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Review: Fahrelnissa Zeid at the Tate Modern

Review: Fahrelnissa Zeid at the Tate Modern

I have a new addition for your life-idol list and her name is Fahrelnissa Zeid. 

(Unless she's already on there, in which case why didn't you tell me about her, sneaky?) 

If you crave colour, I highly recommend seeing her exhibition on the second floor of the Tate Modern as soon as you possibly can. 


It's a small collection displaying the creative evolution - to abstract and back  - of an eccentric, magnificent babe who championed women and rocked a strong pin curl in the forties.

Her portraits have moments of sad-eyebrowed Byzantine piety, while her massive abstract canvasses are a kaleidoscopic nod to the geometry of Islam.


Fahrelnissa Zeid was the kind of woman I'm fully aiming to become, though it's doubtful since I wasn't born into the Turkish nobility in 1901. 

Neither have I married an Iraqi prince.. Though that one's on the to-do list. 

She lived in Istanbul, Berlin, Baghdad, Paris, London and Amman.

Zeid was one of the first women in Turkey to formally train as an artist.

An early self-portrait, in daffodil yellow against a backdrop of murky green, suggests she was a master of the side-eye. 

Was she looking at this man's world of modern art with one eyebrow raised all her life? 

The figures in her early work have rolling limbs. Like fat, colourful coils squeezed from a tube of toothpaste. 


There are darker moments too (where marketplace reds and yellows fade to green-and-navy gloom), as the exhibition reflects Zeid's lifelong struggle with depression and her experience of World War Two.


Zeid once had tea with Adolf Hitler, according to a little paragraph on the gallery wall. 

Not ideal, but apparently it was painting rather than race-hate they bonded over. 

With disparate shapes and dismal colours, we glimpse a mind uneasy with the state of the world at that time.

Moving through the collection, if you gaze at them long enough, Zeid's vast abstracts will glow in your mind even after you squeeze your eyes shut. 

They could be city maps. Stained-glass windows. Aerial views from the catherdral belfry. Persian carpets. Or bowls of wild spaghetti.


Speaking of snacks, Fahrelnissa Zeid cooked her first meal at the age of 57, turning the carcass of her debut roast chicken into a bizarre rotating sculpture.

Imagine being so fancy a plate of leftovers could shock you into a creative epiphany. 


Actually, it was the 1958 coup d'état in Iraq which robbed her husband of his role as ambassador.

This left Zeid, shaken by the turmoil in her husband's homeland, to give domesticity a go for the first time in a London flat. 

The stones she had once decorated were swapped for bones, preserved in resin and fully approved by the French Minister of Culture who succinctly observed: "This is art." 

Though my initial thoughts were sticky with grease and my nostrils dreaming of fat and Bisto.. It worked.

The pieces of skeleton, suspended mid-flight, remind you of blossom shaken from a branch or those little aeroplane seed-pods that fall down from Sycamore trees. 

The bones are not just pretty though. They're artefacts from Zeid's life. She moved from an elite world to a humble home and found beauty in mundanity.


The faces Fahrelnissa Zeid painted in her later life have sad chihuahua eyes, as though they've been perched in a Purikura photobooth rather than sitting for a portrait. 

The bold, block-colour backdrops are my Instagram-selfie dream.

When she was 74, Zeid settled in Amman, Jordan and began teaching women to paint. She chose people with no previous artistic training. 

Zeid told them: "You must forget what you know because what you know is what you have learned, but what you do not know is what you really are."

I will be getting that diamantéd onto the back of some jeans ASAP. 

My favourite in the whole collection was a second self-portrait of Zeid, the last piece before the exit sign. 

Describing it, she said: "I am a descendent of four civilisations … the hand is Persian, the dress Byzantine, the face is Cretan and the eyes Oriental."

This updated portrait is so much more fabulous than the first, and not just because of the great earrings and fringing. 

Though the Disney-villain brows remain intact, there is a knowingness and a warmth that wasn't there before. 

The whole exhibition is a colourful shattered vase you decide to stare at rather than glue back together. 

I wanted to buy the biography, Fahrelnissa Zeid: Painter of Inner Worlds, but it felt like a paving slab in my hand so I backed away in horror and bought some nice backpack friendly postcards instead.


The exhibition is at the Tate Modern until October 8th. 

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