The Year Etel Adnan Left Us – Eye on Design

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The Year Etel Adnan Left Us – Eye on Design


Image by Tala Safié

With the year drawing to a close, the EoD editors were curious about what personal revelations different creatives experienced in 2021. This series of essays, Reflections, explores the human side of design.


A week before the artist, thinker, and poet Etel Adnan passed away in November, I was climbing the spiraling rotunda at the Guggenheim, where her paintings, tapestries, and booklets of hand-lettered poetry occupy the first two floors for a retrospective show

Her paintings of landscapes, frequently depicting the seascape seen from Lebanon, were particularly special to me. The image of the Mediterranean sun floating above the horizon immediately takes me home to the coastal city of Beirut.  

The artwork left me inexplicably emotional and happy. Although small in size, her paintings somehow manage to convey a bigger feeling of endless possibilities, energy, and depth. Her color choices pull at your heart. Her work shows that abstract forms and color can create meaning and evoke emotion beyond language or logic—something I tend to forget in my work as a designer for a fast-paced newspaper. 

Installation view, Etel Adnan: Light’s New Measure, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, October 8, 2021–January 10, 2022. Photo: David Heald © Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, 2021.

The morning I learned of her passing, I had the urge to revisit her book, Master of the Eclipse, a collection of short stories that take place in different locales, from Beirut to California, passing through Paris and New York. It’s essentially a book about displacement and the encounters made along the way. Adnan, born in 1925 in Lebanon, lived much of her adult life abroad. Her life was marked by constant movement—across oceans, continents, and languages.

I sat in a coffee shop near my apartment and started reading. One paragraph resonated with me, in which she describes a scene taking place in 1991 as the Gulf War is unfolding, with bombs falling on Iraq. In the scene, Adnan is at a summer cultural festival in Gibellina, a small town in Sicily:

“While drinking coffee I am in the midst of the Gulf War: a movie is passing in front of my eyes but the images are not in black and white, they are the color of my skin. They tell me that Iraq is being crushed under bombs and warn me to be careful, not to show too much emotion, to keep my worries under a lid when they are of no interest to most people. This recurring need for dissimulation creates a kind of shield, a second self so to speak, that censors thought, or sometimes erases them altogether.”

Her experience as an artist living abroad while the world around her crumbled felt familiar. This year, I think I have excelled at keeping my worries under a lid. Lebanon wasn’t necessarily in a war state, but it has been quickly deteriorating, financially and socially. While my country is collapsing, here I am video chatting with my colleagues in my brightly lit Brooklyn apartment, interrupted by the occasional WhatsApp messages from my mom casually mentioning that my grandma hasn’t had electricity in her apartment for days. The disconnect, the cognitive dissonance, is alarming.

While my country is collapsing, here I am video chatting with my colleagues in my brightly lit Brooklyn apartment.

Installation view, Etel Adnan: Light’s New Measure, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, October 8, 2021–January 10, 2022. Photo: David Heald © Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, 2021.

 

Most of my days in 2021 consisted of doom scrolling on my phone, witnessing from afar the apocalypse that was unfolding back home. The Lebanese currency has lost more than 85 percent of its value, the minimum wage is less than $50 per month, and with rising inflation, prices have quadrupled. Parents are trading their clothes and belongings on Facebook groups in exchange for baby formula. People are facing electricity cuts for weeks. Migrant workers from Africa and Southeast Asia, already victim of the discriminating Kafala sponsorship system, have been abandoned by their employers without pay. Hospitals are closing down due to medical and fuel shortages. People are humiliated at the banks, queuing for hours to receive a tiny portion of whatever is left of their stolen savings. And that’s without getting into the irreparable losses and trauma left by the August 2020 explosion at the port of Beirut. 

My friends and colleagues in the U.S. occasionally ask about the situation back home, mainly when the news in Lebanon is grim enough to make it as a New York Times push notification on their phones. They are genuinely curious and worried, but I think I have mastered the art of not showing too much, resorting instead to humor to try and articulate how ridiculous the situation is, how incomprehensibly incompetent the Lebanese ruling class remains. It might be a shield, a self-preservation strategy—maybe not the best way to handle the stress of these events, but it’s the best I can offer.

I moved to New York in the fall of 2016 to complete my graduate studies in design and stuck around ever since, working as a graphic designer and art director. This year marks my fifth in the city, which gives me a lot to reflect on. I never planned on staying this long, but here we are. A part of me still feels like a temporary visitor—after all, I’m still a “legal alien” on paper. I know I’m one of the lucky ones who got out of Beirut before the city forcefully pushed me out. I miss it, of course, but I try to remind myself that the distance to my home exists through the friendships and connections that I treasure and maintain. 

I especially miss it when I am reminded of the beauty of the Mediterranean, “its perpetually youngish sun, and sense of well-being it provides,” as Adnan describes it in Master of the Eclipse. That day at the museum, looking at her paintings intertwining the sun and the sea, created a space of fondness and endearment for my home country that cut through the exhausting headlines, even if just for a fleeting moment.



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