Saudi Arabia celebrates Etel Adnan in turn

Dhahran (Saudi Arabia). A spaceship in the middle of a no man’s land: this futuristic building [voir ill. ci dessous] – or rather spectacular architectural gesture –, a bit like the Louis Vuitton Foundation in Paris, which is located in Dhahran and is the most important cultural center in Saudi Arabia. Named King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture – Ithra, this imposing construction – a vertical oval, surrounded by round shapes – is the pride of the country. Opened in 2018, Ithra houses a library, a theater, a cinema, an exhibition space and a children’s museum. There is also a collection comprising some 2,000 pieces. It includes works of Islamic art but also works of contemporary art, sometimes created by artists from the region, sometimes by foreign creators. Thus, a monumental tree by Giuseppe Penone, “planted” in the very center of the building, has the appearance of a plant spine.

A late recognition

The first personal exhibition offered by Ithra is dedicated to Etel Adnan (1925-2021), Lebanese painter, writer and poet. The artist, who died in 2021 at the age of 96, is one of those whose painting was praised late. Unlike his poetry, recognized in his native country, it was not until Documenta 13 (2012) that his visual work attracted critical attention. A discovery, especially at an advanced age, often has a catalytic effect for an artistic career. Etel Adnan’s exhibitions have followed one another at the Guggenheim in New York, at the Zentrum Klee in Bern and at the Institute of the Arab World in Paris and, just before the artist’s death, the Center Pompidou-Metz returned a tribute to his multidisciplinarity, within the exhibition “Writing is drawing”.

Modernity as a common thread

The exhibition in Ithra is not presented as a retrospective. Its title, “Etel Adnan, Between East and West”, announces the ambition to present the work of an artist whose personal story lies at the crossroads of Eastern and Western cultures. Born in Beirut to an Ottoman Muslim father and a Greek Christian mother, she grew up in an Arabic-speaking society. Educated in French religious schools, French became her first language and, at a very young age, she also learned English, which she used in most of her works. Despite the richness of this linguistic mix, the artist declared that he needed lines and especially colors to convey “an open form of expression”. In her visual practice, she has chosen abstraction, which she considers to be the equivalent of poetry.

If, as she said, she “painted in Arabic”– is it a memory, voluntary or not, of the prohibition of representation? –, his sources of inspiration lie at least as much in modern Western art and Paul Klee above all. Logically, because the latter was not only influenced by the decorative arts but also deeply marked by the Orient. His stay in Tunisia (1914) and the revelation of color that followed have been recounted many times.

We thus understand why the exhibition in Ithra is organized by Sébastien Delot – former director of the Museum of Modern Art, Contemporary Art and Brut Art (Lille Métropole) and a fine connoisseur of the Lebanese artist – who was the curator of a face-to-face meeting between Etel Adnan and Paul Klee, at the museum dedicated to him in Bern. For him, the work of Etel Adnan is exemplary in its ability to bridge the gap between the East and the West. If we examine his entire production, literary and pictorial, this assertion is justified. It is less obvious in view of this exhibition, where the works resonate essentially with the tenors of modernity. Thus, a work like Untitled (2010), a red rectangle on a creamy background evokes the “Homage to the Square” series by Josef Albers. Etel Adnan, who stayed and taught for a long time in the United States, was indeed fascinated by the Bauhaus.

We also feel in his works of great chromatic variety the breath of lyrical abstraction and the principle of “inner necessity” by Wassily Kandinsky. Like the Russian master, Etel Adnan creates works in which a careful look distinguishes a landscape which is revealed under the layers of colors – especially mountains.

Never forgetting writing, the artist produced “leporelli”, large illustrated paper accordions, of which Ithra has a magnificent example. The visitor also discovers Etel Adnan’s multiple activities on the route, such as ceramic work and weaving, for which she creates preparatory drawings.

Is the choice to present a female artist in Ithra – also directed by a woman, Farah Abushullaih – significant? If we know that the translation of the Arabic word “ithra” is “enrichment”, we can bet that this gesture encourages the idea that, without necessarily being man’s future, woman is at least his present.

The King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture – Ithra.

© Ahmad Alnaji

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