AMMAN – The new year is just around the corner to welcome the third decade of the millennium in celebration of Arab art history. The Sharjah-based Barjeel Art Foundation and New York University’s Grey Art Gallery have joined forces to present a one of a kind touring exhibition showcasing the history of Abstract Art from the Arab world.

Ibrahim El-Salahi (Sudan), The Last Sound, 1964. Oil on canvas, 121.6 x 121.6 cm. Collection of the Barjeel Art Foundation, Sharjah, UAE

Taking Shape: Abstraction from the Arab World, 1950s-1980s will be open to the public around different US university and college museums from January 14th, 2020 to September 19th, 2021. After debuting at the Grey Art Gallery at New York University from January 14th through April 4th, 2020, Taking Shape will travel to the Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art, Northwestern University, where it will be on view from April 28 through July 26, 2020, and then to the Herbert F. Johnson Museum at Cornell University from August 22 through December 13, 2020. In 2021 the exhibition will travel to the McMullen Museum of Art at Boston College, where it will be displayed from January 25 through June 6, and will shortly thereafter be on view at the University of Michigan Museum of Art from June 25 through September 19, 2021.

Mohamed Melehi (Morocco) Composition, 1970 Acrylic on wood, 120 x 100 cm. Collection of the Barjeel Art Foundation, Sharjah, UAE.

The exhibition features nearly 90 works by a diverse group of artists such as Etel Adnan, Shakir Hassan Al Said, Kamal Boullata, Huguette Caland, Ahmed Cherkaoui, Saloua Raouda Choucair, Rachid Koraïchi, Mohamed Melehi, and Hassan Sharif, among others. On view are works produced by artists from countries including Algeria, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Morocco, Palestine, Qatar, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, and United Arab Emirates.

Taking Shape questions the different contexts and models of analysis used to study Abstract works of art. The exhibition will showcase different works belonging to multiple Arab art schools such as the Hurufiyya movement, the Baghdad Group for Modern Art, the Casablanca School and the Aouchem group. Within the scope of each abstract movement, the artists’ different uses of line, colour and texture are examined to see how nonfigurative art was portrayed and developed across the Middle East, North Africa and West Asia regions in the early-mid second half of the 20th century.

Huguette Caland (Lebanon) City II, 1968 Oil on canvas, 80 x 100 cm. Collection of the Barjeel Art Foundation, Sharjah, UAE

The touring exhibition investigates the principles and meaning of abstraction in the context of the Arab world during the 1950s through the 1980s, a period that was significantly shaped by decolonization; the rise and fall of Arab nationalism(s); socialism; rapid industrialization; multiple wars and subsequent mass migration; the oil boom; and new state formations in the Arab/Persian Gulf. By the mid-20th century—and in parallel to growing opposition to Western political and military involvement in the region—many artists in the Arab world began to adopt a much more critical viewpoint toward culture, striving to make art relevant to their own political, cultural, and historical contexts. New opportunities for international travel during these years, and the rise of the circulating exhibition, also gave way to new forms of cultural and educational exchanges that allowed artists to encounter multiple modernisms—including various modes of abstract art—and to consider the role of the artist in the contemporary international landscape.

Taking Shape is curated and organized by Suheyla Takesh, Curator at the Barjeel Art Foundation, and Lynn Gumpert, Director of the Grey Art Gallery at New York University. It promises to unfold the rich artistic history of the Arab region to a wider international audience.

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Image courtesy of the Barjeel Art Foundation.