November 10, 2020
Congratulations to Lucie Taylor, first place winner in the Grey Art Gallery’s NYU Graduate Writing Prize competition; Ruqaiyah Zarook, second place winner; and David Lamb, honorable mention. The Prizes were awarded for the best essay or poem by an NYU graduate student in response to the exhibition Taking Shape: Abstraction from the Arab World, 1950s–1980s, which was on view at the Grey from January 14 to March 13, 2020. The show was forced to close early due to COVID-19, and entrants worked from the full suite of images, gallery labels, and other resources available on the Grey’s website. Contest judge was Lucy Oakley, Head of Education and Programs at the Grey.
Abstraction as a State of Preoccupation
by Ruqaiyah Zarook
When art historian Nada Shabout was looking for a university graduate program to pursue her research interest in modern Arab art, she was told that there was no such thing. That was over two decades ago, and yet to this day, we can still see and hear the murmurs of a similar kind of arrogance, that the Western art canon should take up more, if not all, of the space in our museums, and our art galleries, and our minds. But that center cannot hold anymore. This season of mass protests and our current reassessment of state institutions nods to that great era of decolonization in the mid-20th century, the famous revolutionary period that shook the world over fifty years ago. We see that same world trembling again now, and the Grey Art Gallery’s exhibition Taking Shape: Abstract Art from the Arab World, 1950s–1980s is one of those stark reminders that this era was widespread.
In the past, and certainly still, representations of what we know as the Middle East have been sub-par, one dimensional, flat, written by interlopers with little understanding of historical or political gradation. Knowledge of philosophical, artistic, and literary movements, anything of the cultural variety, was absent from the study of the Middle East; these were historiographical deserts that remained uninspected and unexamined. But when I see Calligraphic Compositions (1960–69) by Ahmad Shibrain, or Ibrahim El-Salahi’s The Last Sound (1964), or Asma Fayoumi’s oil painting, Ritha’ Madina (1968), I see the emergence of distinct post-colonial identities that show just how dry and neglected these knowledge deserts are, at least for us. These works of art don’t mince their (intangible) words when interweaving the politics, art, and social change that affected the lives of artists who created them. In fact, they’re so intertwined that the politics is in the paint itself, and in every horizontal, vertical, and diagonal stroke that’s been stabbed and glided over and over again.
Shibrain’s primeval map of Khartoum. El-Salahi’s cerebral passage of the soul drawing on themes of death, grief, and transcendence. Fayoumi’s architectural lines resembling a jungle summoning the poetry of Damascus’s cityscape. The soft and hard lines, the dragging and dripping of paint across canvas, the curves and squiggles, the muted and vibrant hues. All of these showcase the vitality, fertility, and vigour of art as consumed by us, just as important and intelligent and moving and interesting as any abstract art canon located over the imaginary hemispheric line of the Global North.
Art can be illustrative of the common humanity within us all; but perhaps this is too easy to say. Art also showcases our differences, our divides, the largely varied geopolitical and social backgrounds we come from, and perhaps we can’t always relate to each other, but really, who cares? Often, the notion of relating to each other through art comes through that process of comparing; comparing art to Picasso, or Braque, or Dali. Must we always try to cross these hemispheric lines from East to West and say, “Look! They draw and paint, just like us!”? But these artworks stand on their own feet, and wouldn’t it be amazing if we could consume art and taste it for what it is, as it exists in the moment of consumption?
So, what does it mean to respond to a work of art? And what does abstraction even mean? Why are these works of art abstracted, and to whom are they abstract? To define abstractions, one might say, is to make a piece of art devoid of representational quality, or something that exists only as an idea. I prefer the definition: “a state of preoccupation” to define abstraction. Perhaps these are abstractions from the Arab world in some sense, but mostly in the sense that they showcase the natural preoccupations of a miscellaneous group of individuals, lost and tired and inspired; they represent the convulsions and eviction of feelings onto a surface, dealing with that blurred line between the personal and intimate, and the political. What was it that Toni Morrison once said? Oh, that’s right: “All good art is political!” And I’m certainly not interested in art that tries to stand unanchored in this trembling world, either.
Ruqaiyah Zarook is a student in NYU’s MA program XE: Experimental Humanities and Social Engagement. She expects to receive her degree in May 2022.