NORTH ADAMS — Etel Adnan's paintings might be at the center of a new show at Mass MoCA, but Elise Chagas, the Williams College graduate student who's curating the show, wants to present the whole person in the museum. "A yellow sun A green sun a yellow sun A red sun a blue sun," which opens Saturday, will explore all forms of Adnan's communication and unite within the gallery Adnan the poet and Adnan the journalist with Adnan the painter.
Etel Adnan was born and raised in Beirut, Lebanon in 1925, but settled in the United States in the 1950s. Primarily a writer at the time, she shifted her practice to include painting even as she found her acclaimed voice as a poet. The 1970s saw Adnan return to Lebanon for several years, serving as editor for two newspapers and then publishing her novel, "Sitt Marie-Rose," which drew from her experiences there. Now 93, Adnan divides her time between Paris and Sausalito, Calif.
"She's critically acclaimed for work she did in the `80s related to the Lebanese Civil War," said Chagas. "I think a lot of the topics that are at play in her writing, as in her painting, are ones of enduring importance, especially as a person of mixed identity that's related to modern imperialism and colonialism, those are conflicts that are still being worked out individually to this day. "
Adnan began to gain more international attention for her artwork when she participated in "documenta (13)" in 2012, part of a series of 100-day contemporary art exhibitions in Kassell, Germany that take place every five years. When Chagas got the opportunity to curate a show as part of her internship at Mass MoCA, doing her part to further the reach of Adnan's reputation was the obvious choice of focus.
"I think that she's far from a household name and her work is incredibly important," Chagas said.
Chagas first discovered Adnan about five years ago through her writing. It was in a college course that she read an essay by Adnan on nature and love, and was so taken by the work that she pursued Adnan's poetry. Chagas first encountered Adnan's visual work in 2013 in a show at the New Museum in New York City and began to join the pieces together.
"Her paintings stood out to me, and I put it together — oh, this is the person whose writing I had read previously!" she said. "I've been thinking about her work for a long time."
Chagas' intention has been to take all these parts of Adnan and offer the tools for visitors to place the parts together much as she was able to in 2013. The first space in the museum's prints and drawings gallery features a reading room and offers Adnan's books of poetry, a compilation of her journalism and her novel to visitors. Chagas hopes that people will take a moment to at least flip through the written work and get a taste of it as they encounter the paintings. It's a dynamic that Chagas feels is its own reward.
"Without the context of the writing, I think the paintings suffer," said Chagas, "so I'm hoping that people will come into the gallery and see these two parts of her practice that she considers distinct, but I think really informs each other in ways that are important to getting the whole picture."
The larger space in the gallery contains the paintings, which includes her Leporellos. These are 14-foot-long accordion-folded works that function as handmade books but have been laid out on the walls to be taken in all at once rather than sequentially. These contain not only drawings but snatches of text in Arabic and poetry. The rest of the room is filled with Adnan's colorful, geometrically-abstract and child-like oil paintings of landscapes.
"She is an incredibly talented colorist," Chagas said. "I think that's really the key to her paintings."
But it's the relationship between the images and the words that Chagas is really interested in, and color is one of the areas that the visual can speak in terms that words cannot. It's an example of how Adnan's visual work captures aspects of her ideas that text just can't possibly. These expressions are what Chagas is hoping visitors will take the time to trace with the two parts of the presentation.
"She explains her painting as an expression of joy, as this outlet for emotion in a way that's abstracted from words, from the baggage of language," she said. "I'm interested in drawing a connection between these two."