Fahrelnissa Zeid: The Woman Who Made Me Feel It Was Okay To Be Me
I did not plan to pay for any special exhibit when I walked into the Tate Modern with my mother that semi-beautiful London day. Which is why when I chose to see the Fahrelnissa Zeid exhibit rather spontaneously, it felt "meant-to-be".
Fahrelnissa Zeid didn't apologize for who she was. As the daughter of a rich, politically well-situated Ottoman family, coming to age during the turn of the long 19th century and the end of the Islamic empire, she had opportunities that many within the Ottoman Empire never had. At the same time, her upbringing challenged European notions of the "Orient"; as a female going to school at the newly established fine arts school in Istanbul, Zeid stood directly in contradiction to the veiled and obedient, Ottoman girl that many Europeans painted onto postcards or photographed during their ethnographic studies of the "Orient". No doubt her reality was one that was fortunate and perhaps not so common, but her existence in the world challenges our assumptions about the Middle East, and particularly Turkey. Her life continued in an extraordinary way, defying any sort of cultural teleology that is often applied to female artists from the Middle East. She never had to "choose" her identity, at least not on canvas. She was free to be a portraitist, a realist, an abstractionist; she was free to be influenced by Ottoman design, Turkish colors, European art forms. It was only for everyone else that these labels, both cultural and artistically, might have mattered. And to the extent they mattered is to be debated. She was revered and respected wherever she lived - Berlin, London, Paris, Baghdad, Istanbul, Amman. While she was the wife of a diplomat, she hosted extravagant art nights for the high society of whatever city she lived in. Obviously, as a diplomat's wife, she commanded this sort of attention and her upbringing as the daughter of a high-up Ottoman official prepared her for this. I reiterate this to highlight an important fact: to her, her existence wasn't anything unusual. It was simply her life. And this is something that is often missed when discussing those who have intimately experienced more that one culture: these individuals do not feel "burdened" by their cultural background. Their existence, while often perceived by others as a contradiction, is one that is lived as just as any other's is lived: because within every "disharmony", there is a secret, unspoken of, hard-to-spot harmony. It is this "harmony-within-disharmony" aspect of human life that artists like Zeid uncover perhaps unwittingly in their work.
And it is in communicating this aspect that the Tate did so well in; rather than attempt to situate Zeid's identity within a specific country or even one identity, Zeid was allowed a space in which her art could speak of her varied influences. Her struggles as a painter to identify her own style was very well-articulated in the exhibit. As Zeid moves from place to place and experiences major political upheavals of the 20th century (like World War II and the assassination of the royal Iraqi family), she uses the canvas as a place to paint her own emotional journeys. Each room in the small exhibit, is like stepping into a different time and space of Zeid's life; one room tells the story of her fabulous and decadent life in Paris and London, while the next room shows a more somber yet creative lifestyle, where she uses old bones to create strange, almost fossil-like studies of everyday objects.
The exhibit closes, fittingly, with the last stage of her painting and her long life; doe-eyed portraits made while living in Amman, Jordan. It is these portraits that were most striking to me, as they seemed to be the biggest departure from anything previous she had done. Neither realist nor abstract in the strictest sense, the portraits communicated an other-worldly yet child-like feeling. Rather than paint the subjects in realistic proportions, Zeid emphasizes the beauty of each person by painting large, soft, piercing eyes onto the faces of her subjects. At the same time, these portraits are not abstract. In fact, their "realness" comes from how she manages to capture the spirits of those she is painting. Her portraits communicate something deeper than interesting or aesthetically beautiful faces; they offer us a glimpse of the artistic vision of the woman who saw so much and who met so many. She was able to capture that indescribable "something-larger" that both connects and encapsulates all of us. It is for this reason that artists like Zeid are valuable to our collective art histories; for they offer us an often buried view point that seems to be shrinking in our increasingly polarized spaces; that is of a universal human connectedness that lies outside cultural, political, and national bonds.
- Alia Kiran
Fahrelnissa Zeid is currently running at the Tate Modern until October.