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Etel Adnan’s The Uprising of Colours Tantalises at Sfeir- Semler Gallery in Beirut

With a splash of colourful panache, Lebanese-American poet, essayist and visual artist Etel Adnan spreads a palette of joy to counter the grim reality of life in the Lebanese capital.

The exhibition of Adnan’s work in Beirut at the Sfeir-Semler Gallery is a desire to see art go beyond the mundane by celebrating culture as something resilient to global calamity, be it the new coronavirus or economic uncertainty. The title of the exhibition, The Uprising of Colours, references what the gallery calls “art’s capacity to bring colours into a grim quotidian,” which serves to complement Adnan’s writing chronicling the harsh realities of life across the Arab World.

The 95-year old Adnan’s latest show comes on the heels of several major exhibitions of her work, including at DOCUMENTA 13 (2012) in Kassel, the Serpentine in London (2016) and SFMOMA in San Francisco (2018).

The uprising of colors, 2020. Exhibition view. Courtesy of the artist and Sfeir-Semler Gallery Beirut/ Hamburg.
The uprising of colors, 2020. Exhibition view. Courtesy of the artist and Sfeir-Semler Gallery Beirut/ Hamburg.

Le Soleil Toujours
Welcoming visitors is wallpaper situated at the entrance of the gallery inscribed with the words  Le Soleil Toujours (“The Sun Always”), a work with potent symbolism referencing the exhibition’s optimistic undertones.

The uprising of colors, 2020. Exhibition view. Courtesy of the artist and Sfeir-Semler Gallery Beirut/ Hamburg.
The uprising of colors, 2020. Exhibition view. Courtesy of the artist and Sfeir-Semler Gallery Beirut/ Hamburg.

The Arab Apocalypse
In the background, as an excerpt of Adnan’s The Arab Apocalypse is read aloud, the optimistic undertones of the exhibition begin to suddenly fade. Originally written in French, Adnan’s poetry documents the destruction of Beirut.

Imam Ali dances over a nuclear blast cursed are the clouds which repel cursed are the Arabs who fell tall and haggard eucalyptus trees

Adnan’s writing serves to underlie the diversity of cultural influences in the Middle East and how it could produce magnificent poetry, albeit, a beauty produced amidst the rubble of destruction and warfare.

Using a knife palette, the stunning contrast between the rainbow colour palette and the resounding gritty realism of Adnan’s writing becomes suddenly apparent. Suspended in between moments of doom, the paintings boast whimsical, happiness-inducing hues of blue, red and yellow.

Small format works unfold via abstract colours and shapes. Juxtaposed to Adnan’s poetry, these forms transform the space by virtue of simple lines and colours. When they’re contrasted to the energy of Adan’s poetry, the space of the gallery is transformed, as it unfolds towards a more dystopian direction. Bearing witness to war via the language of visual art, the exhibition also includes tapestries that are based on cartoons from the 1960s, a medium that became an important part of Adnan’s work after
she discovered, in the early ‘50s, The Lady and the Unicorn, a series of six tapestries dating back to the 16th century.

The Uprising of Colours is on view until April 11, 2020 at Sfeir- Semler Gallery in Beirut.


A VERSION OF THIS ARTICLE APPEARED IN PRINT IN SELECTIONS, ART GLOSSARY #52 PAGES 34 -37.

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