Taking Shape

Abstraction from the Arab World, 1950s–1980s

January 14–March 13, 2020

Taking Shape: Abstraction from the Arab World, 1950s–1980s

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Modern Arab art is having a moment; there is no question about it. In the past decade there have been large exhibitions of Arab artists at both the Centre Pompidou and Tate Modern, and a series of others across the world. Now, ‘Taking Shape: Abstraction from the Arab World, 1950s–1980s’, which starts at the Grey Art Gallery in New York and will spend more than a year touring East Coast and Midwestern universities in America, brings together some of the region’s finest modern artists. It is a real hit parade of work – some of it truly wonderful – from almost every country in the Arab world; Morocco, Egypt, Sudan, Kuwait, Lebanon, and Palestine are particularly well represented.

“Because many of these countries were entering the world arena as independent nations and young nation-states, one of their primary objectives was to begin defining themselves as being distinct peoples. A good way to do that is through culture and through art,” says Suheyla Takesh, a co-curator of “Taking Shape: Abstraction from the Arab World, 1950s–1980s” at New York University’s Grey Art Gallery.  

Positing the question as to why abstraction, why then, why now, giving explanations as to its purpose, its meaning, looking for reasons, interpretations, definitions, does make for an engaging exhibition, but I often wonder if the viewer actually catches what’s rooted in the subtle, invisible space that the artist has opened for dialogue, for a moment to connect, to shift one’s thinking, to expand, to recognize other forms of possibilities.

From the 1950s, significant changes swept through the Arab world – the disintegration of colonial powers, industrialisation, war and the mass exodus of people. In this period until the 1980s, various modes of abstract art also began to spring up in the region. The artistic movements produced in these decades is the focus of the exhibition Taking Shape: Abstraction from the Arab World, 1950s to 1980s, which opens on January 14, 2020 at New York University’s Grey Art Gallery in Manhattan.

One could not think of a more serendipitous backdrop — an acclaimed park, a cool neighbourhood and a cosmopolitan academic institution — for the exhibition billed ‘Taking Shape: Abstraction from the Arab world, 1950s-1980s’, slated to run from January 14 to April 4. On display is a collection of 90 works — all drawn from the Barjeel Art Foundation in Sharjah, UAE — featuring sundry artists from most countries in the Arab Middle East and North Africa.

In New York City this year, art made by Arab artists or focusing on themes about the Arab world will be a firm part of the art season’s roster of gallery shows and museum exhibitions. The number of shows, spanning both commercial and institutional spaces, points to a shift toward increased curiosity about Arab art—a field of modern and contemporary visual arts that has been largely unexplored and somewhat misunderstood by both galleries and collectors, and by academics who recognize art criticism’s oversight of the field.

The emirate of Sharjah, in the United Arab Emirates, has made itself a major player in the burgeoning Gulf States contemporary-art scene, along with neighboring Dubai and Doha, Qatar. The Sharjah Biennial attracts artists, dealers, collectors, and curators from all over the world, while the Sharjah Art Museum presents an important collection of Middle Eastern modern and contemporary art. The Barjeel Art Foundation is a more personal project, comprising the collection of Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi, a member of the ruling family.

Over the past decade, identity has dominated both political and cultural discourse in the US. With the new decade at a nascent stage, a former Georgetown instructor looks to use visual art to expand the scope of the identitarian dialogue, starting at New York University’s Grey Art Gallery with “Taking Shape: Abstraction from the Arab World, 1950s-1980s.” With its diverse array of pioneers on display, and the various schools of abstract art it promotes, the exhibition is an excellent window into the world of Arab art for connoisseurs and diletantes alike.

Taking Shape: Abstraction from the Arab World, 1950s–1980s explores the development of abstraction in the Arab world via paintings, sculpture, and works on paper dating from the 1950s through the 1980s. By looking critically at the history and historiography of mid-20th century abstraction, the exhibition considers art from North Africa and West Asia as integral to the discourse on global modernism. At its heart, the project raises a fundamental art historical question: How do we study abstraction across different contexts and what models of analysis do we use?

Taking Shape was conceived as a visual journey into the creative minds of some of the Arab world's most prominent artists and their approaches to non-representational art. In her essay in the exhibition’s accompanying catalogue, curator Suleya Takesh quotes Algerian painter Mohammed Khadda’s compelling observations about the potential of abstraction and his argument in favor of the freedom inherent to the movement: "The history of painting had been one of successive revolutions and 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. There was no longer a horizon, but infinity."

Al Qassemi runs the Barjeel Art Foundation, a major collection of modern Arab artworks, many of which are semi-permanently installed in the Sharjah Art Museum in an exhibition A Century in Flux: Highlights from the Barjeel Collection. The foundation also has its works on tour. It opens a show in January at New York University’s exhibition space the Grey Art Gallery in Manhattan, called Taking Shape: Abstraction from the Arab World, 1950s to 1980s.

On the heels of the exhibition “Modernisms: Iranian, Turkish, and Indian Highlights from NYU’s Abby Weed Grey Collection,” which showcased works from the 1960s and ’70s, Grey Art Gallery’s first presentation of the year further widened the lens on 20th-century art from the Middle East, Asia, and North Africa. “Taking Shape: Abstraction from the Arab World, 1950s–1980s,” curated by Suheyla Takesh and Lynn Gumpert, represented a joint effort with the Sharjah-based Barjeel Art Foundation to consider modernist movements from the region and the diaspora.

In the spring of 1964, the Beirut-based, pan-Arab cultural journal Hiwar featured a portfolio of abstract paintings made between 1959 to 1964 by Egyptian artist Fouad Kamel. The journal, which was established two years prior by the poet Tawfiq Sayigh, often featured formally experimental art that diverged from the more politically committed art that dominated other Arab cultural journals. To preface the feature, Hiwar published Kamel’s experimental text on abstract painting, titled “Meaninglessness Within and Without.” In it, Kamel espouses a belief in being “unbounded by measures of reason and logic, merging movement and energy with the tremors of solid matter,” and “shedding descriptive observation and visual knowledge.”

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.)

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.

Anyone familiar with the UAE art scene has appreciated the fruits of Barjeel Art Foundation, the Sharjah-based organisation established by Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi in 2010 to manage and exhibit his personal art collection. Al Qassemi has acquired a magnificent collection of modern and contemporary Arab art, and made the work and its underlying art history accessible to the public through numerous initiatives, most recently with Sharjah Museums Authority.