Etel Adnan, Untitled (073), 2010, oil on canvas, 24 × 30 cm, courtesy of the artist and Sfeir-Semler Gallery Beirut/Hamburg

Louise Bourgeois was once asked, “Do you see the art world as a men’s world?” and she answered, “Yes, it is a world where men and women try to satisfy men’s power.” Therefore, she noted the fact that women are not much represented and recognised in art history. We had to wait until the 1970s for this issue of under representation of women in art to be seriously raised by art historians. Linda Nochlin, for instance, raises a polemic question in a seminal article published in 1971 in ARTnews: “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” In this article, she reviewed the social structures and the institutional attitudes that influenced the art produced by women and their arthistorical status as well.

Nochlin’s article points out that in the 19th century and earlier, institutional barriers were strongly established to cut women off from essential training to become professional artists; they couldn’t study the nude, nor attend the Academy courses. They were only allowed to work on portraits and still life, where models were easily available. Thus they were not able to practice noble genres such as historical painting. It was implied that women could only be good enough for minor categories, which was obviously wrong. But this can explain the fact that, besides very rare exceptions (Marie Cassatt, Berthe Morisot or Judith Leyster), women artists were rarely bold or creative, because they were not trained to be so. Today’s art schools, everywhere, are more than half full of girls. It is no longer difficult for a woman to train to be an artist. Nevertheless, once past art school, all sorts of obstacles stand in the way of her further pursuit of a serious career. As a matter of fact, out of 169 artists who were invited to the exhibition An International Survey of Recent Painting and Sculpture, organised by the MoMA in 1984, one could count only 13 women. More than 30 years later, we can reasonably ask ourselves if women artists are still underrepresented in art institutions all over the world, especially in the Arab world where particularism, religion, tradition and identity politics have inhibited the possibility of embarking on an in-depth and international scaling debate.

Nayla Tamraz interviews Etel Adnan, Lamia Joreige and Tagreed Darghouth, here’s her conversation with Etel Adnan.


Etel Adnan, photo by Simone Fattal. Photo Credits: artist
Etel Adnan, photo by Simone Fattal. Photo Credits: artist
Born in 1925 and raised in Lebanon, Etel Adnan studied philosophy at the Sorbonne, U.C. Berkeley and Harvard and taught philosophy for 14 years. She is a writer, poet and visual artist, whose novel Sitt Marie-Rose, exploring the Lebanese Civil War, has been translated into more than ten languages. Now in her 90s, she continues to work as a visual artist, producing semi-abstract paintings and folding leporello.

NAYLA TAMRAZ: We know that the fact that some of the best artists in every medium are women is unquestionable: good art has no sex. But in terms of art market, apart from some rare exceptions, do you think that today’s women artists get the prices men do, or that museums are ready to support young women artists as much as they support young men? Don’t you think that women artists generally have to be extraordinarily well-established before being bought for collections, or given major exhibitions?

ETEL ADNAN: Women artists have come a long way thanks to some artists from Germany and the United States, Agnes Martin and Georgia O’Keeffe coming to my mind. Louise Bourgeois too. Now there are as many women as men in all the major galleries in the world. I don’t know the situation in Asia… I would think that they are still struggling. We don’t hear much about women artists from Latin America either. In the U.S. and Europe, I would say that the art world is open to them as much as to men. I don’t think that women have more difficulties than men finding galleries at home or abroad. I would say that sometimes it helps to be a woman artist, as there is great curiosity about women: galleries and collectors may think that there’s a possibility to renew art through a feminine approach. Women also tend to be more aggressive, more tenacious in finding galleries… men get discouraged more easily, it seems to me. But the art world has become primarily a market, so galleries favour those artists they can sell, regardless of the fact that they are women or men. If we still hear more about men than women artists, it’s because they are still more numerous. And it’s also true for the old generation where women are less in number in the arts. For the very young people, the situation has changed. They are promoted as much as the boys, and in the art schools of the main capitals of the world one can find that the number of girls has caught up with the one of boys.

Untitled (247), 2016, oil on canvas, 32 × 41 cm, courtesy of the artist and Sfeir- Semler Gallery Beirut/Hamburg
Untitled (247), 2016, oil on canvas, 32 × 41 cm, courtesy of the artist and Sfeir- Semler Gallery Beirut/Hamburg

N.T: Did it become easier for women when contemporary art came along? While it was coming off academic references, contemporary art opened up to sociology, philosophy and psychoanalysis, all of them disciplines often associated with Marxist thinking. Has “anti-painting” — in the form of photography, video, installation, and performance — gained popularity among women because “they were associated with feminist refusal of the patriarchal reign of the painted masterpiece”*? Do you think that these other media offered an independent territory for expression? Did these new ways of thinking of art beside the academic tradition give them the opportunity to get off the established male artists’ pattern? How has the art scene changed for women in the Arab world since 2000?

E.A: It is true that women are better known in the other media than oil painting. I think it’s mainly because they themselves are more attracted to the other forms of art, that they think it’s more “avant-garde” to make installations, for example, than oil paintings. In part, there’s more room for being experimental in the other forms of visual arts. For painting on canvas there’s little room for formal invention. The field is exhausted. You can always paint, the individual is always new, unique, but formal invention is rather exhausted: they did black on black and white on white, they even tore the canvas, or burned it, so one feels that the other forms are still practically virgin. Women in the Arab world follow that pattern. The successful women artists in the Arab world like Mona Hatoum and Emily Jacir or Samia Halaby and a few others use mixed media, assemblage or performance or installations in very creative ways, and they are more political than the European or American artists because they come from countries in trouble.

