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Exhibition rethinks mid-century abstract art in Middle East and beyond
Saliba Douaihy (Lebanon), Untitled, c. 1960–1969. Oil on canvas board, 19 3/8 x 23 1/2 in. Collection of the Barjeel Art Foundation, Sharjah, UAE.

NEW YORK, NY.- 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?

Examining how and why artists investigated the expressive capacities of line, color, and texture, Taking Shape highlights a number of abstract movements that developed in the Middle East, North Africa, and West Asia, as well as the Arab diaspora. Across these regions, individual artists and artist collectives grappled with issues of authenticity, national and regional identity, and the decolonization of culture. Drawn from the collection of the Barjeel Art Foundation based in Sharjah, United Arab Emirates, the exhibition features nearly 90 works by a diverse group of artists such as Etel Adnan, Shakir Hassan Al Said, Kamal Boullata, Huguette Caland, Ahmed Cherkaoui, Saloua Raouda Choucair, Rachid Koraïchi, Mohamed Melehi, and Hassan Sharif, among others. On view are works produced by artists from countries including Algeria, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Morocco, Palestine, Qatar, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, and United Arab Emirates. Curated and organized by Suheyla Takesh, Curator at the Barjeel Art Foundation, and Lynn Gumpert, Director of the Grey Art Gallery at New York University, the exhibition will be on view from January 14 through April 4, 2020.

Taking Shape investigates the principles and meaning of abstraction in the context of the Arab world during the 1950s through the 1980s, a period that was significantly shaped by decolonization; the rise and fall of Arab nationalism(s); socialism; rapid industrialization; multiple wars and subsequent mass migration; the oil boom; and new state formations in the Arab/Persian Gulf. By the mid-20th century—and in parallel to growing opposition to Western political and military involvement in the region—many artists in the Arab world began to adopt a much more critical viewpoint toward culture, striving to make art relevant to their own political, cultural, and historical contexts. New opportunities for international travel during these years, and the rise of the circulating exhibition, also gave way to new forms of cultural and educational exchanges that allowed artists to encounter multiple modernisms—including various modes of abstract art—and to consider the role of the artist in the contemporary international landscape.

“Via a critical examination of abstraction in the collection of the Barjeel Art Foundation, the exhibition invites a (re)consideration of the attribution of abstraction’s emergence to a single historical moment.” Takesh explains. “In its own way of emulating the artistic practices of the time, the exhibition is also a vantage point on how contemporary discourse on global modernisms and decentralized genealogies of abstraction is unfolding or, in a nod to the title of the show, taking shape.”

Lynn Gumpert adds, “The Grey Art Gallery takes great pride in partnering with the Barjeel Art Foundation. It is very appropriate that, as a university museum, the Grey broadens vistas and looks closely at art made over the four decades in question by individuals that come from so many different nations, with different belief systems and histories. We chose an exhibition title, Taking Shape, that recognizes and conveys to the public that our approach to abstraction in the Arab world is not static—even with regard to the art of this defined time frame—but is, rather, in formation.”

A major facet of abstraction in the Arab world is linked to a fascination with the artistic and formal potential of the Arabic letterform. In a departure from classical Islamic calligraphy, a new art movement called Hurufiyya was born, which engaged with the Arabic language as a visual and compositional element. Formal explorations of Arabic alphabets emerged concurrently in several parts of the Islamic world in the 1950s, and Iraqi artist Madiha Umar is often cited as a progenitor of the movement. Umar’s work features manipulated letterforms, deconstructed and overlaid on top of each other to create curvilinear compositions that echo the swirls and rhythms inherent to the script and the gesture of writing itself. While classical Arabic calligraphy is traditionally associated with religious Islamic texts, Hurufiyya artists transformed Arabic letterforms into abstract compositions that could be more readily appreciated by diverse audiences. As scholar Nada Shabout notes, “Liberating the [Arabic] letter from calligraphic rules detached it from the sacred and allowed it to be seen for its plastic qualities.” Yet many artists, including Egyptian Omar El-Nagdi and Sudanese Ibrahim El-Salahi, did not completely divorce themselves from religious or spiritual undertones. El-Nagdi’s artistic explorations between the early 1960s and late 1970s were inextricably linked to Islamic thought and Sufi rituals, characterized by rhythmic abstractions that bear formal semblance to the first letter of the Arabic alphabet, alif, also the first letter in the word Allah (god). El-Salahi’s rhythmic articulation of Arabic alphabets and abstraction of African sculptural forms in his 1964 work The Last Sound references the final sound of a soul’s passage from the corporeal plane to the spiritual plane, and underscores the artist’s commitment to creating art through a spiritual process. Distinct from other artists presented in the exhibition, the Palestinian painter Kamal Boullata engaged not just with individual Arabic letters, but whole phrases, which were often well-known verses derived from Islamic and Christian sacred texts.

