Immersed into life at a breakneck pace, Fahrelnissa Zeid emerged with her colourfully fragmented paintings. The Turkish born artist subtly defied protocol, raised a family, and settled in various cities like Berlin, London, New York, Baghdad, and Amman. Influenced by her Oriental origins, her art is a reinvention of Islamic, Byzantine, Arab and Persian heritage blended with the novelties she would encounter as she travelled the world. Raised in a privileged family, she chose the unconventional path of an artist and inspired other women to express and rediscover themselves through the art of painting.
The retrospective at Tate Modern regroups Zeid’s art works over time, highlighting key events and psychological ebbs and flows. She started her journey by adopting figuration. Faceless silhouettes and rounded props filled up the entire canvas in Third Class Passenger. Probably influenced by the rise of abstract expressionism, she flirted with ambiguous forms covered by a kaleidoscopic landscape. Finally surrendering to this type of expression, she committed herself to the thousands of small pieces which comprised the mosaic-like large scaled paintings. The short documentary and the side notes reveal the chronic despair the artist was encountering, as painting had become her escape from the double life of both princess and artist. The paintings displayed in the third room appear to me as a subconscious labyrinth, tracing the multi-directional path of the emotions and thoughts Zeid used to scatter her soul. The intricate arrangement of puzzle pieces harmonized in a Dubuffet-esque palette (Towards a Sky), seems to translate the movements of a chaotic mind, which, trapped in a delimited space, here on the canvas, attempts in vain to escape from it.
Although as I progress into the gallery, I perceive Zeid’s inner turmoil trapped behind the bars of a golden cage, I do not see a cry for help, a frenetic clamour for attention, or the the artist’s need to elicit pity. Instead, I stand close to the embellished confusion she depicted, and perhaps just like she did, I simply acknowledge its presence.
Apart from the colour block shades borrowed from Oriental inspirations, the twirls of geometric shapes within the canvas remind me of Miro’s organisational space in his busy paintings. Not drawn into one specific detail, I appreciate the painting from afar, letting my eyes wander the surface, allowing my mind to absorb Basel Carnaval. As I enter the fourth room, impregnated by Zeid’s state of mind and its representation through paint, I understand the deeper progression through abstraction. In Puncta Imperator, the puzzle remains but the lines are not as sharp, the colours drip, and the subject matter bathes in blurry surroundings. The video had announced the style of Zeid’s last paintings: portraits in which she captured the soul of her loved ones. Innocent and charismatic are how I would describe the portraits, and once again, the depiction does not reflect reality, but rather her vision through the person that she is, tormented and yet open to the world.
Sandwiched in between two radically different types of paintings, the room presenting the lyrical abstractions is my favourite as I feel it represents Zeid’s true self. I imagine she succumbed to her depression and to her mundane circle, finally let herself be as she is. She doesn’t cling anymore to the idea of being two different people, on the contrary, she brings both together and the rendering is magnificent.
Fahrelnissa Zeid at Tate Modern (13 June – 8 October 2017)