Hans-Ulrich Obrist Archive Chapter 2: Etel Adnan
The world needs togetherness, not separation. Love, not suspicion. A common future, not isolation.

Etel Adnan
Simone Fattal

Co-curated by Hans-Ulrich Obrist (Senior Advisor), Arthur Fouray (Archivist and Curator)

LUMA Arles
Living Archives Programme
Arles, France

With the assistance of
Lucas Jacques-Witz, Assistant archivist
Victoria Kloch, Living Archives intern

Luz Gyalui, Head of production
Barbara Blanc, Head registrar and conservator
Nicolas Pène, Preparator
Zoë Renaudie, Conservator 
Clément Château, Production manager
Alice Cattelat, Architecture and production assistant
Camille Lim Koun, Architecture and production assistant
Kanelle Michel, Intern registrar

Graphic design: Christine Denamur,  Lead Graphic Designer
Photographs: Joana Luz, Arthur Fouray (editing)

Produced by LUMA Foundation
‘The world needs
togetherness, not
separation. Love,
not suspicion.
A common future,
not isolation.’
Etel Adnan, June 2016

‘Ever Etel
Ever Adnan’
Hans-Ulrich Obrist, February 2021

A leporello exhibited in Dubai in 2007 catalysed Hans-Ulrich Obrist’s long-term collaboration and friendship with the late Etel Adnan, one of the greatest poets and artists of our time. Obrist was magnetically drawn to the cosmic energy of her work and he read and archived every publication he found. The first he read was Sitt Marie Rose (The Post-Apollo Press, 1977), her magnum opus on the Lebanese Civil War, which established Adnan as a significant political writer and one of the preeminent voices of feminist and peace movements.

 Seeing her work then evoked in Obrist a similar feeling to discovering Paul Klee’s work as a teenager. Like Klee, Adnan was a polymath. Her practice could be linked to the superstring theory; a Gesamtkunstwerk that has many dimensions and expands the notion of single disciplines: cartographies, drawings, films, notebooks, novels, paintings, plays, poems, political journalism, sculptures, tapestries, and teaching.

 Born in Beirut in 1925, Adnan studied at Sorbonne and Harvard, after which she taught philosophy at the University and started painting in the late 1950s in California. There, she fell in love with her life partner Simone Fattal as well as a mountain, Mount Tamalpais, at the foot of which they lived. Her passion led to numerous paintings and the book Journey to Mount Tamalpais (The Post-Apollo Press, 1986). Often stemming from a red square shape, her canvases are abstract compositions with flat colours directly applied from the tubes. She was interested in the immediate beauty of colour. As Simone Fattal explains, her paintings both ‘exude energy and give energy. They grow on you like talismans.’
Her unrealised project of becoming an architect can be compared to how she approached painting as something that is built. Adnan understood painting as addressing itself to the outside world and architecture as inescapable, something that is always already there and made for us to be. As she said, ‘The first architecture for a human being is their mother’s womb.’

 It was under heavy rain, during the winter of 2012, that Etel Adnan, Simone Fattal, Koo Jeong A, and Hans-Ulrich Obrist found refuge in a café in Brittany. Throughout long conversations, Adnan was writing poems on a notepad. It became evident to Obrist that it was important to celebrate handwriting as opposed to the lamentation of its disappearing. Since then, he shares the handwritten notes of the people he meets on Instagram once a day.

 After a first chapter dedicated to Édouard Glissant, the second chapter of Hans-Ulrich Obrist’s archive focuses on the myriad of conversations held with Etel Adnan from 2009 until her last days in 2021, comprising fifteen hours of unreleased interviews, tracing their relation through hundreds of published documents, Post-it notes, handwritten correspondences, and artworks. Their connection was one of mutual respect and, above all, wholehearted admiration. They shared numberless projects; she was a regular participant of the Marathon conversations, organised yearly by Obrist at the Serpentine, London; he has also devoted two major solo exhibitions to her practice and published multiple monographs about her work. Adnan is an essential figure for LUMA Arles, a project Hans-Ulrich Obrist has accompanied since its inception. Maja Hoffmann, founder of LUMA, remembers: ‘Etel once told me, what we are doing with LUMA is creating a lighthouse for the Mediterranean. If LUMA is the lighthouse, then Etel is certainly the fire, the fire that lights up the space and shows directions.’
Etel Adnan Biography

Etel Adnan (1925-2021) was born and raised in Beirut, Lebanon. Her mother was a Greek from Smyrna, her father a high-ranking Ottoman officer born in Damascus, Syria. In Lebanon, she was educated in French schools. She first studied philosophy first in Paris in 1949, at Sorbonne. In January 1955, she travelled to the United States to pursue her studies in philosophy at U.C. Berkeley and Harvard. She taught philosophy from 1958 to 1972 at the Dominican College of San Rafael, California. Reflecting on the political implications of writing in French during the Algerian war of independence and in solidarity, she began to resist and shifted the focus of her creative expression towards visual art. She became a painter. However, it was with her participation in the poets’ movement against the war in Vietnam that she began to write and became, in her own words, ‘an American poet’. 

