The Lebanese-American artist passed away this Sunday in Paris, at the age of 96. Several personalities of the artistic and cultural world paid tribute to her, like Jack Lang, president of the Arab World Institute in Paris.
Lover of the Arab world, painter, writer, from a mix of Mediterranean cultures: Etel Adnan seems to have lived several lives, from Lebanon to the United States, through France.
Born in 1925 in Beirut, at a time when Lebanon was under French protectorate, Etel Adnan grew up in a rich multicultural and polyglot environment. Her mother is Greek and Christian, her father is Syrian and Muslim, but the future artist first spoke Greek and Turkish, before learning French and English at school. A polyglot, she has a “poor command” of Arabic, according to her own words, but feels attached to the calligraphy of its letters and the sound of the language, which she has always heard from a young age.
Initially a poet, she wrote several books of poems in French, but also a novel, Sitt Marie Rose, which takes place in Lebanon.
After studying philosophy at the Sorbonne in Paris, she moved to California in the 70’s and returned to her first love: painting, more precisely abstract art, which she practiced through joyful works with bright colors.
Passionate about the Arab world
“I have a passion for the Arab world; we are the region of the three monotheistic religions, and religion is not only a theology, it is also a culture, we have an incredible heritage” said Etel Adnan. Originally from an Arab country without speaking the language, the artist has always juggled words, languages and her paintings. About this language that fascinates the artist but that she does not manage to master completely, she said: “I did not need to write in French, I was going to paint in Arabic“.
And indeed, this desire “to abandon French language” comes to her during the Algerian war, which she recounts in her book Ecrire dans une langue étrangère, published in 1984: “I suddenly became, and quite violently, aware (…) that I was participating emotionally in this war, and that I was repulsed by having to express myself in French. (…) The fate of the Arab world seemed to depend on the outcome of this conflict.”
She therefore wrote in English, and copied poems by great contemporary Iraqi authors, such as her friend Badr Shakir al-Sayyab, which she published in leporellos, those accordion books that are read by unfolding. Nevertheless, one of her major works, L’Apocalypse Arabe (1980) is written in French, and collects several poems about her love of Lebanon and the region, as well as the tragedies that have affected her country.