Fahrelnissa Zeid (Arabic: الأميرة فخر النساء زيد, Fakhr un-nisa or Fahr-El-Nissa; b.1901 – 1991) The literal translation of Fahrelnissa means ‘the pride of women’. This may be a monumental name to wear, but this artist’s oeuvre is nothing short of it. Fahrelnissa may just be one of the most fascinating and belatedly acknowledged women artist of the 20th century postwar era. A pioneer of Modernism and an important figure in the Turkish avant-garde “d” group in 1940s as well as the École de Paris in the 1950’s. She is believed to successfully synthesise Islamic, Arab, Persian, Byzantine or Mesopotamian
influences with European methods of abstraction. Her work is often said to be unusual and kaleidoscopic, traversing the borders between the East and the West
Part of her belated discovery has been attributed to the fact that she perhaps was not taken seriously for being a woman. Often referred to as the “painter princess”, her work has often been considered the private pleasures of the wife of diploma and Prince Zeid-Al Hussein, an “exotic hobby”. The exhibition at the Deusche Bank provides a comprehensive overview of Fahrelnissa Zeid’s artistic career between the years 1947 and 1958 with much of the work completed between London and Paris
Fahrelnissa works mainly in oils, ranging from early loose figurative landscapes depicting masses of people or whirling dervishes to complete geometric abstraction, at the end of her life developing an intense interest in portraiture. Zeid’s paintings may seem passé as
was a critique of her contemporaries but they are a product of their time and as such they carry strong notes of Tachism, Fauvism and Lyrical Abstraction. I am reminded of the complex and fractured mosaic and architectural work of Gaudí as well as the sensual geometry of Joan Miró. In scale and energy, they are said to resemble Jackson Pollock’s canvases
Zeid’s experiments with sculpture include turkey and chicken bones. These have been cleaned and painted, cast in resin and placed on revolving turntables.
I am surprised by the originality and fearless experimentation of these works. In a small way, they speak to the tradition of the readymade that will grow in the decades to come with the evolution of Conceptual Art. Expanding on her choices of material, Zeid uses bird bones as signifiers that carry strong symbolic undercurrents. Attached is a whole barrage of significance. Ideas of the organic, the biological as well as notions of life, death, growth, structure and fragility. I notice myself looking at them with a sense of awe and curiosity, as if I were peering into a fossil cabinet at a specialised archaeological museum. Standing before them, I feel a slight sense of unease, as if their collection and display were to confer them supernatural powers, an almost shamanic spiritual quality.
The dominant and perhaps largest piece is this exhibition is My Hell (1951), a monumental painting, spanning more than five metres in length and two in width. Its physical presence and scale expresses an extreme depth and breadth of interior and exterior cosmological landscape. In its interlocking forms and undulating black and white shapes interspersed with traces of red and black it seems to pulsate. I feel swayed in its movement, sucked into it and spat out. The decade of the 1950’s was heavily marked a period of darkness and depression for the artist, following the death of close family and relatives. One of her students quotes that Zeid is said to have begun this work while observing the flight trajectory of a fly
Zeid speaks of her painting process as one where she is ‘in communion with all living things’, so much so that it is said that when she was paintings she entered into a state of complete concentration
Straight away, Zeid’s work seems to come from a distant time and place. The colours and the thickness of paint speaks of a times past, but it is still contemporary in its character. There is a boldness, fierceness and strong intentionality in the way she works. Her paintings are poetic and meditative but also strong and articulate landscapes of memory.
Looking at Zeid’s portraits, I feel unsettled, they are not looking out at the viewer, but rather looking in. I get the feeling that they are looking inside themselves with large expressive eyes and bodies like cardboard, flat and lifeless. Fahrelnissa created her portraits by sitting at a distance from her life models as not to see the details. There is an intentionality to get a general view of the subject in order to capture the presence, the soul. She makes a very interesting simile of the difference between abstraction and portraiture, for her a portrait is not a photo, its a vision of the soul
Perhaps we do need to take a minute to note why she is not better known, the unfortunate reality is that as a woman artist, a Muslim and a person with complex cultural identity, she was invisible. This is not a case of victimisation or paranoia, but rather a shared experience amongst other Middle eastern artists whose work is only beginning to be rediscovered, Füsun Onur, Gülsün Karamustafa and Simone Fattal amongst others. These artists, whose work is often obscured and buried by the ‘gender politics of patriarchy’ and ‘the geopolitics of neoimperialism’ suffer a similar malaise. It is an unfortunate habit of the art world to ignore the authenticity of art from certain geopolitical regions and see it as a one-dimensional version of a ‘stigmatised Diaspora cosmopolitanism’. This failure to legitimise work by its inherent merit, overcoming orientalised and exoticised superimposed narratives remains one of the largest hurdles for the global Western-centred art world today.
Fahrelnissa is an intriguing, bold and fierce artist who took cues from Modernism, but ultimately made it her own, she leaves us a rich legacy and tradition that speaks of a cultural, social and spiritual complexity that we are yet to fully understand.
TATE - Fahrelnissa in four key works: https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artists/fahrelnissa-zeid-22764/lists/four-key-works
TATE - Fahrelnissa Zeid: https://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-modern/exhibition/fahrelnissa-zeid
Art Cosmopolite - Deusche Bank Artmag: https://db-artmag.com/en/98/news/art-cosmopolite-fahrelnissa-zeid-in-london/
Artforum Close up - Change of subject: https://www.artforum.com/print/201704/-67193
Fahrelnissa Zeid’s cosmopolitan modernism - DB magazine - Catalogue Feature - Oliver Koerner von Gustorf - 13 October 2017