In 1972, she moved back to Beirut and worked as a cultural editor for two daily newspapers – first for Al Safa, then for L’Orient-le Jour. She stayed in Lebanon until 1976. In 1977, her novel Sitt Marie-Rosewon the France-Pays Arabes award and was published in Paris in 1978. This novel has been translated into more than ten languages and became a classic of War Literature. In 1977, Adnan re-established herself in Paris and then in California in 1980, making Sausalito her home and traveling frequently to Paris. In the late seventies, she wrote the texts for two documentaries made by Jocelyne Saab on the civil war in Lebanon, which were aired on French television as well as in Europe and Japan. 

Her paintings, drawings, and Super 8 films have been exhibited extensively in the United States, Europe, and the Arab world. 
She participated in the Serpentine Marathons since 2010 and was one of the guest artists at dOCUMENTA (13) in Kassel in June 2012. Since then, numerous museums have devoted retrospectives to her work, including the Mathaf in Doha in 2014, the Serpentine in 2016, the Mudam in Luxembourg in 2019. She was at the heart of major exhibitions, at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, the Centre Pompidou Metz in 2021 and at Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam in 2022. She passed away in Paris in November 2021. 
Etel Adnan and Architecture

Etel Adnan dreamed of becoming an architect one day, until she revealed her wish to her parents when she was 15 years old. Her mother strongly disapproved of her choice. Although unrealised, her project became a pivotal point in her way of understanding the world. 

Frank Lloyd Wright’s work has always been a source of inspiration, as evidenced by her architectural proposals, which are reminiscent of the Prairie School, to which she owes her love of lightness. Etel Adnan’s exhibition in 2021 alongside Wassily Kandinsky in Wright’s building, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, is a perfect tribute to her passion for his work. 

As a political exile herself, she was particularly fond of nomadic architecture, especially the construction of tents. The tents of Frei Otto represented syncretic forms for her, reflections of her own journey. Finally, it was Zaha Hadid who embodied one of Etel Adnan’s greatest icons, as she wrote: ‘The earth we inhabit is an adventurous and restless planet, with no fixed point on which to land either, and on this cosmic terrain Zaha Hadid plants her tents, that is works which, although seemingly immobile, are cosmic’ (Zaha Hadid: Early Paintings and Drawings, 2016).
Etel Adnan & Hans-Ulrich Obrist

Etel is our oracle, as we always say’ (Hans-Ulrich Obrist, Introduction to Etel Adnan, Transformation Marathon, 2015). Etel Adnan considered Hans-Ulrich Obrist an angelic figure in the search for epiphanies; ‘Invariably, his visits become visitations’ (Afterword, Sharp Tongues, Loose Lips, Open Eyes, Ears to the Ground, 2014). Obrist insists that Etel Adnan is one of the world’s greatest poets and artists. She was and will remain one of the major figures, mentors in his life. 

She was the inspiration for many of his projects, to mention just one, the Handwriting Project (2012 -), for which she made more than 110 contributions, but also its extensions, the questions to artists and thinkers (2019 -), and the exquisite corpses, shown in 2022 in the exhibition 201 Cadavres Exquis [201 Exquisite Corpses] at the Museum im Bellpark, Kriens, Switzerland. 

She was at the beginning of important initiatives such as It’s Urgent at LUMA Westbau and later at LUMA Arles, as well as being involved in all of Obrist’s long-term projects, including 6 Marathons at the Serpentine, the Marathon Marathon in Athens (2010), the E.A.T. conferences in the Engadin valley, the periodical le Point d’Ironie (2011), and finally the exhibition projects Do It (2012) and Take Me I’m Yours (2015). Besides texts and interviews for catalogues, magazines, or other publications dedicated to her practice, she was an acolyte of his interviews with Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian (2011) and Sabine Moritz (2017). She helped pay tribute to her peers, including Susan Hefuna (2014) and Zaha Hadid (2011, 2016).
Simone Fattal Biography

Simone Fattal was born in Damascus, Syria, and grew up in Lebanon, where she studied philosophy at the Ecole des Lettres of Beirut. She continued her philosophical research at the Sorbonne in Paris. Back in Beirut in 1969, she embarked on a career as a painter and met Etel Adnan, her collaborator and life partner. Fattal left Lebanon in 1980, during the Lebanese Civil War, and settled in Sausalito, California. There, she founded The Post-Apollo Press in 1982, a publishing house dedicated to innovative and experimental literary works, she ran until 2017. The Press continues under the guidance of a distributor, responsible for keeping the books alive and reprinted when necessary.

