On the 13th of June, a new retrospective of the famous artist Fahrelnissa Zeid unveiled in London’s prestigious Tate Modern. Apparently the exhibition is part of Tate Modern’s director Frances Morris’ ambition to champion “particularly women” artists in the face of an overall neglect towards women and non-European artists (1).
Following the opening, two articles, one by the Guardian (2) another by the Art Newspaper (3), were published. Quite surprisingly, these articles claim that Fahrelnissa Zeid was “practically forgotten,” and that “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.”
But whose history is it exactly?
The art history known to the Turkish art enthusiasts present a completely different perspective. Since the opening of Istanbul Modern In 2004, a private modern art museum exhibiting Turkish modern and contemporary art, Fahrelnissa Zeid occupied a central place in its galleries. One of her most famous works, My Hell, was displayed in the central hall of the museum for years until very recently. Besides, Istanbul Modern curated and hosted the exhibition Two Generations of the Rainbow, dedicated to Fahrelnissa Zeid and his son Nejad Melih Devrim in 2006. Probably in conjunction with the Tate exhibition, Istanbul Modern opened a new Fahrelnissa Zeid exhibition on May 30, 2017.
Fahrelnissa Zeid had been one of the most famous and prized artists in the Turkish art world for at least the past two decades. This fact is perhaps more obvious to those who frequent auction houses in Turkey. For decades, her works topped the auctions sales with extremely high bids leaving her oil on canvases for the customers with the most powerful bank accounts.
According to Ellis-Petersen from the Guardian, the fact that Zeid was a woman and a muslim living outside Europe, resulted her to descent into obscurity. Emily Sharpe from the Art Newspaper reports that apparently, Kerryn Greenberg, Tate’s curator of international art and co-curator of the exhibition said that Zeid was “completely written out of art history.” (4) This is simply not the case. In the Turkish art world, Fahrelnissa is considered as one of the greatest artists originating from Turkey and is held in extremely high esteem.
What is really happening is that, there are still some journalists and curators that work in the best institutions of their kind in the world, the Guardian and the Tate, who fail to perform an in-depth research and fall into a Eurocentric discourse. Fahrelnissa was not “practically forgotten,” she was not “completely written out of art history” and Tate Modern is not the hero which will lift her “out of obscurity to ensure that she does not become yet another female artist forgotten by history.” She was never forgotten in the first place (at least in some countries whose art histories our journalists and curators seem to ignore). Yet, the discourse of a heroic Tate Modern saving the Muslim women artist from obscurity plays well not only for the Tate but also for the press.
What Tate Modern does is that, it opens an exhibition of one of the most famous artists in Turkey in their own gallery, who happens to be unknown by English or Western European art historians. This is the Western equivalent of opening a Miro exhibition in Istanbul (with the exception that the Turkish art audience knows Miro) and claiming in Turkish newspapers that Turkish museums have saved Miro from obscurity because not a single Turkish art historian has written on Miro.
Future curators and reports, please be advised against such heroic language about saving “international” artists from the obscurity of art history. At least don’t forget to write “Western art history.”
(1) Hannah Ellis-Petersen, « Fahrelnissa Zeid : Tate Modern ressurects artist forgotten by history », The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2017/jun/12/fahrelnissa-zeid-tate-modern-resurrects-artist-forgotten-by-history.
(2) Ellis-Petersen, Guardian
(3) Emily Sharpe, « Fahrelnissa Zeid : the Modern Turkish artist who walked on her canvases », The Art Newspaper, http://theartnewspaper.com/news/conservation/the-modern-turkish-artist-who-walked-on-her-canvases/.
(4) Sharpe, The Art Newspaper