Taking Shape: Abstraction from the Arab World, 1950s–1980s (Grey Art Gallery, New York University and Hirmer Publishers, 2020) was published in conjunction with the exhibition of the same name. Read the book’s introduction below.
Introduction: “No Longer a Horizon, but Infinity,” by Suheyla Takesh, co-curator of the exhibition and curator at the Barjeel Art Foundation.
In 1964 the Algerian weekly Révolution africaine published “Éléments pour un art nouveau” (Elements for a New Art), an essay by the painter Mohammed Khadda that contended with the role of the artist in post-independence Algeria and in the formation of a socialist state. In the text, Khadda argued for a function of art beyond propaganda or agitation. The history of painting, he wrote, had been one of successive revolutions and of a continuous liberation that eventually culminated in the emergence of abstraction, allowing painting to become an art unto itself, no longer reliant on a physical subject. In Khadda’s account, the birth of abstract art was tied to the moment Wassily Kandinsky created “the first nonrepresentational work” in 1910—most likely a reference to Untitled (Study for Composition VII, Première abstraction). Whether or not we attribute the beginning of abstraction to Kandinsky’s watercolor alone, discussing it prompted Khadda to make compelling observations about abstraction’s potential. “There was no longer a horizon, but infinity,” he wrote. Transcending the limits of representation, of physical reality, and thereby the bounds of a metaphorical “horizon,” the artist would be able—in Khadda’s imagination—to tap into an infinite range of “creative” experiences and expand what art could achieve. The promise of nonobjective abstraction, purporting, as it does, values of multiplicity, plurality, and heterogeneity, would be to encourage a more genuine expression of individuality than had been hitherto possible. The place from which Khadda’s thoughts emerged is one that is shared across geographies of decolonization: a breaking away from the entrenched colonial vision and a questioning of what it means to formulate a distinct national identity.