The Princess of Abstract Art, Fahrelnissa Zeid, is now in the UK!

By Nisan Igdem

Modern Eastern artists are not talked about very much; Turkish abstract artists even less, except for one. Fahrelnissa Zeid, a pioneer in abstract art and Expressionism, is being exhibited at the Tate Modern.

Zeid in her studio in Paris, c. 1960. Raad Zeid Al-Hussein Collection.

Zeid in her studio in Paris, c. 1960. Raad Zeid Al-Hussein Collection.

Fahrelnissa Zeid was born in Turkey in 1901. As the daughter of an upper-class intellectual family, she was educated in painting in Paris. She married into the Iraqi royal family; her husband was the Iraqi ambassador to Ankara. Her marriage allowed her to travel and meet important people. After World War II, she exhibited her paintings in many metropolitan cities, including Paris, London, New York and Brussels. In 1979, she moved to Amman, Jordan, where she established The Royal National Jordanian Institute Fahrelnissa Zeid of Fine Arts. She died in 1991 in Amman.

Fahrelnissa Zeid,  Someone from the Past , 1980, Raad Zeid Al-Hussein Collection.

Fahrelnissa Zeid, Someone from the Past, 1980, Raad Zeid Al-Hussein Collection.

As she was born into a multicultural empire and traveled extensively, Zeid identified herself with many cultures. Such traces of her complicated background can be seen in her artwork. She wrote of her self-portrait Someone from the Past (1980):

"I am a descendent of four civilisations. In my self-portrait […] the hand is Persian, the dress Byzantine, the face is Cretan and the eyes Oriental, but I was not aware of this as I was painting it."

She used her cultural complexity even when she was painting a foreign subject. Her depiction of Loch Lomond (1948) does not look like it is set in rainy Scotland, but rather in a Mediterranean fishing village. Zeid’s patterns, inspired by Turkish and Persian art, are her unique input on any subject, which can be as close as her own face or as far as a lake in remote Scotland.

Fahrelnissa Zeid,  My Hell , 1951, Istanbul Modern.

Zeid produced many portraits, mostly of her close family and friends, who were also valued intellectuals in Turkey. It is even rumoured that she painted a larger-than-life sized portrait of Donald Trump. However, her overwhelmingly large abstractions were what made her stand out. My Hell (1951), currently on loan to the Tate Modern, is the first painting the visitors of Istanbul Modern see. It dominates the exhibition space with its chaos and striking use of colour. She, again, uses Islamic patterns to portray her hell. Although it is “her” hell, she makes it familiar for the viewer; making it “our” hell, too.

If you have missed the exhibition - do not worry! The Tate Modern has purchased some of Zeid’s work. Even though they are not currently on display, the Princess is once again in the UK after over fifty years. After Istanbul and London, the exhibition is now on its way to Berlin. The Retrospective of Fahrelnissa Zeid will be open to visitors from 20the October in Deutsche Bank KunstHalle.


Melis Alemdar, ‘Princess, painter, pioneer: Fahrelnissa Zeid at Tate Modern’, TRT World, July 2017.

‘Fahrelnissa Zeid’, Istanbul Modern, 2017.

‘Fahrelnissa Zeid’, Tate Modern, 2017.

‘Fahrelnissa Zeid in Four Key Works”, Tate Modern, 2017.

Emily Sharpe, ‘Fahrelnissa Zeid: the Modern Turkish artist who walked on her canvases’, The Art Newspaper, June 2017.