Etel Adnan (1925-2021) was born in Beirut to a Greek Christian mother and a Syrian Muslim father. Widely known for her poetry, novels and plays, she moved fluidly between the disciplines of writing and art and was a leading voice of contemporary Arab-American culture.
Adnan began painting in the early 1960s but did not achieve international recognition as a visual artist in her late eighties, largely due to the efforts of the prominent German curator Hans Ulrich Obrist.
After studying philosophy at the Sorbonne in Paris, Adnan moved to America in 1955, where she attended U.C. Berkeley and Harvard. In 1958 Adnan moved to Marin County, California to teach aesthetics at the Dominican College in San Rafael, where she taught until 1972. It was during her time in Marin County that Adnan began her career as a visual artist in earnest. Settling in Sausalito, Adnan began to make paintings, a move that was prompted, in part, by her decision to stop writing in French following the Algerian War. Adnan’s talent for painting was encouraged by the artist Ann O’Hanlon. O’Hanlon and her husband who owned a gallery in Mill Valley, CA, where Adnan held her first solo show in 1961.
The use of the leporello format presented Adnan with a dynamic paradox: an expanded space, multiplying its potentialities as the pages unfurl but, when closed, reduced to the symbolic space of a notebook, a metaphor for mobility and aesthetic nomadism. Adnan has recalled: ‘Around 1964, I discovered these Japanese “books” which fold like an accordion, on whose pages the Japanese painters mixed drawings with writings and poems … When I saw that format I thought it was a good way to get out of the page as a square or rectangle; it was like writing a river.’
This practice has particular meaning in the Arab context where writing and art often come together. In Adnan’s hands, the pages of the leporello become a visual art medium that condenses a diversity of forms and aesthetics: from the old miniature book, to a modern paper ‘cinema’, where flipping through pages can result in the effect of moving images. Adnan’s mobile landscape of word and image has a multiplicity of references, from calligraphic manuscripts, to road trip-style sketches or notes from a travelogue, to depictions of planets and constellations in the cosmos.