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Istanbul’s Museum displays of Etel Adnan reveals Ottoman, Greek roots

ISTANBUL (Dailysabah): Istanbul’s prominent Pera Museum has launched a retrospective exhibition of the extraordinary artist, writer and poet Etel Adnan, whose life spanned nearly a century. “Etel Adnan: Impossible Homecoming,” covering all periods of Adnan’s 60 years of production, sheds light on the artist’s life spent in war, exile, migration and loss.

Curated by Serhan Ada and Simone Fattal, the exhibition reflects the rich identity of Adnan who was born in Beirut to a multilingual, multifaith and multicultural family and region. Never indifferent to the wars, political and social upheavals that beset her life, the artist uses writing and painting to create her works. The retrospective exhibition includes oil paintings, drawings, prints, ceramics, carpets, accordion-folded artist’s books Leporellos and a film by the artist who “has mastered more than one medium.” Visitors can also listen to recorded interviews made with the artist at various points in her life. Adnan opens up a rich area of discovery and interpretation for the audience with her seasons, landscapes, signs, imaginary planets and satellites in the sky and impressive energy.

A poem in colors

The daughter of a mother from Izmir, which used to house a sizeable Greek community until the late Ottoman period, and an Ottoman officer born in Damascus, both of whom were isolated from their congregations because of their marriage, Adnan has produced works that bear the traces of her roots. Co-curator of the exhibition “Impossible Homecoming,” Ada points out that Adnan’s identity has been shaped by migration, exile and asylum and states that the exhibition is prepared with a holistic approach toward Adnan’s work. The curator says, “Although we don’t always recognize it in disguise, poetry emerges before us out of other places. Etel’s essays seem to be just prose, but they are downright poetry, which has always been part of her paintings. And anyway, isn’t her entire visual opus a poem written in colors?”

The exhibition’s co-curator Fattal also underlines that it’s not possible to understand Adnan through a single aspect of hers and adds: “Adnan is a poet, a writer, a tapestry designer and a painter, and no single one of these facets is enough to do justice to her versatility. She has to be considered from all these aspects and they each need to be examined simultaneously.”

Ghost of war

Born in 1925, Adnan began her formal education in a French religious girls’ school. Later, as a young girl who had to work her way through school, she started to dabble in literature and read poetry in French, which she had learned at school. Then she received a scholarship, emigrated to Paris and studied philosophy.

The artist, who later emigrated to the U.S. and continued her education in Berkeley and Harvard, returned to Beirut in 1972, to “an exile from an exile,” in her own words. War was looming on the horizon of the country she had left decades earlier. The war wasn’t ended yet when she left Beirut and returned again into voluntary exile to California. Since then, she has continued living between the U.S., Lebanon and France.

Adnan began painting much later than she had discovered her interest in literature. In 1959, she started to exhibit paintings for the first time in art centers and galleries around San Francisco. After a while, she got interested in Leporellos and tapestry weaving. She met Syrian artist Simone Fattal in Beirut while working at the newspaper Al Safa. Adnan started to share a studio with Fattal and after a short while opened her first solo exhibition in Lebanon.

Adnan begins every interview by telling who her mother and father were, which might be an indication of how intertwined her family’s past and her own identity is. When we take migration, exile, asylum and the memory of a long-gone Beirut into consideration, each work of the artist opens up to different interpretations.

Having met art lovers in various countries and cities through biennials and exhibitions, Adnan is now a guest in Istanbul with a comprehensive exhibition reflecting all her production periods. The exhibition “Etel Adnan: Impossible Homecoming” is open to the public at Pera Museum until Aug. 8, 2021.