at the University of California, Berkeley, that she never finished, did Adnan come to reassess and forcefully reject French colonial policies across Africa, Asia, and the Caribbean. In her last decade, after a lifetime on the move, she settled down more or less permanently in France. She spent her final years shuffling between her base on rue Madame in Paris and her refuge in the small coastal town of Erquy, located a train ride away in Brittany. “I will disappear without having solved the turbulent emotions that seizes me when I think of her,” Adnan wrote of France, “its whole colonial past and the remnants of that past that are stuck in my throat.”

Adnan’s fiercest sense of loyalty was always to the poets.

ADNAN CAME OF AGE amid conditions of great political, religious, and linguistic diversity in Lebanon that have all but vanished from the wider region in contemporary times. In her milieu, girls went to school as a matter of course and found ample opportunities to become artists and writers (if not architects and engineers). It helped if you came from money or a good feudal family, and what remains extraordinary about Adnan is not that she fell head over heels for poetry, philosophy, and painting and dragged herself halfway around the world to pursue them, but rather that she did so having come from real poverty. Her father, a former officer in the Ottoman army who had another wife and two children in Damascus, died a broken man in the late 1940s. Her mother, from whom she was estranged, passed away ten years later.

Adnan looked elsewhere for models. She admired the visual artists of her time in Lebanon, most notably the painter and sculptor Saloua Raouda Choucair, who was nine years her senior. But her fiercest sense of loyalty was always to the poets, such as Adonis and Yusuf al-Khal of the journal Shi‘r in Beirut and Abdellatif Laâbi of the magazine Souffles in Morocco, who in the middle of the twentieth century were revolutionizing the role poetry could play in the Arab world. Breaking rules of meter and symmetry that had persisted for centuries, they messed around with the smallest units of Arabic poetry, varied line lengths, changed up internal and end rhymes, and experimented with free verse and prose poems. They also dug into the deep past, reviving the Abbasid-era objective of using poetry to take on current events in everyday language. They abandoned classical images, themes, and idioms to address issues such as colonialism and national culture in the aftermath of independence, as well as questions of modernism, foreign influence and interference, and the corruption and neocolonialism of local elites.

That these poets embraced Adnan, one of very few women in their midst, was always of tremendous significance to her. Their welcome made it possible for Adnan, a teacher and journalist as well as a poet and painter, to attain the rarefied position of public intellectual. In 1972, Adnan returned to Beirut to work as the culture editor of a new French-language newspaper called Al-Safa. She hired the novelist Dominque Eddé and the filmmaker Jocelyne Saab as reporters and wrote front-page opinion pieces, slamming politicians, honoring dead poets, reflecting on recent events, and constantly reappraising history’s revolutionary turns. Her attention to politics culminated in the publication of The Arab Apocalypse (1989), her book-length expression of radiance and rage.

Adnan came to the practice of painting late, in her thirties, at the urging of a colleague at Dominican, the small Catholic college where she was teaching in San Rafael, California. But her style emerged fully formed—small intimate squares of surpassing grace made from colors squeezed straight out of the tube and applied with a palette knife in a series of quick and violent strokes. From the late ’50s, Adnan was in constant mental dialogue with artists such as Cézanne, Kandinsky, and Klee.

Etel Adnan, Untitled, 2014, oil on canvas, 13 3⁄4 × 10 5⁄8".

For the next fifty years, her work would explode in multiple directions. She made drawings and films and accordion-folded artist’s books called leporellos. She wrote plays and editorials and essays that doubled as manifestos against war, political stupidity, and planetary devastation. She made ceramics and murals and a wealth of gorgeous tapestries that may, in time, come to be seen as her greatest contribution to modern and contemporary art. She collaborated with the theater maker Robert Wilson; inspired films by the Otolith Group, among others; and attracted the attention of curators such as Christov-Bakargiev, Stuart Comer (for the Whitney Biennial in 2014), and Eungie Joo (for the Sharjah Biennial in 2015). Christov-Bakargiev had discovered her work via Adnan’s first solo show at Beirut’s Sfeir-Semler Gallery in 2010, where an exhibition of her paintings and drawings was playfully paired with an exhibition of the Moroccan artist Yto Barrada’s sculptures and films, the two of them thrown together in a wondrous conversation of colors and lines.

When Adnan passed away in November, just three months shy of her ninety-seventh birthday, her work was the subject of a luminous exhibition at New York’s Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. Featuring a tight selection of paintings, tapestries, and works on paper, “Light’s New Measure” wound halfway up the ramp and was conceived as the first of three companions to the institution’s yearlong celebration of Kandinsky. The University of Arkansas Press had named Maya Salameh as the fifth recipient of the Etel Adnan Poetry Prize, and Adnan’s longtime gallery in New York and Paris, Galerie Lelong, was preparing a two-city show of what would turn out to be her final body of work, “Discovery of Immediacy” (on view through February 19), including leporellos named after Erquy and a series of black-and-white paintings made, unusually, with a brush.

Most striking, however, was not this well-deserved attention, nor even the fact that Adnan was still prodigiously painting and writing into her nineties (though that was remarkable). It was the volcanic eruption of grief from all over the world that followed the news of her death. Her influence vastly surpassed her own communities of interest, her poets and painters, Bay Area aficionados and Levantine nostalgics. That Adnan had spent more than half of her time on earth living with a woman, Simone Fattal, the sculptor and founder of the influential Post-Apollo Press, had an enormous impact on generations of young people. They took from Adnan and Fattal’s partnership an example of how to live a full and complex life against the grain of societal expectations, beyond limitations and without constraints.

Adnan made it seem possible to name your own family and draw your own lineage. But the lasting pain of her absence may be the omission of her voice, going forward, on the fate of the planet, the world she loved, and the damage to it that she saw, earlier than most, as unconscionable. Within a week of her death, the Egyptian painter Gazbia Sirry and the Iraqi photographer Latif Al Ani also passed away, dealing three hard blows to the old cultural capitals of the Arab world (Beirut, Cairo, and Baghdad), already on their knees. Still, Adnan’s touch was transformative. One imagines her reaching the end of Shifting the Silence, looking down on that last line—her brain skipping in a pleasant and familiar way from writing to painting, the composed page to the blank canvas, a mischievous smile dancing across her face—and leaving on the desk in front of her the work to do for the “we” and the “us” whom she created. 

Kaelen Wilson-Goldie is a critic based in New York and Beirut. Her book Etel Adnan (Lund Humphries) was published in 2018.