exhibition views Galerie Sfeir-Semler, Beirut






Paintings and Drawings

Born in Beirut in 1925, Etel Adnan is widely recognized as one of the foremost authors, poets and playwrights of her generation. Writing across languages and continents, she has long been a singular voice in the cultural discourses of the Middle East, and painting has always been a key component to her artistic work. She writes: "Abstract art was the equivalent of poetic expression; I didn't need to use words, but colors and lines. I didn't need to belong to a language-oriented culture but to an open form of expression.” (1996, To Write in a Foreign Language)

On view will be approximately 50 paintings, including both oil on canvas and works on paper. Landscapes in provocative palettes verge on abstraction, while her abstract color studies suggest a kind of interior landscape. The intimacy of her small canvases (between 25x30cm and seldom bigger than 50x80 cm ), her direct, straightforward paint strokes and lucid swaths of color work to make her devoted investigation of painting a truly fresh, poetic, avant-garde practice.


The Daily Star Friday, May 21, 2010

Landscapes of the mind and Moracco
Etel Adnans "Paintings and Drawings" and Yto Barradas "Play" on show at Sfeir-Semler gallery
Review Matthew Mosley

BEIRUT: If you hadn’t noticed, Etel Adnan is going through something of a moment. The octogenarian grande-dame of Lebanese arts and letters has been the focus of multiple events in the past months.

Publisher Tamyras has reissued two of Adnan’s books: “Sitt Marie Rose,” considered a classic of contemporary Middle Eastern literature, and “Au coeur du coeur d’un autre pays” (In the Heart of the Heart of Another Country). Adnan read extracts from the books at the Beirut Art Center on May 5.

A performance piece based on Adnan’s writings, “In the Heart of the Heart of Another Body,” directed by Nagy Souraty, played at Masrah al-Madina last week. There was a conference on her work at the same venue.

Adnan may be most famous for her writing, but Karantina’s Sfeir-Semler gallery is currently giving the opportunity to view the artist’s non-literary output. A selection titled simply “Paintings and Drawings” shows exactly that. Adnan has expressed herself though visual art for much of her career and, for someone who has made her living from text, these works are strikingly non-verbal.

Small in size (usually between 25x30 cm and 50x80 cm), the paintings on show at Sfeir-Semler hover between abstraction and landscape. Oil paint is applied as thickly and smoothly as cake frosting in patches that assemble into panoramic views – bulging hills, a flash of lake, distant ocean and over-arching sky.

Paired down to the simplest of forms, Adnan’s canvases are quietly contemplative. There is nothing quiet about her use of color, however. Shimmering shades of lemon and peach are combined with strong reds and deep blues. In one painting, pink, yellow, green and white hills squat beneath a turquoise sky.

An almost delirious sense of light pervades these canvases, as though the viewer is on the verge of sunstroke.

Some of the canvases stray into even more abstract territory. The least representational is a canvas painted only in a muted gray, with a thicker rectangular smear in the middle. Another tiny canvas displays an almost Mark Rothko-esque assemblage of block-like forms in various gradations of yellow and white, with one red strip.

Also on show at Sfeir-Semler is a series of Adnan’s sketchbooks, composed of long concertina-leaves of paper. Much busier than the paintings, there is also less saturated use of color. “In the Forest” shows calligraphic trees in black ink that call to mind the angular, stylized forms of Japanese painting.

Adnan’s use of color may be fearless, but she has a rival in Yto Barrada. Showing in tandem with “Paintings and Drawings,” Barrada’s show “Play” is preoccupied with the history and the evolution of her home city of Tangier, Morocco.

Even more than Beirut, Tangier has always had one foot in Europe and one in the Middle East. It is a melting pot of cultures, a hub and a staging post on the way to other destinations. It is a place where people have lived out their orientalist fantasies and a place where people try to get into Europe.

It is also, of course, a place where people live. Barrada has recorded the rapid evolution of Tangier through a number of projects over the past decade. Starting with photography but evolving into a number of other media, her work records the experience of living in a city that is subject to economic and social strain.

If this sounds drily academic, be assured that Barrada’s show is anything but. The title of her show gives a clue, but on encountering the first exhibit, the viewer can be under no doubt that Barrada has an infectious sense of fun as well as a worthy social purpose.

The exhibit in question is a giant metal palm tree. Thicketed with colored bulbs, its chipped paintwork and slight dilapidation conveys the aura of slightly seedy seaside entertainment. The palm tree crops up regularly in Barrada’s work, symbolizing attempts by the authorities to forge an image for the city.

“Gran Royal Turismo” is a delightful examination of the artificial gentrifying of Tangier for outside consumption. A miniature landscape, resembling the kind of maquette used by model train enthusiasts, shows the transformation that occurs when a diplomatic corps rolls into town.

Three toy cars traverse a circuit of the model. As the cars roll by, palm trees pop up, Thunderbirds-like, a red carpet slides onto the road, building facades flip over to become cosmetically enhanced, electric lights switch on and an artificial breeze wafts a group of Moroccan flags. When the cars have passed, of course, everything reverts to its previous condition.

A palm tree is also the focus of the video “Beau Geste.” In a voiceover, Barrada says that 5000 building permits were issued in the past year (the video was made into 2009). Residents of Beirut will be familiar with the kind of tussle that ensues in a rapidly expanding city between the various stakeholders of land – residents, landlords, municipal officials and big business.

Barrada’s video shows a palm tree standing on a vacant lot that has been mutilated by its owner – presumably there is some law against cutting down trees. The owner of the lot has taken a huge gash out of the base of the tree so that it will fall of its own accord.

“We set up to interrupt or delay this process,” says Barrada. A team cleans the cavity and fills it with rocks and cement. Supported in this way, Barrada tells us, the damaged palm has a higher chance of survival.

Another, 3-channel video gives a sense of the reality of modern day Tangier. One screen displays the people snoozing in green public spaces. Another records building sites. A third shows hordes of children romping around a dilapidated playground.

Barrada channels all the joie de vivre of these excitable kids into her investigation of Tangier. Giant colored blocks spell out the name of Lyautey, a resident-general in Marocco with the French Army between 1912 and 1925, who had an impact on the present-day constitution of the city.

A painting of the Maroccan Iris (Iris Tingitana) is constructed from removable wooden blocks in the manner of a teaching aid. The lower portion of Sfeir-Semler’s walls are painted in vibrant shades, reminiscent of a nursery.

Like Adnan’s canvases, Barrada’s call to “Play” is a rejuvenating reminder that engaged art can be a pleasure for the viewer, too.

“Paintings and Drawings” and “Play” will remain on show at the Sfeir-Semler gallery until July 10. For more information, call +961 1 566 550.

(The Daily Star :: Lebanon News :: http://www.dailystar.com.lb)