Taking Shape: Abstraction from the Arab World, 1950s–1980s explores mid-20th-century abstract art from North Africa, West Asia, and the Arab diaspora—a vast geographic expanse that encompasses diverse cultural, ethnic, linguistic, and religious backgrounds. Comprising nearly 90 works by artists from countries including Algeria, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Morocco, Palestine, Qatar, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), the exhibition is drawn from the collection of the Barjeel Art Foundation based in Sharjah, UAE. The paintings, sculpture, drawings, and prints on view here reflect the wide range of nonfigurative art practices that flourishes in the Arab world over the course of four decades.
Decolonization, the rise and fall of Arab nationalisms, socialism, rapid industrialization, wars and mass migrations, and the oil boom transformed the region during this period. With rising opposition to Western political and military involvement, many artists adopted critical viewpoints, striving to make art relevant to their own locales. New opportunities for international travel and the advent of circulating exhibitions sparked cultural-educational exchanges that exposed them to multiple modernisms—including various modes of abstraction—and led them to consider their roles within an international context.
The featured artists—a varied group of Arab, Amazigh (Berber), Armenian, Circassian, Jewish, Persian, and Turkish descent—sought to localize and recontextualize existing 20th-century modernisms, some forming groups to address urgent issues. Moving away from figuration, they mined the expressive capacities of line, color, and texture. Inspired by Arabia calligraphy, geometry and mathematics, Islamic decorative patterns, and spiritual practices, they expanded abstraction’s vocabulary—thus complicating its genealogies or origin and altering how we view non-objective art.
At its heart, Taking Shape raises a fundamental question: How do we study abstraction across different contexts, and what modes of analysis do we use? Looking critically at the history and historiography of mid-20th-century abstraction, the exhibition rethinks art-historical canons and expands the discourses around global modernisms.
After debuting at the Grey Art Gallery at New York University from January 14 through April 4, 2020, Taking Shape traveled to the McMullen Museum of Art, Boston College: Feb. 1–June 13, 2021; Tampa Museum of Art: Sept. 30, 2021–Jan. 16, 2022; Herbert F. Johnson Museum, Cornell University: Feb. 12–June 12, 2022; Block Museum of Art, Northwestern University: Sept. 22—Dec. 4, 2022
Chafic Abboud, Hamed Abdalla, Yvette Achkar, Etel Adnan, Maliheh Afnan, Malika Agueznay, Shakir Hassan Al Said, Dia Azzawi, Ezequiel Baroukh, Farid Belkahia, Néjib Belkhodja, Fouad Bellamine, Abdallah Benanteur, Kamal Boullata, Huguette Caland, Mohamed Chebaa, Ahmed Cherkaoui, Saloua Raouda Choucair, Saliba Douaihy, Muhanna Durra, Simone Fattal, Asma Fayoumi, Abdel Hadi el-Gazzar, Jilali Gharbaoui, Samia Halaby, Mohammed Hamidi, Menhat Helmy, Adam Henein, Jafar Islah, Ibrahim Ismail, Saadi al-Kaabi, Munira al-Kazi, Mohammed Khadda, Helen Khal, Rachid Koraïchi, Miloud Labied, Hussein Madi, Najat Makki, Seta Manoukian, Mohamed Melehi, Omar El Nagdi, Nabil Nahas, Rafa Nasiri, Hind Nasser, Samir Rafi, Aref El Rayess, Ufemia Rizk, Mahmoud Sabri, Ibrahim El-Salahi, Juliana Seraphim, Hassan Sharif, Hussein Shariffe, Ahmad Shibrain, Madiha Umar, Wijdan, Ramses Younan, Jassim Zaini, Afaf Zurayk.
Samia Halaby (Palestinian) White Cube in Brown Cube, 1969
Mohamed Melehi (Moroccan), Composition, 1970
Omar el Nagdi (Egyptian), Untitled, 1970
Etel Adnan (Lebanese), Autumn in Yosemite Valley, 1963–1964
Nabil Nahas (Lebanese), Untitled, 1983
Abdallah Benanteur (Algerian), To Monet, Giverny, 1983
Kamal Boullata (Palestinian) Al-Zahir-al-Batin (The Manifest, The Hidden), 1983
Saloua Raouda Choucair (Lebanese) Interform, 1960
Huguette Caland (Lebanese) City II, 1968
Ahmed Cherkaoui (Moroccan) Les miroirs rouges (Red Mirrors), 1965
Ibrahim El-Salahi (Sudanese) The Last Sound, 1964
Mohammed Khadda (Algerian) Abstraction vert (Green Abstraction), 1969
Mohamed Chebaa (Moroccan) Composition, c. 1970
Saliba Douaihy (Lebanese) Untitled, c. 1960–1969
Taking Shape: Abstraction from the Arab World, 1950s–1980s is accompanied by a 256-page publication. Co-published by Hirmer Publishers and the Grey Art Gallery, New York University, the book was co-edited by Suheyla Takesh, Curator at the Barjeel Art Foundation,and Lynn Gumpert, Director of the Grey Art Gallery at New York University. Also featured are essays by Iftikhar Dadi, Associate Professor in the History of Art and Visual Studies department and Director of the South Asia Program, Cornell University; Salah M. Hassan, Goldwin Smith Professor of African and African Diaspora Art History and Visual Culture, Director of the Institute for Comparative Modernities, Cornell University; Hannah Feldman, Associate Professor of Art History, Northwestern University; Anneka Lenssen, Assistant Professor in the History of Art department, University of California, Berkeley; Salwa Mikdadi, Associate Professor, Practice of Art History, NYU Abu Dhabi; Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi, founder of the Barjeel Art Foundation and lecturer and researcher on social, political, and cultural affairs in the Arab Gulf States; Nada Shabout, Professor of Art History and Coordinator of the Contemporary Arab and Muslim Cultural Studies Initiative (CAMCSI), University of North Texas; Kaelen Wilson-Goldie, a writer based in Beirut and New York; and Suheyla Takesh.
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Taking Shape: Abstraction from the Arab World, 1950s–1980s is organized by the Grey Art Gallery, New York University, and curated by Suheyla Takesh and Lynn Gumpert. Major support for the exhibition is provided by the Barjeel Art Foundation. Additional generous support is provided by the Charina Endowment Fund; the Violet Jabara Charitable Trust; the Grey’s Director’s Circle, Inter/National Council, and Friends; and the Abby Weed Grey Trust. The Block’s presentation of the exhibition is supported in part by the Myers Foundations and the Illinois Arts Council Agency.