Kaelen Wilson-Goldie on Etel Adnan
IN MOVE THE SILENCE (2020), her last book of poetry published during her lifetime, Etel Adnan begins with the word Yes and ends, barely seventy-four pages later, with an image of night falling like snow, erasing a landscape it has evoked from memory or imagination. In between, Adnan draws up a delicate inventory of the places and ideas she loved for almost a century. His colorful and unashamedly cosmopolitan life traversed a world of upheaval – the aftermath of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire; the cruelties of French colonization; the collapse of the state in Lebanon; wars in Algeria, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq, and yet we find again and again in his work something resembling serenity.
Like all of Adnan’s writings, Sitt Marie Rose (1978), his canonical novel of the Lebanese civil war, to The cost of love we’re not willing to pay (2011), his eye-opening essay on how to live with intensity, passion and enchantment (part of his multi-layered participation in Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev’s Documenta 13), Change the silence is remarkably powerful for such crisp, no-frills text. But whereas his earlier books dealt with crises of the living and among the living, in this one Adnan uses his classic economy of phrasing, quick metaphysical turns and decidedly cinematic imagery to soothe the restlessness of his mind – just for a moment. – and reflect with astringent honesty on one’s own mortality. She wonders what death will mean for her when it arrives and if she will experience it as freedom, a radical passage or the end of language.
The places were eminently important for Adnan, and in Change the silence, she remembers Greece, where her mother was born, and Syria, where her father is from. She celebrates California, Mount Tamalpais and the Pacific Coast, geographies she has inhabited for decades and painted mostly in oil hundreds, if not thousands of times, with a circle for the sun, a triangle for a mountain and a horizon line separating color bands for sea and sky.
Adnan’s spirit (and pen) wanders in Beirut, where she was born, in 1925, and where she grew to adulthood parallel to the independence of Lebanon (in 1943), at the age of gold (in the 1960s) and self-destruction (in 1975). ). She honors “the eastern skies.” . . those of the Eastern Mediterranean. . . dripping light over silent villages, for hours and between hours, turning the air into luminescence, creating the mystery of hues, as the sun itself melts into the 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 enthusiastically at the French-administered École des Lettres in Beirut. His exit from Lebanon was on a scholarship to study philosophy at the Sorbonne.
It was only later, after moving to the United States to begin a doctoral program at the University of California, Berkeley, which she never completed, that Adnan came to reevaluate and forcefully reject the French colonial policies in Africa, Asia and the Caribbean. During her last decade, after a life on the move, she settled more or less permanently in France. She spent her final years hanging around between her base on Rue Madame in Paris and her haven in the small coastal town of Erquy, a short train ride away in Brittany. “I will disappear without having resolved the turbulent emotions that seize me when I think of her,” Adnan wrote of France, “all of her colonial past and the remnants of that past that are stuck in my throat.”
Adnan’s fiercest sense of loyalty has always been to poets.
ADNAN IS MAJOR under conditions of great political, religious and linguistic diversity in Lebanon that have all but disappeared from the wider region in contemporary times. In his milieu, girls went to school as a matter of course and found many opportunities to become artists and writers (if not architects and engineers). It helped if you came from money or from a good feudal family, and what remains extraordinary about Adnan is not that she fell madly in love with poetry, philosophy and painting and that she s dragged halfway around the world to pursue them, but rather that she did. therefore 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 estranged mother died ten years later.
Adnan looked elsewhere for models. She admired the plastic artists of her time in Lebanon, notably the painter and sculptor Saloua Raouda Choucair, nine years her senior. But his fiercest sense of loyalty was always to poets, like the newspaper’s Adonis and Yusuf al-Khal. Shi’r in Beirut and Abdellatif Laâbi from the magazine puffed in Morocco, which in the middle of the 20th century revolutionized the role that poetry could play in the Arab world. Breaking the rules of meter and symmetry that had persisted for centuries, they played with the smallest units of Arabic poetry, varied verse lengths, altered internal and final rhymes, and experimented with free verse and prose poems. . They also dug into the deep past, reviving the Abbasid-era goal of using poetry to address current events in everyday language. They abandoned classical imagery, themes and idioms to address issues such as colonialism and national culture in the post-independence era, as well as issues of modernism, foreign influence and interference, corruption and neocolonialism of local elites.