New artist groups arose across the Arab world during this period to address the issue of how to localize and recontextualize existing 20th-century modernisms. The Baghdad Group for Modern Art, founded in 1951, sourced Mesopotamian archeological objects and locally-found motifs—such as ancient cuneiform symbols—to inform their aesthetic. Shakir Hassan Al Said, one of the group’s most prominent members, also displayed an affinity with Hurufiyya. In the 1960s, when Al Said become interested in Sufism and the spiritual potentialities of art, he published the “Contemplative Art Manifesto,” in which he advocates for a meditative and transcendental approach to art. Al Said’s work during this period manifests his practice of scratching, carving, burning, and otherwise altering the artwork surface to create amorphous compositions that appear to reference the cosmos itself.

The Casablanca School in Morocco, an avant-garde artist collective founded in 1965, promoted inquiry into local heritage to cultivate authentic visual languages and material palettes suited to their cultural and political contexts. Formed by artists including Mohamed Chebaa, Farid Belkahia, and Mohamed Melehi, among others, the school’s philosophy centered on its commitment to the study of local Islamic and Amazigh culture, which its members saw as inherently tied to nonrepresentational modes of expression. Through examination of Morocco’s traditional geometric painting, engraving, mosaic ornament, and carpets, as well as Islamic patterns and Amazigh tattoo symbols, the Casablanca School’s turn to abstraction was driven by a desire for a methodology that had historical relevance and recalled the local culture that existed prior to colonization. Chebaa’s highly geometric works evoke architectural plans and schematized topographies; his 1970s work Composition is rendered as a wooden relief sculpture, underscoring the school’s link to artisanship and crafts. Belkahia turned to the craft traditions of the medina for his work, using natural dyes painted on vellum and animal skin rather than oil on canvas to create his contemplative compositions. The brightly colored curvilinear compositions of Melehi reflect both the form and movement of sea waves and the gesture of inscribing Arabic calligraphy.

Similar to that of the Casablanca School, the work of the Aouchem group based in Algeria sought to reinterpret local symbolism and body art through abstract compositions. The group, whose name means “tattoo” in Arabic, was active for a short period from 1967 until 1971. While not a signatory of the Aouchem manifesto, Mohammed Khadda echoed the group’s central ideas of contemplating the mystical dimensions of runes and symbols of Amazigh culture. His works feature graphic signs evocative of calligraphic pictograms, painted over a surface of earth tones.

For many 20th-century artists in the Arab world who were making nonfigurative work, geometry and mathematics were guiding principles. These artists often drew inspiration from Islamic decorative patterns, architecture, carpets, and textiles. Lebanese artist Saloua Raouda Choucair developed her own unique language of abstract, interlocking forms that had no specific reference to objects, place, or language. Choucair’s geometric canvases and organic sculptures reveal a deeply intellectual and holistic approach that combines influences from mathematics, philosophy, science, architecture, and spirituality. As Suheyla Takesh notes, “Mathematics served as a practical tool for artists in search of these paragons, both for its precision and for its potential to curtail human error.” The geometric still lifes by Palestinian artist Samia Halaby, produced following the artist’s trips to Egypt, Syria, and Turkey in 1966 to study Islamic architecture and geometric design, explore how the color of painted volumes affects the illusion of depth. Lebanese artist Saliba Douaihy, a contemporary of Choucair’s who emigrated to the U.S. in 1950, produced hard-edged and brightly colored geometric compositions that were also influenced by landscape. Douaihy cites the Mediterranean Sea as a source of inspiration for many of his minimalist abstract paintings. Etel Adnan, another Lebanese painter, also created works influenced by landscape, particularly locations that held personal significance. Writer Kaelen Wilson-Goldie notes the significance of abstracted landscapes among these artists: “It may be the Arab world’s particular take on the art of landscape that it must be abstracted because it has been lost—lost to Adnan and Douaihy, lost more recently to generations of Palestinians and Iraqis and Syrians.”

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