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The Case of Etel Adnan

The Case of Etel Adnan

The Case of Etel Adnan

A blurry black and white {photograph} depicts the artist and author Etel Adnan studying in entrance of a microphone. Dealing with the digital camera, a script in her palms, she stands on what seems to be a stage. Spot-lit, comfy in a shirt and free plaid pants, there’s a smile on her face.

It’s onerous to say the place this picture was taken. It may have been in Paris, Beirut, or Sausalito — cities wherein she has lived — or elsewhere. It is usually unclear what sort of a spot that is, although it appears extra like an underground poetry bar than a museum. We have no idea the date, however she seems to be younger — possibly in her mid-30s, which might make it someplace round 1960.

Adnan sadly handed away this previous November, shortly after I completed my thesis on her in Could 2020. In a current interview, when requested how she felt about “garnering accolades for her artwork a lot later in life,” Adnan responded:

To be trustworthy, I didn’t anticipate recognition. I used to be pleased to maintain going. Some individuals I revered preferred my work. … At first, each article began with [mentioning] my age. I assumed it was humorous, however I bought somewhat aggravated. I received’t make a difficulty out of that; most feminine artists who’re well-known turned identified later in life.

Etel Adnan on the stage (date and site unknown), from Hans Ulrich Obrist, Etel Adnan In All Her Dimensions (Doha: Arab Museum of Fashionable Artwork Qatar Museums Authority, 2014)

This so-called recognition, which arrived late in life, was half of a bigger phenomenon. Within the final decade or so, the artwork world has engaged in a technique of institutional self-critique and self-conscious growth of collections in an effort to be extra inclusive. Western establishments have began participating in initiatives to diversify their applications and holdings, to make up for historic underrepresentation. There have been totally different sorts of underrepresentation: gender, geographical state of affairs, class, race, ethnic minority standing — and infrequently a combination of a couple of. 

These initiatives have been promoted by establishments and the press by way of a standard language round this phenomenon. This language evolves across the phrase “discovery,” typically adopted by different shared phrasing, resembling “lastly getting their flip,” “forgotten,” “ignored,” and “ignored.”

Discovery is, after all, a traditionally loaded phrase. It brings to thoughts Columbus’s discovery of America — a contested discovery that ignored the presence of the indigenous Native American peoples and their distinctive civilizations.

However what does discovery actually imply? In response to the Cambridge dictionary, discovery means: “the act of discovering one thing that had not been identified earlier than.” This definition is adopted with the instance: “It was fairly a discovery once I came across this stunning mountain stream.” A detailed studying of this instance will reveal that the gorgeous mountain stream was there earlier than the invention occurred, and can proceed to be there afterward. Its existence doesn’t rely on the arrival of the “I” who got here later to expertise it. Is there a strategy to describe the encounter whereas nonetheless acknowledging the stream’s priority?

Taking a look at this maybe unintended allegory from an institutional perspective, we will for a second think about inventive practices of underrepresented artists as mountain streams, and the place of the “I” because the place of the acclaimed Western establishments. Now we will rephrase the query: How can we do justice to the present exhibition histories of those artists whereas organizing exhibitions for them at Western establishments? 

The narrative of how Adnan’s profession shifted within the final decade gives a precious case examine. We will begin by taking a look at how Adnan’s work has been curated and exhibited at Western establishments,  together with Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev’s documenta (13) in Kassel, Germany, 2012; Hans Ulrich Obrist’s monographic exhibition of Adnan’s work, titled The Weight of the World on the Serpentine Gallery in London, 2016; and Eungie Joo’s New Work: Etel Adnan on the San Francisco Museum of Fashionable Artwork (SFMOMA) in 2018. In every case, a discovery narrative restricted a broader understanding of her work. 

New Work: Etel Adnan, set up view (San Francisco Museum of Fashionable Artwork, 2018, © SFMOMA)

It’s clear that these three curators helped give Adnan extra visibility at Western establishments and supplied her alternatives to share her observe with new audiences. Nevertheless, when her lengthy biography was absent from the precise exhibitions, it didn’t open up sufficient area for her exhibition historical past and present bibliography — strengthening the concept these curators and museums found her. 

Different curatorial tendencies did the identical. One was to emphasise her portray observe over different facets of her work, as was the case at documenta (13) and SFMOMA. One other was to separate her inventive observe from her writing, presenting her as an artist in exhibitions, and as a author in occasions and public programming. Some curatorial selections additionally tended to slender her profession to particular areas, nations, and geographies. documenta (13), for instance, introduced Adnan in relation to Lebanon’s sociopolitical context, displaying her palette knife subsequent to the melted objects from Lebanon’s civil struggle. 

documenta (13), set up view, Kassel (2012, © documenta archive, photograph by Ryszard Kasiewicz)

However Adnan had a multifaceted life and profession, one which shifted between totally different geographies and mediums, and one which wasn’t absolutely proven within the discovery narratives. Adnan was born in Beirut in 1925 to a Syrian father and Greek mom. She lived in Paris, Beirut, and Sausalito; produced work, tapestries, leporellos, movies, drawings, and ceramic works; labored as a journalist; revealed many books, starting from poems and performs to fiction, profitable quite a few awards. All through her life, Adnan made and confirmed artwork actively at galleries in Amman, San Francisco, Oregon, Paris, Beirut, Rabat, Washington, DC, and London, amongst others.  

