Etel Adnan was born in 1925 and raised in Beirut, Lebanon. Her mother was a Greek from Smyrna, her father, a high ranking Ottoman officer born in Damascus. In Lebanon, she was educated in French schools.
She studied philosophy at the Sorbonne, Paris. In January 1955 she went to the United States to pursue post-graduate studies in philosophy at U.C. Berkeley, and Harvard. From 1958 to 1972, she taught philosophy at Dominican College of San Rafael, California. Based on her feelings of connection to, and solidarity with the Algerian war of independence, she began to resist the political implications of writing in French and shifted the focus of her creative expression to visual art. She became a painter. But it was with her participation in the poets’ movement against the war in Vietnam that she began to write poems and became, in her words, “an American poet”.
In 1972, she moved back to Beirut and worked as cultural editor for two daily newspapers—first for Al Safa, then for L’Orient le Jour. She stayed in Lebanon until 1976.
In 1977, her novel Sitt Marie-Rose was published in Paris, and won the “France-Pays Arabes” award. This novel has been translated into more than 10 languages, and was to have an immense influence, becoming a classic of War Literature. In 1977, Adnan re-established herself in California, making Sausalito her home, with frequent stays in Paris.
In the late seventies, she wrote texts for two documentaries made by Jocelyne Saab, on the civil war in Lebanon, which were shown on French television as well as in Europe and Japan.
Over the course of the 1960s, Adnan started to move away from the purely abstract forms. In 1964, thanks to a fellow artist in San Francisco, she discovered leporellos, accordion-style folded books in which she could mix drawing with writing and poetry. Another pivotal moment took place a decade later, when Adnan moved to Sausalito, near San Francisco, and discovered the landscape of Mount Tamalpais, which remains the most important encounter of her life. Her obsession with the mountain led to many paintings and, after more than two decades of intense contemplation, to the seminal book Journey to Mount Tamalpais (1986), which explores links between nature and art. As Adnam told me, “Mount Tamalpais became my house. For Cézanne, Sainte-Victoire was no longer a mountain. It was an absolute. It was painting.” Mount Tamalpais also appears in another dimension of Adnan’s work, her seventy filmic snapshots of the sea, sun, and sky, which she started to make in the 1980s with a Super 8 camera. On visits to New York City, she would also film what she saw from her window. The bridges, skylines, and passing ships that she observed there lead us to yet another dimension in her practice: her drawings and watercolors, which she has made daily ever since she began to draw as her means of expression while learning English in America. These New York drawings, made with thick black ink, were soon after followed by a series of drawings of the stone bridges of Paris. As Simone Fattal shows in her writings on Adnan’s visual art practice, one of these is an echo of a line in a Baudelaire poem, “an agonizing sun falling under an arch.”
It was in Paris that I met Adnan for the first time, in 2007. We quickly became friends and started to collaborate on many projects, such as the Serpentine Gallery’s Edgware Road Project and several marathons between London and Athens and the Point d’Ironie magazine with agnès b. We began to record a large number of conversations. Adnan is one of the greatest artists of our time, one of the wisest I have ever met, and a great inspiration to many people. Although she is now in her late eighties, I am always struck by the amazing energy and intensity of her recent practice, which is still among the best work being created in the world today. I am also continually struck by the amazing optimism of her paintings, which as Fattal explains, both “exude energy and give energy. They grow on you like talismans . . . paintings as pure energy with which to live one’s life with courage.”
Hans Ulrich Obrist is a London-based art curator, critic and director of International Projects at the Serpentine Galleries.
This text is an excerpt from Maharam Stories (Skira Rizzoli, 2015).
Artists of the Gallery
Shirin Abu Shaqra
SADIK KWAISH ALFRAJI
Samia Osseiran Jumblatt
Catharina van Eetvelde