My perspective on art is amateur, a word which suits me fine as it’s derived from the Latin for ‘lover’ (as opposed to expert.. though I did once get an A in year 9 for a charcoal sketch of a hedgehog). For me, art is escape, colour, questions, pleasure, technique, precision and imagination. I’m Annie, currently a newspaper reporter at the blustery English seaside, I’m here to ask: In what new ways can we cast off the rules, stereotypes and snobbery sometimes associated with the art world to fling open its doors and make it as inclusive as we possibly can?
Setting the scene
I have a new addition to your life-idol list and her name is Fahrelnissa Zeid. (Unless she’s already on there, in which case why didn’t you tell me about her?) If you crave colour, I highly recommend seeing her exhibition on the second floor of the Tate Modern as soon as you possibly can.
Fahrelnissa Zeid was the kind of woman I’m fully aiming to become, though it’s doubtful since I wasn’t born into the Turkish nobility in 1901. Neither have I married an Iraqi prince…Though that one’s on the to-do list. Zeid was born into a fancy Ottoman family, becoming one of the first women in Turkey to formally train as an artist. She lived in Istanbul, Berlin, Baghdad, London and Amman. She also studied at Paris’s Academie Ranson in the twenties.
Though she became a prominent figure on the art scene, in the French capital and London too, Zeid seems to have slipped through the cracks of our cultural consciousness to be large, inexplicably forgotten. How could we let a woman who once had tea with Adolf Hitler, according to a little paragraph on the gallery wall, drift from our memories? Friendship with a fascist is not a quality I personally look for in a feminist role-model, but apparently, it was painting rather than race-hate the pair bonded over.
The best thing I learned about Zeid, printed in an earnest black typeface next to her glorious L’Arene du Soleil (The Arena of the Sun) is that she considered herself to be transformed by the experience of flying. Zeid said she had not intended to become an abstract painter but her perspective shifted after travelling by plane. “The world upside down,” she said. “A whole city could be held in your hand: the world seen from above.” There is certainly a sense throughout the exhibition of gazing on complex, intricate worlds from a tremendous height.
It’s a small collection displaying the creative evolution – to abstract and back – of an eccentric, magnificent babe who championed women and rocked a strong pin curl in the forties. Her portraits have moments of sad-eyebrowed Byzantine piety, while her massive abstract canvasses are a kaleidoscopic nod to the geometry of Islam. Having lived in six different cities across the world, she’s experienced a buffet of culture. Her life experience and subsequently her art is vibrant and rich. The fragments of colour refuse to sit static as you try to take them in.
An early self-portrait, in daffodil yellow against a backdrop of murky green, suggests she was a master of the side-eye. Was she looking at this man’s world of modern art with one eyebrow raised all her life? The figures in her early work have rolling limbs. Like fat, colourful coils squeezed from a tube of toothpaste.
There are darker moments too (where marketplace reds and yellows fade to green-and-navy gloom), as the exhibition reflects Zeid’s lifelong struggle with depression and her experience of World War Two. With disparate shapes and dismal colours, we glimpse a mind uneasy with the state of the world at that time. Moving through the collection, if you gaze at them long enough, Zeid’s vast abstracts will glow in your mind even after you squeeze your eyes shut. They could be city maps. Stained-glass windows. Aerial views from the cathedral belfry. Persian carpets. Or bowls of wild spaghetti.
Speaking of snacks, Fahrelnissa Zeid cooked her first meal at the age of 57, turning the carcass of her debut roast chicken into a bizarre rotating sculpture. Imagine being so fancy a plate of leftovers could shock you into a creative epiphany. Actually, it was the 1958 coup d’état in Iraq which robbed her husband of his role as ambassador.
This left Zeid, shaken by the turmoil in her husband’s homeland, to give domesticity a go for the first time in a London flat. The stones she had once decorated were swapped for bones, preserved in resin and fully approved by the French Minister of Culture who succinctly observed: “This is art.” Though my initial thoughts were sticky with grease and my nostrils dreaming of fat and Bisto…It worked. The pieces of the skeleton, suspended mid-flight, remind you of blossom shaken from a branch or those little aeroplane seed-pods that fall down from Sycamore trees.
The bones are not just pretty though. They are artefacts from Zeid’s life. She moved from an elite world to a humble home and found beauty in mundanity. The faces Fahrelnissa Zeid painted in her later life have sad chihuahua eyes, as though they’ve been perched in a puri Kura photo booth rather than sitting for a portrait. The bold, block-colour backdrops are my Instagram-selfie dream.
My favourite in the whole collection was the second self-portrait of Zeid, the last piece before the exit sign. Describing it, she said: “I am the descendant of four civilisations … the hand is Persian, the dress Byzantine, the face is Cretan and the eyes Oriental”. This updated portrait is so much more fabulous than the first, and not just because of the great earrings and fringing. Though the Disney-villain brows remain intact, there is a knowingness and a warmth that wasn’t there before. The whole exhibition is a colourful shattered vase you decide to stare at rather than glue back together.
Why Is This An Artist To Champion?
The very act of studying and making art showed Fahrelnissa Zeid proudly marching against a tide which swept most women down a refined, domesticated stream. She grabbed hold of an opportunity to create which was rarely bestowed upon women of her background. Even today, women’s paths in art are frustrating and often limited, with the number of female artists who spring to mind far outnumbered by their male counterparts. For Zeid to have pushed through boundaries in far less enlightened their times is an impressive feat.
The content of Zeid’s work relates only loosely to her ‘femaleness’. She deals with the pain of war and her own emotional turmoil in her paintings, but the fact she is a woman does not form the basis of what she creates. The mere fact that she has a body of work that makes us stare, ponder, argue or do the occasional double take is a triumph for a woman in a man’s world.
When she was 74, Zeid settled in Amman, Jordan and began teaching women to paint. She chose people with no previous artistic training. Her decision to offer the class suggests she had spotted a woman-shaped hole in the art world waiting to be filled with visions shaped by the female experience. Zeid told her students: “You must forget what you know because what you know is what you have learned, but what you do not know is what you really are.” I plan to get that diamantéd onto the back of a denim jacket ASAP.
I wanted to buy the biography, Fahrelnissa Zeid: Painter of Inner Worlds, but it felt like a paving slab in my hand so I backed away in horror and bought some nice backpack friendly postcards instead.
The exhibition is at the Tate Modern until October 8th.
Written by Annie Hopkins
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