Fahrelnissa Zeid and the battle for Turkey’s soul

Despite its stunning location straddling two continents, locals describe Istanbul’s atmosphere as ‘hüzün’. Roughly translated as melancholy, this bittersweet emotion has long haunted the city on the Bosphorus. But the anxiety currently gripping Turkey is neither sweet nor ancient. Ever since the failed coup attempt against President Erdoğan in July last year the country has been in turmoil. A purge targeting perceived dissidents has led to the arrest of tens of thousands including teachers, academics, civil servants, journalists and military officers. All have been accused of connection with the Gülen movement, founded by the prominent dissenter Fethullah Gülen. And despite it being over a year since the attempted uprising the crackdown continues. At the commemoration ceremony on the anniversary of the coup Erdoğan made clear that he had no intention of curtailing it.

Announcing that he wished to reinstate the death penalty Erdoğan was criticised by the EU, who warned him that doing so would jeopardise Turkey’s stalled membership talks. Opponents have accused him of using the coup to strengthen his grip on the country, and earlier this year a referendum passed giving him almost unlimited political powers as well as undermining the independence of the Turkish judiciary. Having always identified with the conservative Islamic faction of Turkish politics, in opposition to the traditional secular elite, at last month’s commemoration Erdoğan declared that the coup plotters were ‘unbelievers’ and that ‘my nation march with their flag and their faith’. Long accused of pursuing an Islamic agenda, the news last month that Turkish children would no longer be taught evolution in school appeared to confirm those fears. The Ministry of Education announced that Darwin’s theory was ‘too controversial’ for school children to understand. Many Muslim Turks reject evolutionary theory as it contradicts the account of creation given in the Quran. And even more recently Turkey became embroiled in a dispute with Israel over the Temple Mount, Erdoğan accusing it of undermining Jerusalem’s ‘Islamic character’.

“Third Class Passengers”

Turkey appears poised on the brink of change as Erdoğan’s power grows increasingly authoritarian and confrontations with other states leave it ever more isolated. Like an antidote to this dismal situation came Tate Modern’s exhibition on the female Turkish artist Fahrelnissa Zeid. Regarded as a pioneer of abstract art in Turkey, she is the latest of non-western artists to be exhibited recently. But just like Turkey itself, Zeid’s art was split between tradition and modernity, between international trends and the allure of her heritage. Born in 1901 into a prominent artistic family, she was one of the first women to enter Istanbul’s Academy of Fine Arts and travelled across Europe in the 1920’s. In the galleries and museums there she encountered modern art for the first time. In 1934 she married Prince Zeid bin Hussain, the Iraqi ambassador to Turkey at the time, and as a diplomat’s wife Zeid travelled the world. But it was only in the 1940’s that she began to paint in earnest. Becoming involved with the D-Group in Istanbul, a group of young Turkish artists, she started to display her work.

The exhibition begins with this first period. Paintings such as Third Class Passengers betray the inspiration of Fauvism, as indicated by its bold colours and non-realist style. But despite its European influence, the subject is undeniably Turkish. The ship’s floor is covered with a kaleidoscope of oriental carpets, their melange of patterns prefiguring Zeid’s later abstract work. Sitting on top of them are veiled women and taqiyah wearing men. Zeid has used modern art to represent an ancient Anatolian aesthetic.

A self-portrait

A self-portrait from 1944 shows a rather ferocious looking woman, eye-brows arched in defiance. Wearing a fashionable mustard jacket and with Lauren Bacall hair against a dark green Holbein background, she conveys the impression of an elegant, westernised woman. And yet there is an almost sickly quality to her face as if the ‘hüzün’ of Istanbul has seeped into the paint itself.

As the wife of a diplomat, Zeid led an international lifestyle. Living in Britain during the late 1940’s, she was inspired by Loch Lomond during a visit to Scotland.

“Loch Lomond”


The resulting work, entitled simply Loch Lomond, shows the creeping influence of abstraction. For though the scene itself remains representational, festivities on the shore in full swing whilst leaf-like boats bob on the water, the sky has been transformed into a mosaic of multicoloured tesserae while the loch has been divided into two opposing patches of red and blue. The picture also exhibits her cosmopolitan attitude, finding creativity in starkly different countries and cultures.

“Fight against abstraction”

Another work from this period was the bluntly titled Fight against abstraction. A surrealist medley of images swirl out of the canvas towards us, mostly limbs and faces, while the patchwork abstract background threatens to absorb them. Like a chaotic nightmare, Zeid conveys the crisis she was undergoing as she stood at an artistic crossroads.


But by the 1950’s she had come to fully embrace abstraction, and had exhibited in Paris, London and New York, achieving major recognition. But while likely influenced by the rise of abstract expressionism in the post-war period, Zeid’s abstract pieces also recall the non-figurative tradition of Islamic art, in particular, its predilection for geometric patterns and designs. A favourite would have to be Break of the Atom and Vegetal Life. As if looking at the Big Bang you can sense the energy surging throughout this work. But rather than violently erupting out there is an elegance to the spiralling forms, like ripples crisscrossing on water.

“Break of the Atom and Vegetal Life”

In 1958 Zeid’s life became entwined with international politics. The entire Iraqi royal family were killed in a coup except for Zeid and her husband who were fortunate enough to be in Italy at the time. But faced with so much uncertainty, for her husband was no longer ambassador, she put art aside until the next decade. Though she had already begun moving away from abstraction, upon resuming painting in the 1960’s she entered a new phase. Her painting of the Thames during the Golden Jubilee beckons from across the room tantalisingly. The hazy buildings engulfed by honey coloured light appear futuristic, as if this Sci-Fi Impressionism allows you to cross time. Rather than London 1977 it feels more like London 2077.



When her husband’s family were assassinated Zeid’s privileged life came to an end. Not longafterwards she cooked her first meal, roast chicken. The bones left afterwards inspired her to create a new form of sculpture, which she called ‘paleokystallos’. Essentially painted chicken bones coated in resin, their simple geometric patterns are reminiscent of stone age art. As she became older Zeid seemed to yearn to connect with her heritage, as if these sculptures provided a medium to her female ancestors. The portraits she painted in the final decades of her life also expressed this desire. Commenting on her self-portrait, Someone from the Past, she stated “I am a descendant of four civilisations. The hand is Persian, the dress is Byzantine, the face is Cretan and the eyes Oriental.” So though interested in her culture, this did not make her a narrow Turkish nationalist. Instead she sought to embrace the multitude of influences which have contributed to Turkish identity. And looking at her portraits, with their Byzantine iconography and exaggerated features reminiscent of the Fayyum portraits, that receptiveness appears obvious. In 1975, five years after the death of her husband, Zeid moved to Jordan where her son lived. There she established an art school and continued working up until her death in 1991.

“Someone from the Past”

Despairing over Turkey’s future, economist Ersin Şenel has accused Erdoğan of using the coup as an excuse to entrench his own power, stating that he ‘has turned polarisation – ethnic, sectarian and cultural – into a political strategy. The opposition seems weak and divided’. And with political uncertainty likely to continue the economy has suffered too. So it’s no wonder that ‘thousands of educated Turks are seeking ways to flee and find another life in dignity and peace where they might secure the basic protection of law, citizenship, healthcare or social support’. Perhaps they might find solace in Fahrelnissa Zeid’s story. A cosmopolitan artist who comfortably combined the artistic traditions of her own heritage with international modernism, she stands in contrast to the divisive nationalist and sectarian policies of Erdoğan’s Turkey. For those Turks who look beyond their own borders as well as those who seek greater plurality within them, Zeid offers an alternative model of Turkishness.