The Case of Etel Adnan


    A blurry black and white photograph depicts the artist and writer Etel Adnan reading in front of a microphone. Facing the camera, a script in her hands, she stands on what appears to be a stage. Spot-lit, comfortable in a shirt and loose plaid pants, there is a smile on her face.

    It is hard to say where this image was taken. It could have been in Paris, Beirut, or Sausalito — cities in which she has lived — or elsewhere. It is also unclear what kind of a place this is, though it looks more like an underground poetry bar than a museum. We do not know the date, but she appears to be young — maybe in her mid-30s, which would make it somewhere around 1960.

    Adnan sadly passed away this past November, shortly after I finished my thesis on her in May 2020. In a recent interview, when asked how she felt about “garnering accolades for her art much later in life,” Adnan responded:

    To be honest, I did not expect recognition. I was happy to keep going. Some people I respected liked my work. … In the beginning, every article started with [mentioning] my age. I thought it was funny, but I got a little annoyed. I won’t make an issue out of that; most female artists who are well known became known later in life.

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

    This so-called recognition, which arrived late in life, was part of a larger phenomenon. In the last decade or so, the art world has engaged in a process of institutional self-critique and self-conscious expansion of collections in an effort to be more inclusive. Western institutions have started engaging in initiatives to diversify their programs and holdings, to make up for historical underrepresentation. There have been different kinds of underrepresentation: gender, geographical situation, class, race, ethnic minority status — and often a mixture of more than one. 

    These initiatives have been promoted by institutions and the press through a common language around this phenomenon. This language evolves around the word “discovery,” often followed by other shared phrasing, such as “finally getting their turn,” “forgotten,” “overlooked,” and “ignored.”

    Discovery is, of course, a historically loaded word. It brings to mind Columbus’s discovery of America — a contested discovery that ignored the presence of the indigenous Native American peoples and their distinctive civilizations.

    But what does discovery really mean? According to the Cambridge dictionary, discovery means: “the act of finding something that had not been known before.” This definition is followed with the example: “It was quite a discovery when I came upon this beautiful mountain stream.” A close reading of this example will reveal that the beautiful mountain stream was there before the discovery occurred, and will continue to be there afterward. Its existence does not depend on the arrival of the “I” who came later to experience it. Is there a way to describe the encounter while still acknowledging the stream’s precedence?

    Looking at this perhaps accidental allegory from an institutional perspective, we can for a moment imagine artistic practices of underrepresented artists as mountain streams, and the position of the “I” as the position of the acclaimed Western institutions. Now we can rephrase the question: How can we do justice to the existing exhibition histories of these artists while organizing exhibitions for them at Western institutions? 

    The narrative of how Adnan’s career shifted in the last decade provides a valuable case study. We can start by looking at how Adnan’s work has been curated and exhibited at Western institutions,  including 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 at the Serpentine Gallery in London, 2016; and Eungie Joo’s New Work: Etel Adnan at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) in 2018. In each case, a discovery narrative limited a broader understanding of her work. 

    New Work: Etel Adnan, installation view (San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 2018, © SFMOMA)

    It is clear that these three curators helped give Adnan more visibility at Western institutions and provided her opportunities to share her practice with new audiences. However, when her long biography was absent from the actual exhibitions, it did not open up enough space for her exhibition history and existing bibliography — strengthening the idea that these curators and museums discovered her. 

    Other curatorial tendencies did the same. One was to emphasize her painting practice over other aspects of her work, as was the case at documenta (13) and SFMOMA. Another was to separate her artistic practice from her writing, presenting her as an artist in exhibitions, and as a writer in events and public programming. Some curatorial decisions also tended to narrow her career to specific locations, nations, and geographies. documenta (13), for example, presented Adnan in relation to Lebanon’s sociopolitical context, displaying her palette knife next to the melted objects from Lebanon’s civil war. 

    documenta (13), installation view, Kassel (2012, © documenta archive, photo by Ryszard Kasiewicz)

    But Adnan had a multifaceted life and career, one that shifted between different geographies and mediums, and one that wasn’t fully shown in the discovery narratives. Adnan was born in Beirut in 1925 to a Syrian father and Greek mother. She lived in Paris, Beirut, and Sausalito; produced paintings, tapestries, leporellos, films, drawings, and ceramic works; worked as a journalist; published many books, ranging from poems and plays to fiction, winning numerous awards. Throughout her life, Adnan made and showed art actively at galleries in Amman, San Francisco, Oregon, Paris, Beirut, Rabat, Washington, DC, and London, among others.  

