Following the exhibition opening, two articles, another by the , were published. Quite surprisingly, these articles claimed that Fahrelnissa Zeid was “practically forgotten,” and that the Tate Modern was “hop[ing] to lift the pioneering Turkish artist out of obscurity to ensure that she does not become yet another female artist forgotten by history.”
But who, exactly, was Zeid forgotten by?
Turkish art enthusiasts have known and celebrated Zeid’s work for years. Highly-esteemed, she is viewed as one of the country’s greatest artists. At art auctions, her works have earned extremely high bids, particularly in the last twenty years.
Zeid’s work is central to the collection of the Istanbul Modern, a private modern art museum exhibiting Turkish modern and contemporary art, since it opened in 2004. The Istanbul Modern curated and hosted the exhibition, Two Generations of the Rainbow, dedicated to Fahrelnissa Zeid and her son, Nejad Melih Devrim, in 2006. One of her most famous works, My Hell, was displayed in the museum’s central hall until very recently. The museum opened a new Zeid exhibition on May 30, 2017.
Interest in her life and art continues to grow and not just in Turkey. In June 2017, a biography of Zeid written by Adila Laïdi-Hanieh, an academic at George Mason University, focusing on arts in the Middle East and Zeid’s former painting student, was published by Art Books in English.
Yet despite all this, according to Ellis-Petersen from the Guardian, the fact that Zeid is a woman and a Muslim living outside Europe, has doomed her to relative obscurity. Emily Sharpe from Tate’s curator of international art and co-curator of the exhibition Kerryn Greenberg, described Zeid as “completely written out of art history.”
These false assertions from the Guardian, Art Newspaper, and representatives from the Tate underscore the fallacy of relying on a Eurocentric discourse about art, or indeed, anything at all. In Turkey, Zeid is not “practically forgotten,” or “completely written out of art history.” Not is the Tate Modern a hero that has lifted her “out of obscurity to ensure that she does not become yet another female artist forgotten by history.”
What the Tate Modern has done is open an exhibition featuring a famous Turkish artist who, unsurprisingly, has been left out of canonical treatments of art history by British and Western European art historians. The media’s reaction to this exhibition far from captures this, however. Instead, it is equivalent to opening a Joan Miro exhibition in Istanbul, and having Turkish newspapers claim that Turkish museums have saved Miro from obscurity, because not a single Turkish art historian has written about the artist.
To future curators, reporters, and critics of art exhibitions: please do not use heroic language about saving “international” artists from obscurity, whenever a non-white, non-European artist is featured in a major Western museum. Instead, please research your subject thoroughly. Other countries and cultures have created their own art histories, many of which have been documented at length. Zeid was not forgotten by history, just by Europe.
This piece originally appeared in Turkish on E-Skop. It has been translated by the author and edited for clarity.