Taking Shape: Abstraction from the Arab World 1950s–1980s, a landmark exhibition currently on display at New York University’s Grey Gallery, presents an extensive evolutionary narrative of the development of abstraction by Arab artists.
The Algerian artist Mohammed Khadda wrote in a 1964 essay that artists must seek a new function for art as the dawn of a post-revolutionary socialist era began to emerge around him. He argued that art can have other purposes than those that aid propaganda, and that the evolution of art has allowed for new forms of art beyond the figurative. Abstract art, he wrote, has “a horizon of infinity.”
Suheyla Takesh, lead curator of the exhibition, cites Khadda’s essay in her introductory essay in the exhibition catalogue, and it seems that Khadda’s proposition guided much of her intelligent curation of this selection of works drawn from the collection of the Barjeel Art Foundation, in Sharjah. Takesh took painstaking care to highlight Arab artists’ innovation and ingenuity as they explored a post-figurative approach to artmaking by riffing, so to speak, on art forms and techniques already present in their everyday visual culture.
These forms included calligraphy and script—something taken for granted today, owing to the ubiquity of artists who have redefined the creation of font and script stylization over the past 60 years—in addition to Berber pictograms, as in the case of artworks by the Moroccan Ahmed Cherkaoui; graphic design sensibilities as evidenced by the use of words and phrases by the Palestinian artist Kamal Boullata; abstract figuration by the Lebanese artist Huguette Caland; and responses to historic works of art such as Abdallah Benanteur’s work To Monet, Giverny (1983), a painterly reflection on Monet’s impressionistic renditions of his now-famous garden and waterlilies.
Catalysts of Creation
To list what artistic detail makes each work that has been included in the exhibition a significant contributor to the genre would be a banal exercise in comparison to highlighting the sociopolitical factors and artistic coincidences that catalyzed the creation of the works on display. It is the inclusion of biographical and career details in the wall texts that serve as supporting evidence of the curator’s intention to make the case that Arab abstraction developed in parallel to Western abstraction rather than as a derivative example of the genre.
There are clear markers of the artists’ own sociopolitical and national locality in the works on display, and of the exchange and dialogue that happened between the various Arab states as artists studied in art schools in different neighboring countries and under the tutelage of different teachers.