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Fahrelnissa Zeid: The Incredible Muslim Artist Who Was Almost Forgotten

It’s a dreary, rain-soaked October day in central London. We’re stood on the fourth floor of the Tate Modern, amid a gaggle of overexcited American and Japanese tourists, staring at a vast canvas that can only be described as a blaze of geometrical patterns. Colours and outlines and biometric shapes of every conceivable configuration morph and swell into one huge, swirling example of self-expression. The work is by the late Muslim artist Fahrelnissa Zeid from Turkey, and the world needs more unique talent like this. That’s for sure.

Zeid’s life was almost as soulful, eccentric and dazzling as her work. After being born in Istanbul in 1901, she was one of the first women to be accepted into the art school in the city. A woman going to a prestigious art school is certainly not a big thing now (women in England, for example, outperform men at every level of education – from primary school to university) but in 1901 a woman being accepted into a top art school was kind of a big deal.

Then she casually married into the Iraqi royal family – as you do – and ended up playing a big part in the avant-garde art scenes of Istanbul, pre-war Berlin and post-war Paris. During her extraordinary life, her work was celebrated in a string of exhibitions in key artistic cities across the globe such as New York, Paris and London.

She moved to Amman in the 1970s where she set up an iconic art school of her own, one that was credited with revolutionising the way people looked at art in Jordan. She was in some way involved with the school until her death, in 1991, at the age of 90. Despite experiencing widespread critical acclaim during her illustrious career, after her death she was shockingly forgotten by major art institutions. Especially the most influential ones in Europe which, let’s face it, are the ones that matter.

Just when it looked like she wouldn’t leave the legacy that you would expect by looking at the achievements throughout her life, however, the Tate Modern in London (one of the most influential art institutions in the world) decided to exhibit her work with a view to restoring her former glittering fame. The exhibition started in October last year and it, predictably, went down a treat.

In a space that has, on occasion, been criticised for exhibiting the work of a disproportionate amount of white European men, the work of the Turkish artist went down a treat. So much so, that it ended up being in one of the main rooms for five months. Not only did the work illuminate the clinical white walls of the Tate, but it shined a light on Zeid’s fascinating life and multicultural background. “I am a descendant of four civilisations,” she once observed, talking about her 1980 self-portrait. “The hand is Persian, the dress is Byzantine, the face is Cretan and the eyes Oriental… ”

The director of the Tate Modern described the moment the work was first displayed as a “momentous” occasion. “We were stunned to encounter for the first time in our lives, these huge, ornate, decorative, brilliantly coloured, abstract paintings,” she told the Guardian, speaking of the moment she first encountered Zeid’s work in Istanbul. “We’d never seen her work in our lives and we’d never seen anything like it. It was a really exciting moment.” It seems that now, partly thanks to the Tate, Zeid is going to leave a posthumous legacy that’s every bit as distinguished as her alluring work.

Don’t forget to watch our video about her and lots of other inspirational people here.


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