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Etel Adnan
Adnan in 2008
Adnan in 2008
Born (1925-02-24)24 February 1925
Beirut, Greater Lebanon, French Mandate for Syria and the Lebanon
Died 14 November 2021(2021-11-14) (aged 96)
Paris, France
Nationality Lebanese, American
Alma mater University of Paris
Harvard University
Genre Poetry, essays, visual arts
Literary movement Hurufiyya movement
Partner Simone Fattal

Etel Adnan (Arabic: إيتيل عدنان; 24 February 1925 – 14 November 2021) was a Lebanese-American poet, essayist, and visual artist. In 2003, Adnan was named "arguably the most celebrated and accomplished Arab American author writing today" by the academic journal MELUS: Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States.

Besides her literary output, Adnan made visual works in a variety of media, such as oil paintings, films and tapestries, which have been exhibited at galleries across the world.


Ethel N. Adnan was born in 1925 in Beirut, Lebanon. Adnan's mother Rose "Lily" Lacorte was Greek Orthodox from Smyrna and her father Assaf Kadri was a Sunni Muslim-Turkish high-ranking Ottoman officer born in Damascus, Ottoman Syria. Assaf Kadri's mother was Albanian. Adnan's grandfather was a Turkish soldier. Her father came from a wealthy family; he was a top officer and former classmate of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk at the military academy. Prior to marrying Adnan's mother, her father was already married with three children. In contrast, Adnan's mother was raised in extreme poverty; her parents met in Smyrna during World War I while her father was serving as Governor of Smyrna. After the Ottoman Empire collapsed and Smyrna was burned during the Occupation of Smyrna, Adnan's parents migrated to Beirut. Adnan stated that her mother was 16 years old when she met her father, at a time when "the Greeks in Turkey were in concentration camps." Though she grew up speaking Greek and Turkish in a primarily Arabic-speaking society, she was educated at French convent schools and French became the language in which her early work was first written. She also studied English in her youth, and most of her later work was first written in this language.

At 24, Adnan traveled to Paris where she received a degree in philosophy from the University of Paris. She then traveled to the United States where she continued graduate studies at the University of California, Berkeley and at Harvard University. From 1958 to 1972, she taught philosophy of art at the Dominican University of California in San Rafael. She also lectured at many universities throughout the United States.

Adnan returned from the US to Lebanon and worked as a journalist and cultural editor for Al Safa newspaper, a French-language newspaper in Beirut. In addition, she also helped build the cultural section of the newspaper, occasionally contributing cartoons and illustrations. Her tenure at Al Safa was most notable for her front-page editorials, commenting on the important political issues of the day.

In her later years, Adnan began to openly identify as lesbian.

Adnan lived in Paris and Sausalito, California. She died in Paris on 14 November 2021, at the age of 96.

Visual art

Adnan also worked as a painter, her earliest abstract works were created using a palette knife to apply oil paint onto the canvas – often directly from the tube – in firm swipes across the picture's surface. The focus of the compositions often being a red square, she was interested in the "immediate beauty of colour". In 2012, a series of the artist's brightly colored abstract paintings were exhibited as a part of documenta 13 in Kassel, Germany.

In the 1960s, she began integrating Arabic calligraphy into her artworks and her books, such as Livres d’Artistes [Artist's Books]. She recalls sitting for hours copying words from an Arabic grammar without trying to understand the meaning of the words. Her art was very much influenced by early hurufiyya artists, including Iraqi artist Jawad Salim, Palestinian writer and artist Jabra Ibrahim Jabra and Iraqi painter Shakir Hassan al Said, who rejected Western aesthetics and embraced a new art form which was both modern and yet referenced traditional culture, media and techniques.

Inspired by Japanese leporellos, Adnan also painted landscapes on foldable screens that can be "extended in space like free-standing drawings".

In 2014, a collection of the artist's paintings and tapestries were exhibited as a part of the Whitney Biennial at the Whitney Museum of American Art.

