The mid-twentieth century was a tumultuous time for the 22 countries of the Arab world. It was a period of decolonization and industrialization, of war and mass migration. It saw the rise of socialism, the global oil boom and the formation of new nations.
“Because many of these countries were entering the world stage as independent nations and young nation-states, one of their main goals was to begin to define themselves as distinct peoples. A good way to do this is through culture and art,” says Suheyla Takesh, co-curator of “Taking Shape: Abstraction from the Arab World, 1950s-1980sat the Gray Art Gallery of New York University.
As its name suggests, the exhibition traces the rise of non-figurative art produced in Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon and other countries in North Africa, West Asia and the Arab diaspora. . Nearly 90 paintings, sculptures and other works populate the walls and floor of the exhibition, all from the collection of the Barjeel Art Foundation, an independent organization dedicated to Arab art located in Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). .
“A lot of art schools and collectives formed during this time as people tried to figure out what it meant to be, say, an Iraqi artist or an Egyptian artist,” adds Takesh. “Much of this period saw artists return to their local histories and heritage to revive innovative ways of creating new site-specific modernism.”
Takesh, the foundation’s sole curator, teamed up with Grey’s director Lynn Gumpert to make “Taking Shape.” The ambitious subject had not been discussed in detail before and required a lot of new research, starting more than two and a half years before the opening. (A large catalog edited by Gumpert and Takesh was published alongside the exhibition.)
Despite the considerable investment of resources involved, says Gumpert, such work is vital now as we rewrite our collective understanding of modernism through a global – not strictly Western – lens.
“We have all been trained in the history of Western art; we had no other art history to turn to,” explains Gray’s director. “It’s finally starting to fall apart and other stories are being written. We hope this show will add to that momentum.
Founded around the personal collection of Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi, a member of Sharjah’s ruling family known for its global efforts to promote Arab art and culture, the Barjeel Art Foundation has over 1,000 works of art in its collections.
“We were lucky that the body of work was so diverse,” says Takesh. “It forced us to look at the different and more specific stories as well as the personal stories of the artists and their development as individuals.”
Indeed, a wide variety of approaches to abstraction are represented in “Taking Shape”, inspired by everything from mathematics, geometry and spiritualism to Arabic calligraphy and Islamic decorative patterns. Often, the formal techniques go back to the regional heritage.
For example, cuneiform has had a great influence on Iraqi artists, while traditional Amazigh patterns can be seen in art made in North Africa. For other artists represented in the exhibition, the turn towards abstraction was a political gesture, intended to contradict the popularity of social realism that accompanied the rise of communism and socialism.
The deconstruction of the Arabic alphabet is another theme that runs throughout the show, as is the desert landscape and its monochrome palette.
It is tempting to read the developments in these countries against the well-mapped evolution of abstraction in Euro-American art, from Wassily Kandinsky to Picabia, Picasso, Pollack, etc. The comparison can be problematic insofar as it defers to Western art as the dominant narrative. Yet at the same time, Gumpert notes, many artists in the Arab world were keenly aware of developments in modern art elsewhere.
“One of the things we found was that a lot of these artists themselves were aware of [the cross-cultural conversation] because they attended Western-style art academies,” she explains. Many artists have drawn inspiration both from Europe and from the architectural, textile and other applied arts heritage of their own countries.
“A lot of their sources happen to be already unrepresentative,” Takesh adds. “So the work that came out of it is what people trained in Western art history would call abstract, even though some artists have said that abstraction as such was not their goal. The goal was to create work relevant to their context, which most of the time was unrepresentative.
Ultimately, “Taking Shape” shows that art history itself is abstract. It’s as hard to define as any paint on the walls of Gray.
“Art history likes to make categories that are beautiful movements, one following and reacting to the other,” Gumpert says, “but art itself is much messier.”
“Taking shape: abstraction from the Arab world, 1950s-1980sis on view through April 4, 2020 at New York University’s Gray Art Gallery.
Follow Artnet News on Facebook:
Want to stay one step ahead of the art world? Subscribe to our newsletter to receive breaking news, revealing interviews and incisive reviews that move the conversation forward.