Hiding in Plain Sight

Etel Adnan

b. 1925, Beirut, Lebanon
Lives and works in Paris, France and Sausalito, California

Etel Adnan, Untitled (inv #286), 2017, oil on canvas, 33 cm × 24 cm (13" × 9-7/16"), Courtesy the artist and Sfeir-Semler Gallery, Beirut / Hamburg

For Etel Adnan, a Lebanese poet, essayist, and visual artist, all art is political and shaped by lived experiences. Her paintings and tapestries use geometric forms and subtle variations of color that evoke landscapes and horizons, as well as striking geometric compositions. Adnan began to paint in the 1960s, after her decision to stop writing in French in solidarity with the Algerian War of Independence.

Etel Adnan, Untitled (inv #287), 2017, oil on canvas, 33 cm × 24 cm (13" × 9-7/16"), Courtesy the artist and Sfeir-Semler Gallery, Beirut / Hamburg

Adnan began to make paintings each day during her time in Sausalito, California of the Mount Tamalpais outside her window. While she was widely known as a poet and writer, abstract painting allowed Adnan to explore memories of her youth in the Middle East, the atrocities of war she observed, and her nomadic life thereafter.

Etel Adnan, Untitled, 2016, oil on canvas, 38 cm × 46 cm (14-15/16" × 18-1/8"), Courtesy the artist and Sfeir-Semler Gallery, Beirut / Hamburg

In her work, spontaneous and uninhibited strokes of color conjure up feelings of beauty and disruption, creating a new language for the complex experiences of her life. In a biographical essay, Adnan writes, “Furiously, I became a painter. I immersed myself in that new language. Abstract art was the equivalent of poetic expression; I didn’t need to use words, but colors and lines. I didn’t need to belong to a language-oriented culture but to an open form of expression… My spirit was loose.” Winner of the 2020 Griffin Poetry Prize, Adnan’s poetry is visible here, on canvas and tapestry as acts of resistance, similar to her writing. Her exposure to war, conflict, and death are transformed through light, form, and color to manifestations of resilience.

Etel Adnan, Désert Rose, 2019, wool tapestry, handwoven in Aubusson, France, 155 cm × 200 cm (61" × 78-3/4"), Courtesy the artist and Sfeir-Semler Gallery, Beirut / Hamburg

Deeply engaged with traditional Arab crafts, Adnan is known for her brightly colored, semi-abstracted artworks that often feature quiet, melancholy landscapes. Inspired by the woven works she encountered during her childhood in Beirut, Lebanon, Adnan incorporated tapestry-making into her practice in the 1960s. “There was no art museum in Beirut, there were no paintings at home,” she has said. “We had rugs, and the aesthetic pleasure came out of those.” In the early 1950s, the artist was introduced to the 16th-century series of six tapestries, The Lady and the Unicorn. She later visited the Ramses Wissa Wassef Art Centre in Giza, Egypt, where she encountered imagery from the natural world in tapestries composed of naturally dyed wool. The architect Ramses Wissa Wassef, who founded the Giza art center and advocated for the regeneration and dissemination of weaving, encouraged young artists like Adnan to create textiles based on improvisation, chance, and sensory inspirations.

The artist frequently draws from her paintings and writings for her fiber works, which include idiosyncratic scribbles, graphic lines, and blots of color.

Etel Adnan

Etel Adnan (b. 1925, Beirut, Lebanon) lives and works between Sausalito, California and Paris. She studied philosophy at the Sorbonne, Paris; University of California, Berkeley; and Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts. Important historic exhibitions of her work include Etel Adnan at White Cube, London (2014); New Work: Etel Adnan at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, California (2018); and Départ at the Institute of Modern Art, Nuremberg, Germany (2019). Adnan’s work resides in numerous public collections worldwide, including the British Museum, London; Centre Pompidou, Paris; Institut du Monde Arabe, Paris; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, D.C.; M+, Hong Kong, China; The Museum of Modern Art, New York; Museum of Modern Art, Tunis; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco; Kunstsammlung NRW, Düsseldorf; Royal Jordanian Museum, Amman; Mathaf, Qatar; Sursock Museum, Beirut; Kunsthaus Zurich; Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. She has written more than a dozen books of poetry, fiction, and essays, including Time (Nightboat Books, 2019), translated by Sarah Riggs and winner of the Griffin Poetry Prize, Surge (Nightboat Books, 2018), and Night (Nightboat Books, 2016). Her poetry collection Sea and Fog (Nightboat, 2012) won the Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian Poetry and the California Book Award. She is also the recipient of a PEN Oakland-Josephine Miles Award and in 2014 was named a member of the Ordre de Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres, one of France's highest cultural honors.