Etel Adnan is a prolific author and politically engaged artist who addresses issues of identity, displacement and memory, working across different continents and languages. As a novelist and poet, she wrote about the Lebanese Civil War in her 1978 novel Sitt Marie-Rose and her 1989 book of poems The Arab Apocalypse, and she has also addressed the more recent conflicts and aggressions in the Arab world. In her visual art, central themes range from alienation and war to poetic expression and imaginary landscapes.
Adnan’s bright and largely abstract paintings confront the viewer with an often geographically ambiguous scene, one that does not necessarily belong to a specific country or nation. Although they may be interpreted as images from specific places, or belonging to one’s memory, her untitled works provide no clear reference point. Like her poetry, Adnan’s use of colors and shapes are expressions that she applies on a small canvas, mimicking the size of notebooks and sheets of paper. The paintings shown here allowed her to escape from the tragedies and sufferings of humanity that fill her writings. In these small compositions, the viewer is able to peer into her imaginary world, to observe and be carried away from the harsh realities of life, however briefly. Her delicate 1971 leporellos, or accordion-like books, unfold phrases of her poems that dance across the folds alongside bright shapes, combining her passion for writing — she has transcribed the poetry of modern poets such as Badr Shakir al-Sayyab — and painting in one multilingual and multicolored space.