Conceptual Fine Arts recently spoke with Al Qassemi in Boston to discuss his vast collection of Arab modern art, a part of which is accessible in a travelling exhibition, “Taking Shape: Abstraction from the Arab World, 1950s-1980s” that’s on view at the Grey Art Gallery, New York University, through April 4, 2020.
I visited “Taking Shape” after “Theater of Operations,” and it was hard not to see the very optimism that permeated so many of these abstract works through the eyes of disillusionment.
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.)
Original program date: June 18, 2020. Between the 1950s and the 1980s, Arab countries were transformed through decolonization, the rise of nationalism, socialism, rapid industrialization, and wars and mass migrations. At the same time, artists were revitalizing their practices, finding inspiration in Arabic calligraphy, geometry and mathematics, and local topographies. Hannah Feldman, Associate Professor of Art History, Northwestern, focuses on abstract art in Algeria; and Alex Dika Seggerman, Assistant Professor of Islamic Art History, Rutgers University–Newark, on figurative art in Egypt. Moderated by Sarah-Neel Smith, Assistant Professor of Art History, Theory, and Criticism, Maryland Institute College of Art.
Original program date: June 4, 2020. Iftikhar Dadi, Associate Professor of History of Art, Cornell University, and Nada Shabout, Professor of Art History, University of North Texas, explore how the artists in Taking Shape “reterritorialized” the Arabic alphabet and made its aesthetic more accessible to the larger world, not only in detaching Arabic letterforms from Islamic calligraphy and religious history but also in liberating them from their semantic functions. In stripping Arabic letters of their former meanings, artists enabled them to signal modern (pan-)Arab identity and the decolonization of culture. Moderated by Pepe Karmel, Associate Professor of Art History, New York University.
Original program date: May 28, 2020. Sultan Sooud Al-Qassemi, founder of the Barjeel Art Foundation, discusses this independent, UAE–based initiative, which he established in 2009 to study, preserve, and exhibit modern art from the Arab world, and to foster critical conversations about regional modernisms. Suheyla Takesh, a curator at Barjeel and co-curator of Taking Shape, discusses her role in organizing the exhibition, framing her investigation of modernism’s development in mid-20th century North Africa and West Asia within today’s rethinking of the canon of abstract art. Moderated by Lynn Gumpert, director of NYU’s Grey Art Gallery and co-curator of the exhibition.
Watch a virtual tour of the exhibition "Taking Shape: Abstraction from the Arab World, 1950s–1980s."
May 19, 2020 By Géranne Darbouze Taking into account their geographic locations and their religious and political histories, artists from the Arab world occupy a unique position. As a result, many have dedicated their lives to highlighting injustice — among them Iraqi artist Dia al-Azzawi. Known for his abstract paintings, sculptures, and tapestries, Azzawi is […]
April 2020 The following conversation was produced by ArteEast, a leading New York-based not-for-profit organization founded in 2003 that is dedicated to engaging a growing audience with the contemporary arts from the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) and its diaspora. Through public programming, strategic partnerships, and dynamic online publications, ArteEast is a forum for […]
April 23, 2020 By Karim Zidan As in the rest of New York City, the crowd at the Grey Art Gallery was dense and tightly packed, a mixture of ages, backgrounds, and ethnicities gathered together at the opening reception for the exhibition Taking Shape: Abstraction from the Arab World 1950s–1980s, which took place on January […]