Etel Adnan: The Weight of the World, or a Mountain to Call Home

Published April 16, 2021 on Degree Critical.

Etel Adnan, Californie (California), 2017. Engraving. 35 Editions. 47 x 38 cm. © Etel Adnan. Courtesy Galerie Lelong & Co. Paris and Pera Museum, Istanbul.

Standing on Mount Tamalpais I am in the rhythms of the world. Everything seems right as it is. I am in harmony with the stars, for the better or the worst. I know. I know. I know.

– Etel Adnan, Journey to Mount Tamalpais

For a wanderer, belonging can mean many things. It can be a person. It can be a tree to sleep under. It can be something you escape from over and over again. It can be—who knows—Penn Station: complicated as a maze and dirty as a garbage can, jam-packed with people every hour, permeated by the horrid smell of piss. But the day might come where one looks around to see people spitting, fist-fighting, jumping turnstiles, and feel right at home. A person in exile can fall for the place where they found refuge, even its atrocities. And for Etel Adnan, that place turned out to be a mountain.

Etel Adnan, painter and poet, was born in Beirut in 1925, and has lived in many places: Paris, New York, California, Boston, Beirut again, and in 1980, Sausalito, California. Since 2012, she has been dwelling again in Paris, but it was in that home in Sausalito where she found a unique connection to another entity: Mount Tamalpais, a mountain of many colors, which she could view from her window. It fascinated her. The mountain became “a landmark that oriented [Adnan],” her axis mundi where once there, she could find her way to everything she is, once was, and all she had to leave behind.

So she painted it. Using ink, watercolor, oil, etching—whatever she could put her hands on, Adnan recreated the mountain. Tamalpais became what Mount Sainte Victoire was to Paul Cézanne, something more than a peak over Aix-en-Provence that he repeatedly painted, but a constant presence that shaped the artist’s process. She observed the mountain, day and night, for years, during summer afternoons and crisp mornings. As she wrote in her book Journey to Mount Tamalpais (1986), sometimes, when the mountain was purple, it “radiate[d.]” In springtime, “the moment [was] accepted.” And at magical times, there was “translucence in the great expanses of grey and there is the possibility for an angel to come across.”

When she had to leave, she yearned for it. Adnan recreated Tamalpais in writings and drawings when she was away from it as much as when she rested on its foothills. Its inertia continued to guide her when she was in perpetual movement, its absence materialized on paper. It reminded her of, or even signified “home,” but which one?

Etel Adnan, To the Ocean, 2017. Engraving. 35 Editions. 47 x 38 cm. © Etel Adnan. Courtesy Galerie Lelong & Co. Paris.

As the daughter of a Greek mother from Izmir and a father who was an Ottoman army officer from Damascus, Adnan was raised amidst familial longing and loss. For her mother Rosa, the city then called Smyrna was paradise. In the 2016 documentary by Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige, Ismyrna, Adnan recalls her talking about this city, “blessed by the Gods,” so abundant and so full of wonders. Yet when the Greco-Turkish War ended in September 1922, she saw it burn to the ground. Her husband Asaf, Adnan’s father, lost much of his life’s work in those flames. As an army officer for an empire that was defeated and dissolved, he was a man who lost his status within the foundations of Turkey, a new country that was being built from the ashes of the same fire. Asaf was left broken and adrift. Their family scattered, and the Adnans moved to Beirut, never again to return. Adnan’s life unfolded to involve departures and exiles of her own. In a 1995 essay in the journal Al-‘Arabiyya, she describes her memories and daily life being “woven with war.” She left her own city of Beirut in her twenties. The Six-Day War broke out in 1967 while she was in California. She returned to her home in Beirut, but left again soon after the Lebanese Civil War broke out, not to return until the long 15 years of war had passed. It was during that time in exile that she found Tamalpais. Adnan loved California, made new roots there as the mountain stood witness. Even though she left her mountain behind when she returned to Europe, she never quite let go of it. Adnan’s works of Tamalpais endure today.

“What is exile if not the violent and involuntary loss of the living symbols of one’s identity? At this point, instead of me leaving, it was Beirut which was leaving me, and, we know it now, forever,” she wrote in 1995. Adnan looked at the mountain and envisioned Beirut, maybe Mount Sannine on the horizon of the city, and imagined her mother’s lost hilltops of Smyrna that she herself had never seen. Within the panorama of the rocky hills were things that were lost and irretrievable, things that left her and she had left, even the mountain itself. So she did the “only meaningful activity when one is uprooted,” when home isn’t a certain place, and kept on producing for decades. She placed a black void, a great sphere of darkness within the pale, silky nothing, hanging on two mountains, one bright yellow, the other a warm orange. On the upper left corner, she set down a green rectangle. Part of a series of engravings, this one was called Le Poids du Monde [The Weight of the World] IV (2016). This work hangs on the walls of the Pera Museum in Istanbul as a part of her current show The Impossible Homecoming. Its weight is overwhelming, so heavy one can feel the sinking sensation five thousand miles away, through a laptop screen, and in Adnan’s words.

Etel Adnan, Le poids du monde (The Weight of the World) IV, 2016. Engraving. 35 Editions. 48 x 38 cm. © Etel Adnan. Courtesy Galerie Lelong & Co. Paris.

It’s been six years since I left Istanbul, my dysfunctional paradise of a city, for New York, and I write these words in English, my language of voluntary exile. Istanbul smelled less of piss than New York, and more of the sea. It was, and continues to be, a romanticized metropolis of everlasting charm and urbanized misery in my mind’s eye. The country was far from perfect or peaceful when I left, and, like Adnan, I was restless and eager to go. During my youth and adulthood, political unrest, bias, and injustice kept growing. The ongoing war in the region, an increasing dichotomy between classes, politics, and religious views of the community, the protests and deaths from numerous uprisings, and the violence, the bombings—a general sense of loss and suppression slowly, but irreversibly transformed the place I called home. I felt displaced already as I realized that my Istanbul left me long before I actually got on a plane. Adnan called this a living hell, “the most desperate of all forms of exile,” and every time I make it back to Istanbul, I feel this in the core of my body. Every time I talk to those that stayed, we mourn for our loss together, as they are robbed of the same things, even if they opted to stay. They also feel the weight of the world, and know as much as I do, and Adnan did, that our home doesn’t exist anymore.

As a legal alien whose immigration status makes it a continuous struggle to stay in the United States, I think about going back often. It’s a desperate nostalgia that always seeks for ways to return. My mother and father, who are still in Istanbul, tell me not to. This same mother sheds tears every time I leave, sacrificing her happiness for my exile. For them, the emotional and financial strain of my decision to leave still doesn’t outweigh the chance of a better life away from my loved ones. More than ever, as Adnan’s black sphere over us becomes heavier, I realize that I can never go back home.

“The mountain has to stay and I have to go, and it all comes to the same thing,” Adnan wrote of her Tamalpais.

I won’t be able to see Adnan’s show in Istanbul. I will feel at home, though, and at the same time in exile, when I look at her mountains.

Etel Adnan: Impossible Homecoming remains on view through August 8, 2021 at Pera Museum, Istanbul.