Fahrelnissa Zeid: Tate Modern resurrects artist forgotten by history

Painter had illustrious global career during her lifetime – now retrospective hopes to restore her former fame

She was an artist of such “force and originality”, says Tate Modern, that it is astonishing that Fahrelnissa Zeid should have been practically forgotten. Now, in the first retrospective of its kind in the UK, Tate Modern hopes to lift the pioneering Turkish artist out of obscurity to ensure that she does not become yet another female artist forgotten by history.

For Frances Morris, director of Tate Modern, the show is “momentous”, a key reflection of her ongoing ambitions for the gallery to be a place that champions artists, particularly women, who have been neglected by an art world still heavily skewed towards European males.

Someone from the Past, 1980, oil paint on canvas.
Someone from the Past, 1980, oil paint on canvas. Photograph: Tate Modern

Morris described how she first encountered Zeid’s work on a 2008 visit to Istanbul, where she saw her paintings hanging in the historic section of the Istanbul Modern Museun.

“We were stunned to encounter for the first time in our lives, these huge, ornate, decorative, multifaceted, brilliantly coloured, swirling abstract paintings,” recalled Morris. “We’d never seen her work in our lives and we’d never seen anything like it. It was a really exciting moment.”

Born in Istanbul in 1901, Zeid led a life as extraordinary and colourful as her vast, vibrant paintings. She was one of the first women to go to art school in Istanbul, and, after marrying into the Iraqi royal family, she was part of the avant-garde art movements in Istanbul, pre-war Berlin and post-war Paris.

During her life she was celebrated in multiple exhibitions in Paris, New York and London, including at the ICA in 1954. In the 1970s she moved to Amman, where she set up an art school and is credited for transforming the perception of art in Jordan. She died in 1991, and despite her illustrious career, has now been all but forgotten by most major arts institutions, particularly in Europe.

All but one of the works in the Tate Modern exhibition were loaned from abroad, but the gallery bought one of the paintings, Untitled C, “so she can now be part of our narrative,” said Morris.

The show’s co-curator Kerryn Greenberg said the fact that Zeid was a woman and a Muslim, and had also moved away from Europe in her latter years, were key reasons for her descent into obscurity.

The retrospective was a particularly moving moment for her son, Ra’ad bin Zeid, head of the royal houses of Iraq and Syria, who lives in exile in London and Paris.

Zeid working on a painting.
Zeid working on a painting. Photograph: Samuel Cole/Tate Modern

“I’m floating on air. I can’t believe this actually happened,” he said. “My mother worked so hard in her life and it wasn’t always very easy being a woman and being the wife of a diplomat and coming from the orient. People did not pay attention to her in the beginning. But she persisted and she kept on.”

Ra’ad bin Zeid recalled how his mother would make him sit by her as she worked. “I used to sit there for hours and hours with her as a child. At the beginning I was upset, I wanted to do my own thing, but she would would say no, and tell me to get her the brushes and paints. Zinc white paint, I will never forget zinc white. But I am so happy that I did sit there because I learned so much.”

Zeid’s life story is one that includes murder, monarchy, revolution and near-assassination. She was born into an aristocratic, artistic Ottoman family, where the liberal arts where embraced, but her life unravelled at the age of 13, when her older brother was convicted of killing their father. After enrolling in art school during the demise of the Ottoman empire, she became involved with a group of radical artists and was close to Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of modern Turkey.

It was on her marriage to her second husband, Prince Zeid al-Hussein, that she became a part of the Iraqi Hashemite royal family, and the pair moved to Berlin, where she continued to experiment with her art. When war broke out, the pair moved back to Baghdad, and while Zeid struggled to leave behind Europe, it was here that she moved into making her paintings fully abstract, fusing her European, Byzantine and Islamic influences.

The Firework is among works on show at Tate Modern.
The Firework is among works on show at Tate Modern. Photograph: Kirsty Wigglesworth/AP

The central room at the retrospective is devoted to the large, abstract canvases Zeid painted in the late 1940s and 1950s, and includes her five-metre canvas, titled My Hell, which has not been seen in the UK since her 1954 show at the ICA.

Zeid and her husband’s life was thrown into turmoil again after the assassination of the Hashemite royal family in Iraq in 1958. In the 1970s, she moved to Jordan, where she set up an informal art school where she taught women to paint. She lived there until her death in 1991.

Ra’ad bin Zeid said the show was the culmination of everything his mother had worked for. “Although she is not with us, her crowning glory is here today, and her soul has seen it – her soul has seen this show,” he said.

Fahrelnissa Zeid is at Tate Modern from 13 June until 8 October


Hannah Ellis-Petersen

The GuardianTramp

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