August 12, 2019
by Lulu Fleming-Benite
The Grey Art Gallery’s upcoming exhibition Taking Shape: Abstraction from the Arab World, 1950s–1980s (on view January 14–April 4, 2020), traces the development of abstraction in art from the Arab world via mid-20th century painting and sculpture. The works, lent by the Barjeel Art Foundation based in Sharjah, UAE, help shed light on how this abstraction emerged. Although every one of the 75 works in the show provides a fascinating angle on art in the Arab world during this time, my personal favorite is Farid Belkahia’s Aube (Dawn) of 1983.
Described on the Barjeel Art Foundation’s website as “one of post-colonial Morocco’s most distinguished modern artists,” Farid Belkahia (1934–2014) worked in a wide variety of media, including painting, metalwork, leatherwork, and traditional/natural dyeing techniques, such as henna. After studying at the École nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris, Belkahia returned to Morocco to become director of Casablanca’s École Supérieure des Beaux-Arts in 1962, not long after Morocco’s King Mohammed V negotiated independence from France and Spain. Belkahia soon began incorporating symbols and elements from his Moroccan heritage, combining these with the minimalist and modernist influences that he had picked up in Paris. During the 1960s, his work was very much inspired by the geometric tattoos and stylized lettering of Morocco’s indigenous Amazigh culture, and in the 1970s, he began using traditional techniques to paint with organic pigments on leather. While honoring traditional artmaking from his own culture, Belkahia still retained a modernist aesthetic.
Aube (Dawn), illustrated here, displays Belkahia’s wide-ranging technical and cultural knowledge. In it, he employs traditional Moroccan techniques as a vehicle for Western modernism. While the abstract forms he painted in pigment on vellum are far from figurative, they feel familiar, resembling figures dancing or bowing beneath multicolored rings radiating from a sun. Here the aforementioned Amazigh influence plays an important role; his shapes look celestial, as do Amazigh tattoos and symbols. For me, Belkahia’s clever uniting in Aube (Dawn) of different artistic styles and techniques, as well as of cultures, is tremendously appealing.
Belkahia’s marrying of Western and Arab influences reflects the sweeping cultural changes taking place in Morocco during the mid-20th century. It’s not a coincidence that he began incorporating influences from his own heritage into his works soon after Morocco gained its independence. In this light, works such as Aube (Dawn) embody both national and personal journeys of cultural pride and reclamation.
Lulu Fleming-Benite is an intern at the Grey Art Gallery. She plans to spend fall term studying in Marseille.