Adnan's retrospective at Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art in Doha, titled "Etel Adnan In All Her Dimensions" and curated by Hans Ulrich Obrist, featured eleven dimensions of Adnan's practice. It included her early works, her literature, her carpets, and others. The show was launched in March 2014, accompanied by a 580-page catalog of her work published jointly by Mathaf and Skira. The catalog was designed by artist Ala Younis in Arabic and English, and included text contributions by Simone Fattal, Daniel Birnbaum, Kaelen Wilson-Goldie, as well as six interviews with Hans-Ulrich Obrist.

In 2017, Adnan's work was included in "Making Space: Women Artists and Postwar Abstraction," a group exhibition organized by MoMA, which brought together prominent artists including Ruth Asawa, Gertrudes Altschul, Anni Albers, Magdalena Abakanowicz, Lygia Clark, and Lygia Pape, among others.

In 2018, MASS MoCA hosted a retrospective of the artist, titled "A yellow sun A green sun a yellow sun A red sun a blue sun", including a selection of paintings in oil and ink, as well as a reading room of her written works. The exhibition explored how the experience of reading poetry differs from the experience of looking at a painting.

Published in 2018, "Etel Adnan", a biography of the artist written by Kaelen Wilson-Goldie, inquires into the artist's work as a shaman and activist. In 2020, the Griffin Poetry Prize is awarded to her book Time.

In 2023 her work was included in the exhibition Action, Gesture, Paint: Women Artists and Global Abstraction 1940 -1970 at the Whitechapel Gallery in London.

Awards and recognition

  • 1977: Awarded the France-Pays Arabes award for her novel Sitt Marie Rose.
  • 2010: Awarded the Arab American Book Awards for her story collection Master of the Eclipse.
  • 2013: Her poetry collection Sea and Fog won the California Book Award for Poetry.
  • 2013: Awarded the Lambda Literary Award.
  • 2014: Named a Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres by the French Government.
  • 2020: The poetry collection Time, selections of Adnan's work translated from French by Sarah Riggs, wins the Griffin Poetry Prize.

Adnan received a RAWI Lifetime Achievement Award from the Radius of Arab-American Writers.


In English

  • Shifting the silence, Nightboat, 2020
  • Time, Nightboat, 2020
  • Surge, Nightboat, 2018
  • Night, Nightboat, 2016
  • Life is a Weaving, Galerie Lelong (2016) ISBN: 978-2-868821-23-2.
  • Premonition, Kelsey Street Press (2014) ISBN: 978-0-932716-82-8.
  • To look at the sea is to become what one is: An Etel Adnan Reader, edited by Thom Donovan, Brandon Shimoda, Ammiel Alcalay, and Cole Swensen, Nightboat Books (2014)
  • Sea and Fog, Nightboat Books (2012)
  • Master of the Eclipse (2009)
  • Seasons (2008)
  • In the Heart of the Heart of Another Country (2005)
  • In/somnia (2002)
  • There: In the Light and the Darkness of the Self and of the Other (1997)
  • To Write in a Foreign Language (1996)
  • Of Cities and Women, Letters to Fawwaz (1993)
  • Paris, When It's Naked (1993)
  • The Spring Flowers Own and the Manifestations of the Voyage (1990)
  • The Arab Apocalypse (1989)
  • Journey to Mount Tamalpais: An Essay (1985)
  • The Indian Never Had a Horse and Other Poems (1985)
  • From A to Z Poetry (1982)
  • Sitt Marie Rose: A Novel (1978)
  • Moon Shots, Sausalito-Belvedere Gazette (1967)
  • "The Enemy's Testament" in Where is Vietnam?, Anchor Books (1967, Walter Lowenfels, ed., ASIN B000J0W89M)

In Arabic

  • al-Sitt Mari Ruz: riwayah. (Sitt Marie Rose.), with Jirum Shahin and Firyal Jabburi Ghazul. Al-Qahirah: al-Hayah al-Ammah li-Qusur al-Thaqafah, 2000.
  • n mudun wa-nisa: rasail il Fawwaz. (Of Cities and Women.) Bayrut: Dar al-Hihar, 1998.
  • Kitab al-bahr; kitab al-layal; kitab al-mawt; kitab al-nihayah, with Abid Azarih. Bayrut: Dar Amwaj, 1994.
  • al-Sitt Marie Ruz. Bayrut: al-Mu-assasah al-Arabiyah lil-Dirasat wa-al-Nashr, 1979.

