By Dina Ramadan
Writing in 1964, the Algerian painter Mohammed Khadda (1930–1991) identified “that day in 1910 when the Russian artist [Wassily] Kandinsky created the first nonrepresentational work” as marking the birth of “nonfigurative (or abstract) painting.” (Note: For the sake of consistency, I have used the exhibition curators’ transliteration of artists’ names.) Published in Révolution africaine, the National Liberation Front’s weekly newspaper, Khadda’s piece was the first of three artists’ statements titled “Éléments pour un art nouveau” (Elements for a new art), in which the authors grappled with the question of the role of the artist in the postindependence state. While he does not name the specific Kandinsky painting, Khadda’s assessment is very much in line with the dominant narrative surrounding the origins of abstraction. It is striking, then, that Barjeel Art Foundation curator Suheyla Takesh chose this example as the departure point for her introductory essay to Taking Shape: Abstraction from the Arab World, 1950s–1980s, an exhibition intent on rethinking “the attribution of abstraction’s emergence to a single historical moment” (25). (In the introduction she assumes Khadda was referring to Kandinsky’s Untitled [Study for Composition VII, Premiere abstraction], which most art historians have dated to 1913.) In doing so she reveals, perhaps unintentionally, a tension that confronted many Arab artists in the decades following decolonization as they sought to develop new, “authentic” visual languages that were nonetheless conversant with international movements.