    In 2014, Etel Adnan: In All Her Dimensions, curated by Obrist at Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art in Doha, aimed to showcase this multi-dimensional characteristics of Adnan’s practice — an approach distinct from the tendency to focus on Adnan’s paintings or to segregate her artistic and writing practices. But when he brought over a show to the Serpentine in London, the slim catalogue omitted her life story and a systematic accounting of her artistic career. Also, this exhibition was small — it included fewer works than Mathaf. This was also the case for Adnan’s most recent survey, Light’s New Measure, at the Guggenheim Museum, which closed last month. 

    Etel Adnan, “Five Senses for One Death” (1969), ink and watercolor on paper (© Callicoon Fine Arts)

    To put it simply, the various curators involved have different goals, norms, and curatorial agendas. In 1994, Palestinian American art historian Salwa Mikdadi featured Adnan in her exhibition Forces of Change at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, DC. Mikdadi is, among other things, an art historian; she aimed to build an accurate historical accounting of the included artists’ careers, and through that accounting, build legitimacy for the artists she presented. Inclusion was part of her agenda, but her method was also personal: As an Arab woman, she saw gaps in the historical record, and aimed to fill them. By contrast, Christov-Bakargiev, Joo, and Obrist — high-profile international figures with institutional capital to spare — could confer legitimacy simply by including Adnan into their productions. Equally, though, this curatorial capital is undersigned by their ability to discover new artists. In this disparity between Mikdadi and the others, the elephant in the room is the art world as such — and not least of all, the art market. When Obrist points his finger at an artist, it gets registered by institutions, galleries, and auction houses. Mikdadi does not confer the same value or excitement, partly because she is herself a member of an underrepresented community.

    What does the discovery narrative do? On the one hand, it gives more visibility and acknowledgement; on the other hand, it narrows down complicated histories — or omits them altogether. Artists being presented by Western institutions for the first time get portrayed as exhibiting for the first time in their careers. This understanding assumes that they were not acknowledged before. This institutional narrative of “rediscovered” artists therefore creates a myth around their practice. Their histories outside Western institutions or by non-Western curators do not get counted. Eventually, discovery assumes the prerequisite of an acknowledgment from the cultural mainstream, one “naturally” positioned in the West. It creates a hierarchy between West and non-West, between institutional spaces in the cultural mainstream — museums and acclaimed institutions — and spaces and cultures relegated to outsider status: alternative exhibition spaces, galleries, non-Western museums, and small or mid-sized institutions.

    Forces of Change, installation view, Nexus (Atlanta Contemporary Art Center) (Atlanta, 1995), showing work by Chaibia Tallal. Pictured from left to right is Salwa Mikdadi, Etel Adnan and Laura Nader.

    As far as I’ve observed, the discovery narrative hasn’t given enough room for discussion about the institutional structures that led to the exclusion of underrepresented artists from art history in the first place. Although rediscovering overlooked artists might be helpful for widening our knowledge of their achievements in art history, it might not be enough. It is equally urgent to acknowledge the earlier discouraging and exclusionary methodologies of the very institutional structures which later produced the discovery narrative. In this way, one can measure the specific effects of cultural and racial difference, which are manifested not only in outright exclusion but on troubled forms of inclusion and the curatorial elite. These effects are inevitably present in curatorial decisions around underrepresented artists at Western institutions, as they affect the writing of history around their practices.

    One reason for focusing on a single aspect of an artist’s career could also be explained by the art market. Newly discovered artistic practices attract the market’s interest. This market tends to position artists within the linear narrative of art history, while also presenting their practice as a commodity. As a result, what gets presented in some of these exhibitions tends to be one aspect of their oeuvre, their relation to a specific geography, or one (saleable) medium, such as painting — all of which makes it easier for these practices to be promoted. Even when the artist of interest tends to shift contexts, making work in response to and with close conversation to multiple places and communities, the market still tends to promote their practice in relation to one geography — SWANA (South West Asia/ North Africa) in Adnan’s case — due to a tendency to exoticize. As a result, the presentation of these artistic practices at Western institutions might not do justice to the complexity of artistic practices that value duality, multidimensionality, and a nonlinear perspective of existence.  

    What would a retrospective that opens space for such dialectical movement look like? Let’s imagine a retrospective for Adnan in which the artwork generates the form of the exhibition. In this exhibition, we could acknowledge the multidimensionality of her practice in relation to different geographies and mediums. And it would make Adnan’s previous exhibition and writing history present in the catalogue or the exhibition space. In this imagined exhibition, we could value Adnan’s image on the stage at an underground bar as much as her awards from acclaimed institutions. There would be no celebration of discovery but instead a storytelling of what actually happened. What if the solution to exclusion is not inclusion alone, but inclusion with a responsibility to history? Such a retrospective would demand resources: time, energy, and space, as well as generosity, love, and care. Imagine the benefits of such an approach, one that not only challenged the discovery narrative but also embraced the histories of all the beautiful mountain streams.


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