A Lover's Discourse: Zeinab Saleh

A Lover’s Discourse


June 22–July 22, 2023

Zeinab Saleh in the company of Katharina Fritsch

Apologia for Grey Negar Azimi

In elementary school, our French teacher was named Madame Bettina. Madame B, as we liked to call her, spoke French with a pronounced German accent. On most days she would begin by methodically erasing the chalk marks from the previous class, her clunky bracelets jingling as she moved. Because she was not appreciably taller than her students, Madame B was unable to reach the top of the chalkboard, and somehow, the torrent of marks she left behind, elliptical patterns made of letters and numbers, seemed more vivid in my imagination than anything she endeavored to teach us. Much later, I learned that the mysterious marks framing our French grammar lessons were algebra equations. That chalkboard, a delirious palimpsest, became inextricably tied to my experience of language. A series of hieroglyphs to be deciphered.

I am taken by the deployment of grey in Zeinab Saleh’s paintings. Grey, Zeinab tells me, is traditionally a preparatory color. It is the color of the chalk or charcoal that one might use for a sketch. It is, in other words, not “the real thing.” Not the climax, but rather, the preamble. Provisional. Powdered charcoal, as it happens, a material she is prone to using, is messy and unstable. It smudges and leaks and runs. It is vulnerable, capricious, ephemeral. Slippery. Much like memory.

I return to grey as a metaphor.


In producing her tenebrous paintings, Zeinab methodically makes marks with charcoal, chalk, and acrylic—then removes them over time using a dry brush. A laborious process, a perennial tinkering, push and pull. Zeinab’s subtractions are additive. “Making,” now intimately linked to “unmaking,” is turned on its head. The process may take as long as months. She stops only when she’s happy with the tones. Incidentally, “tone,” which has a musical connotation, is her word. I begin to think of her as a conductor, fine tuning, orchestrating her painterly creations.


What color is memory?


Dear Grey, you get such a bad rap: drab, depressed, nondescript. A “grey” woman is fading away, as though all life has been squeezed out of her. She is a woman who spends too much time and money on hair color. Or, as it happens, who chooses not to. Grey is lifeless, lusterless, neutral. Grey, says Google, is “stability and boredom.”


A panoply of ghostly traces is how one might describe what materializes on the canvas. Which is to say, a la Madame B.


Hieroglyphs to be deciphered .

I would like to declare my love for grey, its quality of being neither black nor white, but rather, indeterminate, forever in-between. Grey, I believe, is an intellectual position, a defense of uncertainty, ambivalence. In its refusal to submit, it is dynamic, irreverent, heroic.

Other words come to mind as I gaze at her idiosyncratic marks: silhouette, shadow, moonlight, outline.



The outline of a monstera plant, full of curves and canyons and drawn from the artist’s studio,

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