Q&A with Adila Laïdi-Hanieh (MAAS '92) - Center for Contemporary Arab Studies | Georgetown University
Image of Adila Laïdi-Hanieh standing in front of large abstract painting

Adila Laïdi-Hanieh is a 1992 graduate of the MAAS program. After graduating, Adila went on to receive her PhD in Cultural Studies from George Mason University. Adila is currently a postdoc fellow at the Arab Council for Social Sciences and lives in Ramallah, Palestine. She is a former student of the Turkish artist, Fahrelnissa Zeid and has recently published a book about her titled, Fahrelnissa Zeid, Painter of Inner Worlds. http://www.artbookspublishing.co.uk/fahrelnissa-zeid/ 

What inspired you to write this book about Fahrelnissa Zeid?

In the last months of my PhD, I was asked to go to the Istanbul Biennial in September 2015 and speak at a panel discussion about Fahrelnissa. They wanted a speaker who had known her and who could speak about her in a scholarly way. Even though I was busy with my dissertation, I thought why not, it’s a small tribute I can offer to Fahrelnissa. In my preparation to speak at the panel, I was shocked to discover most of the writings about her were superficial and orientalist. When I went to the Biennial, I saw her family there and suggested to them that someone should write a serious, scholarly book that reintroduces her for the contemporary reader. I did not think I was going to be that person until I heard the news that the Tate Modern Museum in London was going to do a retrospective about her in June 2017, which would later travel to Berlin and Beirut. I thought that I was the best person to do this well and quickly since I already knew her and her work, and since the book would require access to her private papers.

Can you talk about your experience as her student and how that relationship came to be?

I am indebted to my mother Aïcha Lemsine who gave me this unique opportunity by asking Fahrelnissa to take me on as a student in the early 1980s. For three years, I would go to her home on Wednesday afternoons to paint in her studio, show her the sketches I made the previous week, and generally imbibe her advice, souvenirs, and the dazzling decorative palimpsest of her upstairs salon I was the only teenager among her group of students and I further benefitted from her indulgence when she included two of my painting in her seminal 1981 group exhibition. This book represents the unexpected accomplishment of a project that Fahrelnissa and my mother entertained.

What was the most challenging part of writing this book?

The most challenging part was the daunting mass of the archive. Fahrelnissa’s personal archive is considerable. Tens of thousands of documents covering seven decades, overwhelmingly written in French, as well as sketchbooks, photographs, exhibition catalogues and critics’ reviews. My research involved sifting through her archive, putting it into order, and then conducting historical research into Turkish, Iraqi, British, and French sources to check the facts and to contextualize my findings.

What was the most rewarding?

The most rewarding aspect was the thrill of discovering and unearthing so many new things almost daily about Fahrelnissa and about the history of the different art scenes she worked in. Also, she was such a thoughtful and consistent writer who wrote daily about many aspects of her life, her vision of art, her eclectic readings, and her states of mind. The greatest reward of all is writing a book that does justice to her talent and spirit and rescues her from the orientalist mystification surrounding her for so many decades.

It is important to remember that in addition to her singular merits as a great artist, she was the only prominent female painter in Turkey in the 1940s. The only Middle Eastern artist successfully active in postwar Europe. Probably the first Middle Eastern artist to have a solo exhibition in a commercial gallery in New York (in 1950), and the first woman of any nationality to have a solo exhibition at the Institute for Contemporary Arts in London in 1956. She was also one of the very first Turkish abstract painters, and she contributed to normalizing abstract art in Jordan in the 1980s.

By Rachel Gray

Rachel Gray interned at CCAS as as National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations Fellow in 2017.