In 1988, she returned to an artistic practice by making ceramic sculptures after enrolling at the Art Institute of San Francisco. Since 2006, she has been making works at the prestigious Hans Spinner studio in Grasse, France. Over the past decade, she has also produced watercolours, paintings and collages. Etel Adnan once described her works as ‘having this inexplicable power to be present while remaining mysterious; held in their silence, linked to instantaneous and still belonging at the same time to an unlimited (undefined?) time.’ In 2012, Fattal released a film, Autoportrait, which has been screened at numerous festivals around the world. She currently lives and works in Paris. The recent exhibitions of Simone Fattal include MoMA PS1 (2019), the Musée Yves Saint Laurent Marrakech (2018), and the Sharjah Art Foundation (2016).
Etel Adnan’s Artistic Journey

Etel Adnan’s artistic journey can not be understood as a series of single, autonomous works but rather as a multi- dimensional rhizome in constant search of new horizons. While teaching art philosophy in California and writing her first texts, Ann O’Hanlon, head of the art department at the university, encouraged her to paint by telling her, ‘You do not need a school. Your mind is trained’ (Etel Adnan in conversation with Hans-Ulrich Obrist, 2009). She began to use this art medium in 1959, and O’Hanlon organised the first exhibition of Adnan’s work in her studio in 1961. 

She worked, on average, between one and two hours on each of her small canvases, before letting them dry and rest on the wall for months. Adnan liked to work the colours immediately with a palette knife, horizontally, on a table dedicated to her painting practice. In California, her favourite subject became Mount Tamalpais, interpreting it in countless shapes, shifting with the light and time, constantly switching between figuration and abstraction. A sacred mountain for the Indians, she observed it from her studio window: ‘For Cézanne, Sainte Victoire was no longer a mountain. It was an absolute. It was painting’ (conversation with Hans-Ulrich Obrist, 2011). 

Often compared to the works of Nicolas de Staël, she extended her pictorial practice by taking an interest in tapestries as early as 1967. Homesick, she was obsessed with the Persian and Kurdish patterns and traditional weavings of her childhood. In the late 1960s, she commissioned a weaver friend to produce the first tapestries based on her designs for her home in California. 

Ceramics, which had been part of her life since the 1980s through the artistic work of her partner Simone Fattal, became a means for Adnan to realise one of her dreams in the 2010s: making public art. Hans-Ulrich Obrist helped Etel Adnan initiate the ceramic murals public art projects on the occasion of her retrospective at Mathaf, with the works Untitled I (2013) and Untitled II (2013) installed in Qatar and produced by Sfeir-Semler Gallery in Burgundy, France. It was the first of a series of unique public works, culminating in the architectural design of an auditorium hosting a 14-metre fresco, Dans la forêt (2021), inaugurated at the overall opening of LUMA Arles.
Etel Adnan and the Leporellos

In 1960, Etel Adnan discovered Japanese leporellos (orihon), concertina books where drawing, writing and poetry can co-exist. One day, at a café, her friend Rick Barton offered her a sketched leporello, encouraging Adnan to fill it. She saw in it the possibility of a ‘writing of forms’, a practice dear to Henri Matisse, and continued all her life to use these spread-out formats, which, to her, capture with immediacy the artist’s impressions, in addition to painting, a more meditative medium, that she considered as both a sport and a craft. 
Etel Adnan initially used leporellos to pay homage to her icons, her first one was inspired by a poem by the Iraqi poet Badr Shakir al-Sayyab, followed by numerous authors such as Adonis, Mahmoud Darwich, Georges Schéhadé, but also Barbara Guest, Lyn Hejinian and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. After 1975, she became more interested in landscapes and environments, such as the one of her studio, thus combining calligraphy, drawing and colour. 

