Wars and migration, decolonization and industrialization in the middle of the 20th century with 22 countries of the Arab world. This was also a period of socialism, a global boom in oil and the creation of new nations.
One of these countries participates in the world arena as an independent and young nation. One of their primary objectives was to begin defining themselves as being distinct peoples. A good way to do that is through culture and through art,” says Suheyla Takesh, a co-curator of “Taking Shape: Abstraction from the Arab World, 1950s–1980s” at New York University’s Grey Art Gallery.
Nearly 90 paintings, sculptures, and other works populate the exhibition’s walls and floor. All of which were taken from the collection of the Barjeel Art Foundation, an independent organization dedicated to Arab art located in Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
Takesh, the sole curator at the foundation, teamed up with the Grey’s director, Lynn Gumpert, to realize “Taking Shape.” The ambitious topic hadn’t been tackled in detail before and necessitated a great deal of new scholarship, starting more than two-and-a-half years prior to the opening.
Despite the considerable investment of resources required, Gumpert says, such work is vital now as we rewrite our collective understanding of modernism through a global—not strictly Western—lens.
“We all were trained in Western art history; there was no other art history for us to turn to,” says the Grey director. “That’s finally starting to break down and there are other histories being written. We hope that this show adds to that momentum.”
A member of the ruling Sharjah family has made a global effort to promote Arab art and culture. The Barjeel Art Foundation counts more than 1,000 artworks in its holdings.
“We were lucky that the body of work was so diverse,” says Takesh. “It forced us to look into the differing, more specific histories as well as the artists’ personal histories and their development as individuals.”
Art paintings inspired by mathematics, geometry and spirituality to Arabic calligraphy and Islamic decorative patterns. Often, formal techniques can be traced back to regional heritage.
For instance, cuneiform was a big influence for Iraqi artists. In additions, traditional amazigh patterns can be seen throughout art made in North Africa.
The deconstruction of the Arabic alphabet is another theme that courses throughout the show, as is the desert landscape and its monochromatic pallet.
There’s a temptation to read the developments in these countries against the well-charted evolution of abstraction in Euro-American art, from Wassily Kandinsky to Picabia, Picasso, Pollack, and so on. The comparison may be problematic insofar as it defers to Western art as the dominant narrative. Gumpert noted that many artists in the Arab world already know a lot about developments in modern art elsewhere.
“One of the things we found was that many of these artists themselves were aware of [the cross-cultural conversation] because they attended Western-style art academies,” she explains. Inspirations from Europe and architectural and textile heritage are used by many artists.
“It just so happens that a lot of their sources are already non-representational,” adds Takesh. “So the work that came out is what people trained in Western art history would call abstract. Even though some artists have said that abstraction as such wasn’t their goal. The goal was making work that was relevant to their context, which a lot of the time happened to be non-representational.”
“Art history likes to make categories that are nice movements, one following and reacting to the other,” says Gumpert, “but the art itself is much messier.”