London Exhibitions: Fahrelnissa Zeid and Soul of a Nation at Tate Modern

Added on by Miguel Sopena.

I really enjoyed two current exhibitions at Tate Modern which, rather than being sideshows to the blockbuster Giacometti (10/05 – 10/09/2017), cast light on unrelated but equally fascinating facets of 20th century art.

Fahrelnissa Zeid (13/06 – 08/10/2017) presents the work of this Turkish artist, well known within artistic circles in Western Europe at the height of her career but whose achievements faded somewhat into obscurity after her death. The scion of a wealthy and influential Istanbul family, Zeid (1901-1991) grew up at the heart of what was still the Ottoman Empire, a major political power which would only be dismembered after its defeat in the First World War. Zeid's life is the stuff of fiction: Her uncle was Grand Vizier (Imperial Prime Minister) from 1891 to 1895, her father, the Ottoman ambassador to Greece, was apparently murdered by Zeid's brother, and Zeid herself, after divorcing her first husband, married an Iraqi prince (Iraq having split off from the Empire as a separate country after 1918) who became ambassador to Germany in 1935. After the German annexation of Austria in 1938 the couple returned to Baghdad, but the city didn't agree with Zeid and she adopted a cosmopolitan existence, shuttling between Paris, Budapest and Istanbul, where she held her first solo exhibition in her own apartment in 1945. In 1946 Zeid's husband became Iraqi ambassador to the UK and the couple settled in London, where Zeid's career as a painter took off, her openings being attended by many high society members, including the Queen Mother. Zeid lived, worked and exhibited between London and Paris, developing her mature abstract style (using huge canvases) in those years. In 1958 Zeid and her husband narrowly escaped the fate of the Iraqi royal family, assassinated in Baghdad in the course of that year's military coup, and, no longer in a privileged position, moved into a flat in London where Zeid cooked her first meal at the age of 57. Prince Zeid Al-Hussein, Zeid's husband, died in 1970 and Zeid joined her son, Prince Raad, in Amman, Jordan's capital, where she kept working, teaching and mentoring younger artists until her death in 1991.

One could be forgiven for suspecting that such a privileged social position may have granted excellent promotion opportunities to Zeid, perhaps out of proportion to the merits of her work, but from the start of the Tate exhibition I found Zeid's output bold, strong and personal and obviously animated by an incessant thirst for experimentation, as well as a huge capacity for work. Judging from the contents of the exhibition, Zeid's early paintings share a strong symbolic and narrative slant, reflective of her surroundings (Zeid made contact with and was influenced by avant-garde circles in Istanbul after her return there in the 1940s). Later work shows Zeid going back and forth between abstraction and figuration, but it was in her London/Paris period in the late 1940s and 1950s that she started producing the huge, colourful abstracts she is perhaps best known for and a few of which are on display at the exhibition. These whirlpool-like pieces are not just vast in dimension but they transmit a tremendous energy and an attention to detail that precludes any feeling of routine or repetition.


 Fahrelnissa Zeid,  Triton Octopus  (1953)

Fahrelnissa Zeid, Triton Octopus (1953)

Other highlights from roughly the same period include smaller but equally colourful and intricate abstracts as well as some beautiful works on paper. Large-scale portraits of friends and acquaintances from Zeid's later working period are shown in the last room but, in all honesty, did not resonate with me as strongly as her previous work.

All in all, a tremendously energetic and compelling offering, now in its last weeks.

Equally arresting is Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power (12/07 – 22/10/2017), devoted to the output of Black artists and collectives in the US at the height of the African-American Civil Rights Movement, which reached one of its symbolic peaks with the 1963 March on Washington and Martin Luther King Jr's historic 'I have a dream' speech. 1963 is also the approximate starting point of the Tate show, which, far from limiting itself to 'protest art' or art with a direct political intention, moves through an extremely broad range of trends and proposals within the African-American artistic community in the period leading up to (roughly) the late 1970s. Personally speaking, I felt particularly drawn to the output which was tied and responded to specific historical conditions (rather than strands of work which, if interesting, appear to more or less share the concerns of contemporary non-Black artists). The exploration of the meaning of the African-American identity and experience preoccupied many of these artists, like the members of the Spiral collective whose work kickstarts the exhibition (don't miss Norman Lewis's paintings and Romare Bearden's collages). Next door the graphic art on the pages of the Black Panther newspaper calls for direct revolutionary action and resistance to racist oppression. Further along, Faith Ringgold's 1967 Die alludes in full colour to the violence of riots, which for most people would have been represented (if at all) as monochrome newspaper photographs. Assemblage takes on a political slant with Noah Purifoy's Watts Riot, put together from materials picked up from the street in the aftermath of the 1965 riot of that name in Los Angeles, whilst Melvin Edwards's 1960s Lynch Fragments sculptural series combines industrial materials to comment on anti-Black violence. That virtuoso technique is not incompatible with direct social commentary is proven by pieces such as Charles White's 1972 Mississippi or David Hammons's 1970 Injustice Case. Nor is pure abstraction absent from the exhibition, and if any proof is needed of the capacity of abstract art to convey emotion one need only look at Jack Whitten's extraordinary 1970 triangular painting Homage to Malcolm (meant as a reference to radical Black activist Malcolm X, assassinated in 1965). I found the section devoted to photography extremely interesting, this artform obviously being a key means of conveying the reality of Black life and Black struggle and Black photographers (like Black artists) often suffering from a scarcity of outlets to present their work. One of these pioneering Black photographers, Roy DeCarava, was also the first director of the Kamoinge Workshop, a collective founded in 1963 whose members were also involved in the creation of The Black Photographers Annual in 1973.


 Romare Bearden,  The Dove  (1964)

Romare Bearden, The Dove (1964)

 David Hammons,  Injustice Case  (1970)

David Hammons, Injustice Case (1970)

From that point onwards the exhibition veers away from art linked in one way or another to societal conditions and, to my mind, somehow becomes less compelling, in spite of the work of artists such as Betye Saar (with her elaborate assemblages) or portraitist Barkley Hendricks. Abstract expressionist codes and the use of material deconstruction (strands of work widely pursued at the time by American artists of all backgrounds) are represented here, and the exhibition's last room refers again to the continuing difficulties Black artists experienced to show their work by showcasing the activity of the Just Above Midtown (JAM) Gallery in New York City, created by Linda Goode Bryant in 1974 as a platform for African-American art.


 Jack Whitten,  Homage to Malcolm  (1970)

Jack Whitten, Homage to Malcolm (1970)

 Roy DeCarava,  Lingerie, New York  (1950)

Roy DeCarava, Lingerie, New York (1950)

Again a tremendously compelling (and timely!) offering. Only a few weeks now left to catch these shows if you can.