Bel Trew, Amman
Silhouetted by the rich reds of his mother’s abstract painting, Prince Ra’ad bin Zeid is explaining how the shock waves of a massacre rippled into the kitchen of a modest London flat.
At the time of the 1958 Iraqi coup, his mother — the Turkish artist Fahrelnissa Zeid, who receives her first large-scale British retrospective exhibition at Tate Modern next month — commanded the attention of the international art scene, holding lavish soirées at her home in the Iraqi embassy in London. The flamboyant painter was working on a scale that few women had attempted, blending Byzantine, Islamic and Persian influences with European abstraction to create huge kaleidoscopic pieces, such as Alice in Wonderland (1952), which dwarfs the 81-year-old prince as he speaks.
His father, Prince Zeid al-Hussein, who was Iraq’s ambassador in London, was great-uncle to Faisal II, Iraq’s Hashemite king. On July 14, 1958 insurgents shot dead 23-year-old Faisal and his relatives in a Baghdad courtyard. Zeid, her husband and their only son, the sole survivors of that royal line, were given 24 hours to vacate the embassy in London. Traumatised, they tumbled into a smaller flat. Zeid, born into Ottoman nobility, had to learn to cook.
Aged 57, Zeid entered the kitchen for the first time, cooking a dinner of rice and chicken. Ever the artist, despite her anguish, the alien lines of the cleaned carcasses struck her as resembling dragons and deep sea creatures. She began painting them and cooking poultry obsessively, her son recalls. She later set the bones in cracked resin, her first venture into sculpture. Four decades later, in her art-packed villa in Amman in Jordan, she placed these pieces, called Paléokrystalos, on motorised turntables. They tumbled shattered light across the room, spinning cenotaphs to one of her darkest moments.
The Tate show will include paintings, drawings and sculptures from more than 40 years, such as the Paléokrystalos and her last big abstract work, Break of the Atom and Vegetal Life (1962), which came out of the period after the coup. “All of a sudden everything came to an abrupt end. My father didn’t know where to put himself. To clothe himself. We couldn’t get to him completely. [It was] almost a blackout,” says Prince Ra’ad.
We’re speaking in the family’s home in Amman, which is still full of his mother’s paintings. In this room alone they range from early, quasi-expressionist interiors to a 1980 self-portrait in which Zeid stares out at us with one arched eyebrow. She looks every inch the artist, yet, despite a long career and critical acclaim during her life, in Europe she has been more or less forgotten. The Tate curator, Kerryn Greenberg, hopes to change that.
Photo: Cover of Book on Fahrelnissa Zeid, detail of My Hell – Bel Trew