4Columns, January 31, 2020
By Ania Szremski
Modern and contemporary art from North Africa and West Asia has historically had a troubled reception in Europe and North America, where until the past few decades such production was often rebuffed as derivative of Western styles and not authentically “Arab” enough. The new exhibition Taking Shape: Abstraction from the Arab World, 1950s–1980s (co-curated by Suheyla Takesh of the Barjeel Art Foundation, which owns the collection that is the basis of this show, and Lynn Gumpert of NYU’s Grey Art Gallery, where it just opened) defies any such hobbled thinking with rigorous ambition. Bringing together fifty-seven artists from the region and its diaspora, Taking Shape makes an irresistible case for radically expanding our understanding of what counts as “abstract art,” the ways it developed as a form, and who has a right to its history.
This is a massively complex undertaking, starting with the very language used to circumscribe the nebulous region under review. The curators have done away with the historically violent, geographically imaginary term “Middle East,” preferring for the exhibition’s title the still-vexed category of the “Arab world.” In the exemplary catalog, Takesh adroitly makes a case for the phrase as an ethnolinguistic marker of countries in North Africa and West Asia linked in the mid- to late-twentieth century by a shared process of decolonization and the rise of Pan-Arabism.