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

Omar El-Nagdi (Egypt) Untitled,
September 20-December 4, 2022
Main Gallery
Omar El-Nagdi (Egypt) Untitled, 1970 Mixed media on wood, 47 x 47 in. Collection of the Barjeel Art Foundation, Sharjah, UAE

From the 1950s through the 1980s, painters and sculptors throughout the Arab world explored the thrilling challenges and possibilities of abstraction in art. Taking Shape, an exhibition of works from the collection of the Barjeel Art Foundation, tells the story of Middle Eastern and North African artists whose creative vision stretched beyond the boundaries of representation. Including artists originating from or working in Algeria, Egypt, Iraq, Kuwait, Lebanon, Morocco, Palestine, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, to the United Arab Emirates, this exhibition, organized by the Grey Art Gallery at NYU, reveals both the global reach and regional importance of abstraction in the 20th century.

Ranging from the hard-edged to the dreamlike, the nearly 80 works in Taking Shape reveal an astonishing variety of formal approaches and cultural sources. Compositions by Ahmad Shibrain of Sudan and Hussein Madi of Lebanon take inspiration from Arabic calligraphic forms, while human and animal contours emerge from the canvases of Iraqi painter Dia Azzawi and Kuwaiti mixed-media artist Munira al-Kazi. Elsewhere, the exhibition explores intricate geometries of color and line, as in the silkscreens of Palestinian artist Kamal Boullata. From earthly to celestial, fluid to precise, the works in Taking Shape suggest the inexhaustible richness of non-objective approaches to painting, sculpture, and printmaking.

The elemental systems devised by these artists belie the complexity of the world they perceived. Though abstract, these diverse works nonetheless reflect the larger cultural, intellectual, and spiritual negotiations of the Arab world in the 20th century. Taking Shape illuminates these broad horizons, introducing visitors to the diverse schools and movements that developed within (and across) these nations in a time of heightened international dialogue and diaspora.