Advertisement Close

Etel Adnan: Arab American Art Medium Virtuosa 

posted on: Mar 20, 2024

Etel Adnan

By: María Teresa Fidalgo-Azize | Arab America Contributing Writer

Creation is a form of thinking. It’s abandoning a certain world of preoccupations in order to enter into another.

Etel Adnan, Beginning with Color: An Interview with Etel Adnan

March, the assigned month to celebrate Women’s achievements, grants many a space to learn about hidden female figures in history that, due to gender bias, have been sidelined from mainstage visibility. Etel Adnan was a Lebanese-born painter and writer whose works express identity’s dislocation from home and memory all wrapped into the solar hue language of Californian technicolor.

With a career spanning more than five decades, she is the author of critically acclaimed works such as Sitt Marie Rose, Paris, When It’s Naked, Seasons, and her most recent meditation on the dinner table conversations with mortality, Shifting The Silence, Etel Adnan’s legacy summons addition to a household name status. As a self-taught artist with expositions at the Whitney Biennal, The New Museum, and MOMA, Adnan manifested artistry adrift from rules’ punctuation marks- recognized by the clarity of color as concocted happiness amid a world wrinkled by indifference. Etel Adnan embodies Arab American pride. 


Painting Mount Tamalpais-by-Etel Adnan located at The Sursock Museum, Beirut.

Almost all of my beliefs have deserted me. I take it as a kind of liberation, and anyway, they were never too many. Our houses are cluttered, our minds too, so as fire as devastating as it can be, can well clear the air, enlarge the space, make room for some silence. Year after year all we do is gather dust.

Etel Adnan, Shifting the Silence

Passing over just seventy-three pages, Shifting The Silence divulges a fluid masterpiece stream of consciousness where Adnan encapsulates her dueling relationship with time, death, memory, and the myth corresponding to each concept. Never detouring from emitting political commentary, Adnan signals how the climate change catastrophe has influenced her writing and thinking perspective on human defeat and guilt.

As she mentions at the end of her work, referencing Nietzschean philosophy, today’s political landscape’s refusal to act upon the existential threat of climate change reopens the position that all that is to follow, the future, is “the eternal return of the same”: [1]a merry go round of mindless chatter. Even when Adnan, who lived 96 years, dives into the painful landscape of the defeat of hope, there is a tight lock urging her not to leave the pursuit of grace. A grace which, in the context of her life, would be the pursuit of walking on the sky’s prairie.  

When reading the passage above and embedding it into the tapestry of how Shifting the Silence concluded her life work, the bareness of her words expresses how the foreseen arrival of death admits the need for leaving it all behind. This stripping oneself from the weight of an immovable past that is held as the constitutional document of who we are is a painful yet beautiful liberation into what will come when dying. When reading this text enriched with allusions to Greek mythology, Sufism, and a non-denominational God, one falls short of gratefulness to Adnan’s words of releasing oneself not to death’s final stare but to life’s last smile.  


I threw it. I don’t know and don’t want to know what’s coming next, but I also did away with my curiosity

Etel Adnan, Shifting The Silence

Looking at Adnan’s paintings infused with patterned flat block colors of California sunsets, a rippling emotion of disordered joy takes place over me. Her work has a child-like mastery, resolutely unafraid of walking away from clear-cut vision. Even in her final moments, Adnan was keen on holding on to the promise of fire, the trackmark of ashes. She allowed what so many women, specifically Arab and Arab-American women, have been denied all their lives – freedom to doubt, freedom to undo oneself from a status quo way of life. 

Works Cited: 

Adler, Laure. “Beginning with Color: An Interview with Etel Adnan.” The Paris Review, 5 Oct. 2023,

Adnan , Etel. Shifting The Silence . Nightboat Books, 2020. 

Asfour, Nana. “Etel Adnan, Lebanese American Author and Artist, Dies at 96.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 14 Nov. 2021, 

“Etel Adnan in Conversation with Sabine Schaschl, Paris 2015.” YouTube, Museum Haus Konstruktiv , 26 May 2020,

[1] Etel Adnan quotes this phrase from Nietzsche on page 74 of Shifting the Silence.

Check out Arab America blog here!