Etel Adnan, Untitled (257), 2016, oil on canvas, 38 × 46 cm, courtesy of the artist and Sfeir- Semler Gallery Beirut/Hamburg
Etel Adnan, Untitled (257), 2016, oil on canvas, 38 × 46 cm, courtesy of the artist and Sfeir- Semler Gallery Beirut/Hamburg

N.T: In the Arab countries, the topic shows more problematic aspects: we live in a world where, broadly speaking, women are still oppressed. Some of them still die from mistreatment, they sometimes can’t initiate court cases and they can still be pushed into marriage. Do you think that the rising of the so-called “Arab Spring” has placed these issues on a more political scale? Consequently, has the art scene changed for women since 2011? And did activism through art — and more specifically women artists’ activism — contribute to put these issues into the sphere of politics?

E.A: Women are still oppressed all over the world: more mildly in some parts, very much so in the Arab world that interests us here. In many cities their situation has improved, and in some countries more than in others. Tunisia and Lebanon are better places for women than the other countries, the worst possible being Saudi Arabia, which, to make things worse, spreads its Wahhabism all over. But these are oppressive societies, and men are oppressed too: look at the way Egypt is repressing its opponents. It’s a problem that includes men and women. Women artists’ activism is a recent phenomenon, but political activism in some Arab countries did not start with women artists, but with women lawyers, doctors, housewives… In Egypt, it started in the late ’20s… in Lebanon we had people like Laure Moughaizel or Janine Rubeiz who were pioneers… Very few Arab women artists are directly concerned with political and social issues… Artists like Mona Hatoum or Samia Halaby are an exception, probably because they’re also Palestinians. Some women writers are more aware of the political importance of their writings… they are too many to be mentioned, but women like Hanan al-Shaykh and Joumana Haddad come to mind. The fact that women artists are in the open, in the streets, so to speak, gives them a political importance: they are visible in the streets, as just said, and in the papers, on television… so they attract attention and become models, an encouragement for other women to understand that a better world is possible for them, a dream that can one day become a reality.

Etel Adnan, Untitled (073), 2010, oil on canvas, 24 × 30 cm, courtesy of the artist and Sfeir-Semler Gallery Beirut/Hamburg
Etel Adnan, Untitled (073), 2010, oil on canvas, 24 × 30 cm, courtesy of the artist and Sfeir-Semler Gallery Beirut/Hamburg

N.T: Many also felt that a quota demand can be negative towards any objective standard of quality, with implications of special treatment. Women artists want recognition of their work on merit as artists and individuals before anything else. Do you think that a feminist-oriented discourse can reduce their art to a marginal category?

E.A: Yes, like everything else, art history is not a tributary of a single source, a single voice. As the West dominated most of the world, its point of view was considered consciously and unconsciously as the only possible point of view. This was true in all domains. I remembered that at school in Lebanon we studied ONLY French history and the book was called: France in the world, meaning France AND the world. So every field of the integer, as well as every field of life, was considered from the point of view of Western European countries and the United States! Decolonisation in one field brought about decolonisation in other fields, artistry being one example among many. It’s not yet a battle totally won because colonisation has been internalised and the colonised people are comfortable in their situation. It will take many years for our countries to regain genuine pride in themselves, the more so — and as a result of their comfort — they are ignorant to an alarming degree of their own past. Everything goes together. When some governments dare resist the big powers, there’s a general enthusiasm in the populations that makes people desirous to take their destinies into their hands, and that affects everything: the way they claim their literature, their
different histories, even the way they dress and walk!

During the Saddam era in Iraq, for example, Iraqi artists were very close to their heritage — in all ways — while at the same time in Lebanon artists were still thinking that “Cola de Paris” was all there was to art. Thankfully, Lebanese artists (and all those of former French colonies) have since opened up to themselves and to the rest of the world, but that took a few generations. Would a feminist-oriented discourse reduce women art to a marginal category? I would say no! Women artists are winning their battle, they are accepted by all the major galleries and art fairs of the world. Again, it goes with everything else. There are women scientists, women engineers, architects, doctors, more and more… There are business-women even in the most unlikely places like Saudi Arabia or Egypt… So it’s a tide that includes women artists too. A feminist-oriented discourse can only help, as it will be one more way to look at things, and not the only one. Many angles to reach a question will always be better than to look at things only from a single point of view.

Etel Adnan, Untitled (072), 2010, oil on canvas, 24 × 30 cm, courtesy of the artist and Sfeir-Semler Gallery Beirut/Hamburg
Etel Adnan, Untitled (072), 2010, oil on canvas, 24 × 30 cm, courtesy of the artist and Sfeir-Semler Gallery Beirut/Hamburg

N.T: Don’t you think that being labeled “artist from the Arab world” is as reductive as being labeled “woman artist?” Do you think that it is more relevant to put the debate on the representation of women artists in the art world in the frame of an intersectional feminism, including race and class conflicts as well?

E.A: Questions relating to the works of Arab women artists can very well apply to men artists too: is there an Arab art? We need answers from many people, curators, and so on, from both the Arab world and from outside of it. I would say that most often not: if we see Walid Raad’s work without having his name and knowing him, we may hesitate. Of course, when the subject matter is obviously Arab… the international world is too strong… With Chinese art, Japanese art, I personally see rapidly where they come from… with Latin American artists it’s harder, but most of the time one can guess… mostly with those still influenced by surrealism. But the Arabs? There’s of course a school coming out from Arab calligraphy, and there the origin is clear. On a formal basis, there’s something “international” which blurry boundaries… It’s an open question, and worth discussions. Of course, many Arab artists say they are Arabs, but know little of their traditions and history, if they do. So they cannot be influenced by them. They are resolutely part of today’s world. That’s neither good nor bad, it’s just their own situation.


A VERSION OF THIS ARTICLE APPEARED IN PRINT IN SELECTIONS #42

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