Congratulations to CS alumna Adila Laïdi-Hanieh who recently published her first book Fahrelnissa Zeid: Painter of Inner Worlds. Fahrelnissa Zeid is a leading figure of modernism and a pioneer of abstract art in Turkey. She was an important member of 1950s École de Paris abstract art movement. F. Zeid was the first artist from the Middle East to have an individual exhibition in New York City in 1950, and also the first woman to exhibit at London’s ICA in 1954. Laïdi-Hanieh’s book describes the artistic perspective of Fahrelnissa Zeid providing details from her personal life. Esma Celebioglu conducted an interview with Adila Laïdi-Hanieh on her reflections about her book. See her responses below.
How did you come up with the idea of writing this book?
I was one of Fahrelnissa’s art students in the 1980's in Jordan. As a teenager, I would go to her house once a week in the afternoons & paint there or show her the work I had done in the week, for about 3 years. This happened thanks to my parents who were friends with her. We are Algerian; FZ liked to have the company of people she could speak French with when she lived in Jordan. Moreover, my mother is a writer. In fact, she was asked by FZ to write her biography. The project never happened for publishing/editorial reasons, but by a funny coincidence of fate, I got to realize it in a different way decades later.
Then, flash forward to September 2015. The Istanbul Biennial had a panel discussion at the Istanbul Modern Museum about FZ, with Feminist art historian Griselda Pollock among others. I was invited just as I was finishing my PhD at GMU (on Palestinian culture, not FZ.) Because they were looking for someone who had known FZ & who could speak about her in a scholarly manner. To prepare, I opened old books about her in my family’s home & looked at my mother’s archive. I was dismayed at the discrepancy I saw there: Between FZ stellar career & phenomenal achievements as an artist, & between the admiring but rather sexist & orientalist art critique she received in Europe in the 1950s.
When I finished my presentation at IM, I suggested to FZ family & older students that they encourage someone to write a book about her in the future, to reintroduce her to the contemporary reader. When I heard a few months later the news about the planned Tate-Berlin-Beirut exhibitions for 2017-2018, I had just finished my PhD, & so I thought this was the best time to attract a publisher’s interest in FZ, & I thought I should do it.
I was able to do this work because the bulk of the FZ archive is in French: the diaries, letters, documents & personal papers, & it had not been accessed before; because of its language, & because of its intimate/private character. I was lucky & am grateful to have received the full cooperation, openness & trust of FZ family who hold her archive. Then, obtaining two writing grants allowed me to begin.
Rather than writing a simple monograph, in this book, you both tell us about Zeid’s life and describe her artwork. Could you expand on that?
Yes absolutely. I have written a lot about different artists’ works in monographs & even in papers at GMU. I wanted to do something more with FZ. In the art history canon, all “great” artists must have their own bio. Artists’ reputations are constructed by the market, by collectors, institutions, critics, etc. Biographies of Middle Eastern artists are extremely rare, for market value reasons.
There have been quite a number of catalogues about her already. I thought that the advantage my work would bring was to be a “proper” artist biography. & I wanted to do this with new information & fresh insights appropriate for a contemporary, post-colonial, feminist readership used to reading about conceptual art.
FZ daughter Shirin Devrim had published in the mid-1990s a well-known biography of the family of FZ. That book contributed to reviving the myth & lore of FZ in Turkey, as she is the central character in that book. However, that book is after all a family history, & Shirin was absent –living & working in the US as an actress- for most of FZ turning points.
So in a word, I wanted to join both the life of FZ & her art in one book.
Could you explain your methods?
Very straightforward: sifting through the archive, conducting interviews. Taking notes & photographs, assembling everything in thematic batches. Then building all this around an 8 decades chronology that kept expanding. Then, the facts about people, events, & her readings had to be checked, researched & contextualized.
My editor who publishes art history books wanted a chronological work, so that is the structure of the book. Of course, certain issues such as her abstract turn, her philosophy of art, her mood episodes & health issues are lumped together inside certain chapters, regardless of chronology.
Fahrelnissa Zeid was a Turkish painter who also lived in many different parts of the world, experienced many different cultures (and was influenced by them.) However, some critics tend to interpret her artworks and her style with an Orientalist perspective since she was a Muslim Turkish painter. You also argue that this is a misinterpretation that does accurately represent neither her art nor her personality. Can we see your book as a challenge against these misconceptions?
Yes absolutely. This is not only the first reconstruction & historiography of her career, but it is also a revisionist work.
First, I was surprised to find out in my research that FZ was not unique in Turkey in studying & living in Europe. In her case, it was a byproduct of her two husbands’ jobs, but many Turkish musicians & painters of the XXth century sought education in Western Europe & lived there extensively. This class of westernized intellectuals “believed” in a Europeanized-positivist modernization ideology for Turkey in the wake of Ataturk’s reforms. I actually quote a fascinatingly critical evaluation of this ideology by Eric Auaerbach from his correspondence with Water Benjamin.
FZ was very proud of her Ottoman era roots & culture, but she was also a product of that early generation of the Republic, by her age & by her membership in the Avant-garde Turkish art group, the “D Group.”
Then, when she lived in Western Europe, FZ was such a radically different person than her artist peers: in appearance, social class & especially by her sui generis artwork that her difference had to be pegged to her cultural-geographic origins. In addition, she worked in Paris after WWII, the modern art scene there –unlike the nationalist NY Abstract Expressionist scene where she made a foray in 1950- saw its vocation as internationalist. Critics underlined the origins of foreign artists working there, as a positive feature of the universalism of the Nouvelle École de Paris.
Otherwise, I deconstruct & historicize exactly how that orientalist reputation was built, & how it was propagated. I also highlight the writers who on the contrary discerned the motivation behind FZ works. By the way, I also found two cases of nativist self-orientalism, by an Iraqi & a Turkish writer who ascribed “Arab” & "Byzantine" qualities to her work, over her own assertions.
You have been working in the art world for a long time and you have obtained a Ph.D. in Cultural Studies. How does your cultural studies lens reflect on your works?
I am thankful for the rigor & discipline of the CS PhD. The methods are a must for this kind of work.
It was disorienting to me at first to work on an apolitical artist, whose work is content-less, & having to write about surface, forms & color. As I am used to a contemporary art criticism shaped by critical theory. I had to learn the language of art history while working. But, in order to write a contemporary book, I committed to engage with the materiality of her works,& their conditions of production, & then to write soberly about her lyrical & exalted art.
Finding her writings on her own philosophy of art, her notes on the books she read –Apollinaire, Kandinsky, Jung, Kierkegaard, etc. - & understanding her mood episodes; all this unlocked who she was for me, & helped me construct my thesis about her.
Do you have any future projects on this topic?
Of course I would love to highlight specific aspects of her vast oeuvre in future publications &/or exhibitions, if I am asked!
* The review of this book in the London Review of Books can be accessed here.
September 30, 2017