The leporellos became her travelling companions, fanfold sheets that do not hang on the walls but can be stored once consulted, in which she was writing, noting, drawing and sketching again and again.
Etel Adnan’s writings

Etel Adnan has developed her writing in many forms, such as journalism, playwriting and fiction, including her great novel about the Lebanese civil war, Sitt Marie Rose (1978) and The Arab Apocalypse (1980), which deal with the turmoil of war in the Arab world. For Adnan, painting expresses a joie de vivre, and writing is a meditation on the tragic side of the world. During her youth, Etel Adnan spoke Greek with her mother, Turkish with her father and learned French at school, where Arabic was forbidden. 

She naturally began to write in French over the years, but marked by the political implications of the Algerian War, she rejected the French language. She then started to write poems in English, such as The Ballad of the Lonely Knight in Present-Day America, her first poem published in the periodical The S-B Gazette (Sausalito-Belvedere, 1965) during her years of teaching at the University of California San Rafael. 

In 1972, she returned to Lebanon, where she met many artists and writers in the then flourishing cultural scene while working as an editor for the newspaper Al Safa and then L’Orient-Le Jour.

In 1980, Etel Adnan and Simone Fattal fled the Lebanese war and settled in California, where Simone Fattal founded The Post-Apollo Press two years after their arrival. This poetry publishing house, which debuted with the publishing of From A to Z and the translation of Sitt Marie Rose, has been an endless source of collaborative work, from its logo, the moon that Adnan painted, to the many covers featuring her drawings, and dozens of books published during its 35 years of activity. As the legendary Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish once said to Hans-Ulrich Obrist, ‘She never wrote a bad line.’
The Interviews with Etel Adnan

Fifteen hours of interviews with Etel Adnan are being shown for the first time to the public as a part of the second chapter of the Hans-Ulrich Obrist Archive. The numerous discussions between Hans-Ulrich Obrist and Etel Adnan, often in duos and sometimes accompanied by other speakers, testify above all, the depth, the accuracy, and the longevity of their continuous exchange, from 2007 until her passing on 14 November 2021. 

Their infinite conversations are crossed by Etel Adnan’s many passions and dimensions of her work, from writing to drawing, from painting to Mount Tamalpais, from the Apollo 11 mission to The Post-Apollo Press, from Simone Fattal, her life partner, to the poets of her dreams, from poetry to philosophy, from architecture to Lebanon, from the origins of her parents to California, and from the colour red to her love for the world.

These videos are part of Hans-Ulrich Obrist’s Interview Project, including public interviews and talks, such as the Serpentine Marathons and on the occasion of her solo show The Weight of the World, as well as at the Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain, at the Institut du Monde Arabe, for the Heni Talks platform and finally for LUMA Arles. Since 1991, following the precious advice of Jonas Mekas and Studs Terkel, Hans-Ulrich Obrist has undertaken the project of listening to the world and its inhabitants. As Etel Adnan wrote in 2014: ‘When I met Hans-Ulrich Obrist just a few years ago, I discovered (at last?!) a man who listens.’ (Afterword, Sharp Tongues, Loose Lips, Open Eyes, Ears to the Ground, 2014).

Hans-Ulrich Obrist would like to thank Maja Hoffmann for her vision and passion for the archives; Mustapha Bouhayati, Vassilis Oikonomopoulos, Matthieu Humery and all the LUMA team; Arthur Fouray, who organised and co-curated the Etel Adnan archives project with Lucas Jacques-Witz and the help of Victoria Kloch; Luz Gyalui and the production team, in particular Clément Château and Barbara Blanc; all the teams who made this project possible, in particular Claire Charrier; last but not least Anna von Brühl and Friedrich von Brühl. Hans-Ulrich Obrist wishes to express its gratitude to Simone Fattal and the relatives of Etel Adnan; and also all those who participated in the preparation of this project; Manuel Krebs and Dimitri Bruni and the NORM team, Max Shackleton, Producer and Lorraine Two Testro, Head of Operations and Planning to Hans-Ulrich Obrist; the Serpentine team, especially Claude Adjil, Rose Dempsey, Fiona Glen, Kostas Stasinopoulos; Joe Hage and the Heni team, especially Mary Zantiris, Hervé Chandès, Pierre-Édouard Couton and the Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain team, John McGrath, Kwong Lee and the Manchester Internation Festival team, Samuel Thomas for the editing of the archive videos;  the Sintagma team, especially Rosário Valadas Vieira et Ana Gonçalves, for the subtitling of the archive videos; Jesus Plaëttner, for the mastering and audio restauration of the archive videos; the IDzia team for the audio-visual devices; Gilles Pennegaggi and all the exhibition installation teams; and finally, to all the people who participated in the elaboration of the presentation, especially Koo Jeong A, Chiara Parisi and Manuella Vaney.



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Special thanks to Béatrice & Alain Fouray.

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