The fact that these poets kissed Adnan, one of the few women among them, was always of great importance to her. Their welcome allowed Adnan, teacher and journalist as well as poet and painter, to access the rarefied position of public intellectual. In 1972, Adnan returned to Beirut to work as the cultural editor of a new French-language newspaper called Al Safa. She hired novelist Dominque Eddé and filmmaker Jocelyne Saab as reporters and wrote front-page op-eds, slamming politicians, honoring dead poets, reflecting on recent events, and constantly re-evaluating history’s groundbreaking turns. His attention to politics culminated in the publication of The Arab Apocalypse (1989), his expression of outburst and rage throughout a book.
Adnan came to practice painting in her late thirties at the request of a colleague from Dominican, the small Catholic college where she taught in San Rafael, California. But her style emerged fully formed – small, intimate squares of unmistakable grace made of colors pressed straight from the tube and applied with a palette knife in a series of rapid, violent strokes. From the late 1950s, Adnan was in constant mental dialogue with artists such as Cézanne, Kandinsky and Klee.
During the next fifty years, his work will explode in multiple directions. She made drawings and films and accordion-folded artist’s books called leporellos. She wrote plays, editorials, and essays that doubled as manifestos against war, political stupidity, and planetary devastation. She produced ceramics and wall paintings as well as a multitude of magnificent tapestries which could, in time, be considered her greatest contribution to modern and contemporary art. She collaborated with theater maker Robert Wilson; films inspired by the Otolith group, among others; and has caught the eye 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 his work through Adnan’s first solo exhibition at the Sfeir-Semler Gallery in Beirut in 2010, where an exhibition of his paintings and drawings was playfully paired with an exhibition of the sculptures and films of the Moroccan artist Yto Barrada, both thrown together in a wonderful conversation of colors and lines.
When Adnan died in November, just three months before her ninety-seventh birthday, her work was the subject of a light show at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York. Featuring a tight selection of paintings, tapestries and works on paper, “Light’s New Measure” snaked halfway up the ramp and was conceived as the first of three companions to the institution’s annual Kandinsky celebration. The University of Arkansas Press had named Maya Salameh the fifth recipient of the Etel Adnan Poetry Prize, and Adnan’s longtime gallery in New York and Paris, Galerie Lelong, was planning an exhibition in two cities in what would become his last body. of works, “Discovery of immediacy” (on view until February 19), including leporellos bearing the name of Erquy and a series of black and white paintings produced, exceptionally, with a brush.
Most striking, however, was not this well-deserved attention, nor even the fact that Adnan still painted and wrote prodigiously well into his nineties (although has been remarkable). It was the volcanic eruption of grief around the world that followed the announcement of his death. Its influence has gone far beyond its own communities of interest, its poets and painters, the aficionados of the Bay Area and the nostalgics of the Levant. The fact that Adnan spent more than half of his time on earth living with a woman, Simone Fattal, sculptor and founder of the influential Post-Apollo Press, had a huge impact on generations of young people. They drew from Adnan and Fattal’s partnership an example of how to live a full and complex life against the grain of society’s expectations, beyond limits and without constraints.
Adnan has made it 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, moving forward, about the fate of the planet, the world she loved, and the damage she saw, sooner than most. , as inadmissible. Less than a week after his death, Egyptian painter Gazbia Sirry and Iraqi photographer Latif Al Ani also died, dealing three blows to the ancient cultural capitals of the Arab world (Beirut, Cairo and Baghdad), already on their knees. Still, Adnan’s touch was transformative. We imagine him arriving at the end of Change the silenceher eyes downcast on that last line—her brain hopping pleasantly and familiarly from writing to painting, the page composed in blank canvas, a mischievous smile dancing across her face—and leaving the work on the desk in front of her. to do for the ‘us’ and the ‘us’ that she has created.
Kaelen Wilson-Goldie is a critic based in New York and Beirut. His book Etel Adnan (Lund Humphries) was released in 2018.