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In 2014, Etel Adnan: In All Her Dimensions, curated by Obrist at Mathaf: Arab Museum of Fashionable Artwork in Doha, aimed to showcase this multi-dimensional traits of Adnan’s observe — an method distinct from the tendency to give attention to Adnan’s work or to segregate her inventive and writing practices. However when he introduced over a present to the Serpentine in London, the slim catalogue omitted her life story and a scientific accounting of her inventive profession. Additionally, this exhibition was small — it included fewer works than Mathaf. This was additionally the case for Adnan’s most up-to-date survey, Mild’s New Measure, on the Guggenheim Museum, which closed final month. 

Etel Adnan, “5 Senses for One Loss of life” (1969), ink and watercolor on paper (© Callicoon Fantastic Arts)

To place it merely, the assorted curators concerned have totally different targets, norms, and curatorial agendas. In 1994, Palestinian American artwork historian Salwa Mikdadi featured Adnan in her exhibition Forces of Change on the Nationwide Museum of Ladies within the Arts in Washington, DC. Mikdadi is, amongst different issues, an artwork historian; she aimed to construct an correct historic accounting of the included artists’ careers, and thru that accounting, construct legitimacy for the artists she introduced. Inclusion was a part of her agenda, however her methodology was additionally private: As an Arab lady, she noticed gaps within the historic report, and aimed to fill them. Against this, Christov-Bakargiev, Joo, and Obrist — high-profile worldwide figures with institutional capital to spare — may confer legitimacy just by together with Adnan into their productions. Equally, although, this curatorial capital is undersigned by their skill to find new artists. On this disparity between Mikdadi and the others, the elephant within the room is the artwork world as such — and never least of all, the artwork market. When Obrist factors his finger at an artist, it will get registered by establishments, galleries, and public sale homes. Mikdadi doesn’t confer the identical worth or pleasure, partly as a result of she is herself a member of an underrepresented group.

What does the invention narrative do? On the one hand, it provides extra visibility and acknowledgement; however, it narrows down difficult histories — or omits them altogether. Artists being introduced by Western establishments for the primary time get portrayed as exhibiting for the primary time of their careers. This understanding assumes that they weren’t acknowledged earlier than. This institutional narrative of “rediscovered” artists due to this fact creates a fable round their observe. Their histories outdoors Western establishments or by non-Western curators don’t get counted. Ultimately, discovery assumes the prerequisite of an acknowledgment from the cultural mainstream, one “naturally” positioned within the West. It creates a hierarchy between West and non-West, between institutional areas within the cultural mainstream — museums and acclaimed establishments — and areas and cultures relegated to outsider standing: various exhibition areas, galleries, non-Western museums, and small or mid-sized establishments.

Forces of Change, set up view, Nexus (Atlanta Up to date Artwork Heart) (Atlanta, 1995), displaying work by Chaibia Tallal. Pictured from left to proper is Salwa Mikdadi, Etel Adnan and Laura Nader.

So far as I’ve noticed, the invention narrative hasn’t given sufficient room for dialogue concerning the institutional constructions that led to the exclusion of underrepresented artists from artwork historical past within the first place. Though rediscovering ignored artists could be useful for widening our data of their achievements in artwork historical past, it may not be sufficient. It’s equally pressing to acknowledge the sooner discouraging and exclusionary methodologies of the very institutional constructions which later produced the invention narrative. On this means, one can measure the precise results of cultural and racial distinction, that are manifested not solely in outright exclusion however on troubled types of inclusion and the curatorial elite. These results are inevitably current in curatorial selections round underrepresented artists at Western establishments, as they have an effect on the writing of historical past round their practices.

One motive for specializing in a single side of an artist’s profession may be defined by the artwork market. Newly found inventive practices appeal to the market’s curiosity. This market tends to place artists inside the linear narrative of artwork historical past, whereas additionally presenting their observe as a commodity. Because of this, what will get introduced in a few of these exhibitions tends to be one side of their oeuvre, their relation to a particular geography, or one (saleable) medium, resembling portray — all of which makes it simpler for these practices to be promoted. Even when the artist of curiosity tends to shift contexts, making work in response to and with shut dialog to a number of locations and communities, the market nonetheless tends to advertise their observe in relation to at least one geography — SWANA (South West Asia/ North Africa) in Adnan’s case — because of a bent to exoticize. Because of this, the presentation of those inventive practices at Western establishments may not do justice to the complexity of inventive practices that worth duality, multidimensionality, and a nonlinear perspective of existence.  

What would a retrospective that opens area for such dialectical motion appear to be? Let’s think about a retrospective for Adnan wherein the art work generates the type of the exhibition. On this exhibition, we may acknowledge the multidimensionality of her observe in relation to totally different geographies and mediums. And it will make Adnan’s earlier exhibition and writing historical past current within the catalogue or the exhibition area. On this imagined exhibition, we may worth Adnan’s picture on the stage at an underground bar as a lot as her awards from acclaimed establishments. There could be no celebration of discovery however as a substitute a storytelling of what really occurred. What if the answer to exclusion shouldn’t be inclusion alone, however inclusion with a duty to historical past? Such a retrospective would demand sources: time, power, and area, in addition to generosity, love, and care. Think about the advantages of such an method, one which not solely challenged the invention narrative but in addition embraced the histories of all the gorgeous mountain streams.

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