Etel Adnan



On loan

Martin-Gropius-Bau (Berlin, Germany): Lyon Biennale 2022

Etel Adnan born 1925
Ink and watercolour on paper
Displayed: 213 × 2325 mm
Purchased with funds provided by an anonymous donor 2018


This untitled work from 1970 by Etel Adnan is an example of her early ‘leporello’ works, leporello being a book format with folded concertina-style pages. In this particular example Adnan, who is both a visual artist and poet, made use of a text by the American beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, a close friend of hers in California, acknowledged in the inscription on the cover of the leporello: ‘Ferlinghetti / Adnan 1970. The poem she chose is Assassination Raga (1968), an ecstatic funeral oration for Senator Robert Kennedy, written by Ferlinghetti as he watched Kennedy’s funeral on television on 8 June 1968 and included in his volume The Secret Meaning of Things (1968). Adnan spread the words of the poem out along the length of the leporello’s pages, combining them with watercolour stains and what look like abstract hieroglyphs, loosely superimposing a few Arab words onto the English text (as a reminder of the fact that a Palestinian man was suspected to be the perpetrator of Kennedy’s assassination in Los Angeles on 5 June 1968).

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 herself is of Lebanese-Syrian origin but has lived in California since the 1950s). 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.’ (Quoted in Obrist 2014, p.45.)

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.

This particular work was made at a time when Adnan was teaching the philosophy of art at the University of California/San Rafael. This location is noted alongside the two signatures on the end page, although the work was done by Adnan alone. In her own later poems, such as The Arab Apocalypse (1989), Adnan’s language and rhythm demonstrate the influence of the Beat Generation poets.

The ownership history of the work is significant. The artist had made a gift of the book to her friend Toni Maraini, an Italian art historian and cultural activist who, in the 1960–70s, was a member of the Casablanca art school (alongside Farid Belkahia and Mohammed Melehi). After their first encounter in Morocco, where Adnan staged an exhibition focused on her leporellos, at Galerie l’Atelier, Rabat, in 1978, she and Maraini remained in touch, meeting again in New York, Paris and Rome. In Italy, Maraini translated Adnan’s collection of short stories (Ai confini della Luna, Rome 1994) and a selection of her Californian poems from the book The Spring Flowers Own and the Manifestations of the Voyage (1990). She also wrote articles and texts about Adnan’s work in various publications, as well as translating Adnan’s book of poems The Arab Apocalypse, originally published in 1989 in California and in Italy in 2001. (Maraini also translated Ferlinghetti’s poems into Italian). As a gesture of her gratitude, Adnan gave this leporello to Maraini during a visit to Rome in 2001. As such, it embodies Adnan’s broad artistic, cultural and personal networks and trajectories.

Further reading
Etel Adnan: On Love and the Cost We Are Not Willing to Pay Today: 100 Notes, 100 Thoughts, Documenta series 006, Ostfildern 2011.
Hans Ulrich Obrist, Etel Adnan, In All Her Dimensions, Doha & Milan 2014.
Hans Ulrich Obrist, Etel Adnan: The Weight of the World, exhibition catalogue, Serpentine Gallery, London 2016.

Morad Montazami
June 2017

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