In French

  • Voyage, guerre, exil, L'Echoppe, 2020
  • Un printemps inattendu (entretiens), Galerie Lelong, 2020
  • Grandir et devenir poète au Liban, L'Echoppe, 2019
  • Tolérance, L'Echoppe, 2018
  • Nuit, Editions de l'Attente, 2017
  • La vie est un tissage, Galerie Lelong, 2016 ISBN: 978-2-868821-21-8
  • Mer et brouillard, Editions de l'Attente, 2017
  • A propos de la fin de l'Empire Ottoman, Galerie Lelong, 2015
  • Le Prix que nous ne voulons pas payer pour l'amour, Galerie Lelong, 2015
  • Prémonition, Galerie Lelong, 2015
  • Là-bas, Editions de l’Attente, 2013
  • Paris mis a nu. France: Éditions Tamyras, 2011, translated by Martin Richet.
  • Ce ciel qui n'est pas. Paris: L'Harmattan, 1997.
  • Ce ciel qui n'est pas. Bilingual edition (French-Arabic): Tunis: Tawbad, 2008.
  • Rachid Korachi: Ecriture passion, with Rachid Korachi and Jamel-Eddine Bencheikh. Alger: Galerie Mhamed Issiakhem, 1988.
  • L'apocalypse arabe. Paris: Papyrus Éditions, 1980.
  • Sitt Marie Rose. Paris: Des Femmes, 1978.
  • Jbu: Suivi de l'Express Beyrouth enfer. Paris: P.J. Oswald, 1973.


  • 2022 Etel Adnan/Vincent van Gogh - Kleur als Taal, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam
  • 2021 Etel Adnan: Light's New Measure, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York
  • 2020 Satellites et Planètes, Galerie Lelong & Co, Paris
  • 2019 Leporellos, Galerie Lelong & Co, Paris
  • 2019 New Work: Etel Adnan, SFMOMA, San Francisco
  • 2019 Etel Adnan et les modernes, MUDAM, Luxembourg
  • 2019 Etel Adnan: Each day is a whole world, Aspen Art Museum, Aspen
  • 2018 Parler aux fleurs, Galerie Lelong & Co, Paris
  • 2018 Zentrum Paul Klee, Bern, Suisse
  • 2018 Estampes originales, Galerie Lelong & Co, Art Basel, Basel, Switzerland
  • 2018 Tout ce que je fais est mémoire, Chateau La Coste, Le Puy Ste Réparade, France
  • 2018 La Fulgurance du geste, Fondation Jan Michalski, Montricher, Basel, Switzerland
  • 2018 Tapisseries et estampes, Galerie Lelong & Co, Paris
  • 2017 Sea and Fog, Oakville Galleries, Oakville, Canada
  • 2017 L’emozione dei COLORI nell’arte, GAM, Castello di Rivoli, Italy
  • 2016 A Tremendous Astronomer, Galerie Lelong, Paris
  • 2016 Institut du Monde Arabe, Paris
  • 2016 Serpentine Gallery, London
  • 2016 Galerie Lelong, Paris
  • 2015 Museum Haus Konstruktiv, Zurich
  • 2015 Galerie Lelong Paris
  • 2015 Saltwater, Istanbul Biennale
  • 2015 Galerie Lelong, New York
  • 2015 Irish Museum of Modern Art (IMMA ), Dublin
  • 2015 Sharjah Art Museum, EAU
  • 2014 Etel Adnan in all her dimensions, MATHAF, Doha, Qatar
  • 2014 Writing Mountains, Museum der Moderne, Salzburg
  • 2014 New Museum, New York
  • 2014 Whitney Biennale, Whitney Museum, New York
  • 2012 DOCUMENTA (13), Cassel.

Etel Adnan's works can be found in many collections, including the Centre Pompidou, Paris, Mathaf, Doha, Qatar, Royal Jordanian Museum, Tunis Modern Art Museum, Sursock Museum, Beirut, Institut du Monde Arabe, Paris, British Museum, London, M+, Hong Kong.

See also

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