Taking Shape

Abstraction from the Arab World, 1950s–1980s

January 14–March 13, 2020

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

Related Press

Modern Arab art is having a moment; there is no question about it. In the past decade there have been large exhibitions of Arab artists at both the Centre Pompidou and Tate Modern, and a series of others across the world. Now, ‘Taking Shape: Abstraction from the Arab World, 1950s–1980s’, which starts at the Grey Art Gallery in New York and will spend more than a year touring East Coast and Midwestern universities in America, brings together some of the region’s finest modern artists. It is a real hit parade of work – some of it truly wonderful – from almost every country in the Arab world; Morocco, Egypt, Sudan, Kuwait, Lebanon, and Palestine are particularly well represented.

“Because many of these countries were entering the world arena as independent nations and young nation-states, 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.  

By Sam Freeman Northwestern’s Block Museum opened an exhibition that explores abstraction in the Arab world. Taking Shape: Abstraction from the Arab World, 1950s-1980s incorporates artworks that reflect the diversity of countries, cultures and artists in the Arab world. It also examines the ways Arab abstraction relates to the international art scene. Taking Shape began at NYU, where […]

Positing the question as to why abstraction, why then, why now, giving explanations as to its purpose, its meaning, looking for reasons, interpretations, definitions, does make for an engaging exhibition, but I often wonder if the viewer actually catches what’s rooted in the subtle, invisible space that the artist has opened for dialogue, for a moment to connect, to shift one’s thinking, to expand, to recognize other forms of possibilities.

By Lori Waxman “Taking Shape: Abstraction from the Arab World, 1950s-1980s” at the Block Museum offers so much more than what its subtitle describes. Anyone who loves, studies or makes nonrepresentational paintings ought to see this traveling exhibition, and not just for the sheer joy of a gorgeous show full of surprises. It is the […]

by Kerry Cardoza Taking Shape: Abstraction from the Arab World, 1950s–1980s (Block Museum) Nearly ninety works from the Barjeel Art Foundation feature nonfigurative work, incorporating Arabic calligraphy and Islamic decorative patterns into fresh interpretations of modernisms. Opens September 22, 2021 Read more

By Jared Bowen “Taking Shape: Abstraction from the Arab World, 1950s – 1980s,” on view at the McMullen Museum of Art through June 13. Discover a trove of abstract artwork never before seen in the United States at the McMullen Museum of Art. “Taking Shape: Abstraction from the Arab World, 1950s – 1980s” is a […]

From the 1950s, significant changes swept through the Arab world – the disintegration of colonial powers, industrialisation, war and the mass exodus of people. In this period until the 1980s, various modes of abstract art also began to spring up in the region. The artistic movements produced in these decades is the focus of the exhibition Taking Shape: Abstraction from the Arab World, 1950s to 1980s, which opens on January 14, 2020 at New York University’s Grey Art Gallery in Manhattan.

By Divya Bhardwaj Two and a half years after its originally scheduled inauguration in spring 2020, “Taking Shape: Abstraction from the Arab World, 1950s–1980s” has arrived at the Block Museum of Art. Students, faculty and community members gathered Wednesday evening to welcome the exhibit to Northwestern. “This exhibition brings to light the works of artists who […]

By Kyle MacMillan Sept 22-Dec. 4, “Taking Shape: Abstraction from the Arab World, 1950s-1980s,”Block Museum of Art, Northwestern University, 40 Arts Circle Drive, Evanston (blockmuseum.northwestern.edu). Mention abstraction in the United States, and visions of Richard Diebenkorn, Jackson Pollock and Clyfford Still immediately come to mind. But this artistic approach was hardly limited to this country. […]

By Stephanie Kulke Students from the MENA Student Association and the fall quarter art history course visited the Block Museum exhibition “Taking Shape” for a tour led by Barjeel Art Foundation founder Sheikh Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi. Al Qassemi, an Emirati columnist and researcher, is the founder of the Barjeel Art Foundation. All works in “Taking Shape” […]

One could not think of a more serendipitous backdrop — an acclaimed park, a cool neighbourhood and a cosmopolitan academic institution — for the exhibition billed ‘Taking Shape: Abstraction from the Arab world, 1950s-1980s’, slated to run from January 14 to April 4. On display is a collection of 90 works — all drawn from the Barjeel Art Foundation in Sharjah, UAE — featuring sundry artists from most countries in the Arab Middle East and North Africa.

In New York City this year, art made by Arab artists or focusing on themes about the Arab world will be a firm part of the art season’s roster of gallery shows and museum exhibitions. The number of shows, spanning both commercial and institutional spaces, points to a shift toward increased curiosity about Arab art—a field of modern and contemporary visual arts that has been largely unexplored and somewhat misunderstood by both galleries and collectors, and by academics who recognize art criticism’s oversight of the field.

By Joanna Scutts Now that back-to-school season is well underway, the cultural scene is roaring back from its summer (and Covid) slumbers. Across North America, September is a month packed with festivals, performances, and new exhibitions. So sharpen your pencils, hoist your cartable, and venture out with our guide to all things French for fall. See abstract […]

The emirate of Sharjah, in the United Arab Emirates, has made itself a major player in the burgeoning Gulf States contemporary-art scene, along with neighboring Dubai and Doha, Qatar. The Sharjah Biennial attracts artists, dealers, collectors, and curators from all over the world, while the Sharjah Art Museum presents an important collection of Middle Eastern modern and contemporary art. The Barjeel Art Foundation is a more personal project, comprising the collection of Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi, a member of the ruling family.

By Peter Schorsch The Tampa Museum of Art has opened a new exhibition, “Taking Shape: Abstraction from the Arab World, 1950s-1980s.” The exhibit explores nearly 80 works of abstract art from North Africa, West Asia and the Arab diaspora – encompassing diverse cultural, linguistic and religious backgrounds. Curated by Suheyla Takesh and Lynn Gumpert, the exhibit draws from the […]

From September 22 – December 4, 2022 the Block Museum of Art at Northwestern University will present Taking Shape: Abstraction from the Arab World, 1950s–1980s.  The exhibition 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 […]

Over the past decade, identity has dominated both political and cultural discourse in the US. With the new decade at a nascent stage, a former Georgetown instructor looks to use visual art to expand the scope of the identitarian dialogue, starting at New York University’s Grey Art Gallery with “Taking Shape: Abstraction from the Arab World, 1950s-1980s.” With its diverse array of pioneers on display, and the various schools of abstract art it promotes, the exhibition is an excellent window into the world of Arab art for connoisseurs and diletantes alike.

The Block’s Fall 2022 exhibition, Taking Shape: Abstraction from the Arab World, 1950s–1980s explores the wide range of nonfigurative art practices that flourished in the Arab world over the course of four decades. Looking critically at narratives of mid-20th-century abstraction, the exhibition rethinks art-historical canons and expands conversations around global modernisms. The exhibition keynote conversation on […]

Taking Shape: Abstraction from the Arab World, 1950s–1980s explores the development of abstraction in the Arab world via paintings, sculpture, and works on paper dating from the 1950s through the 1980s. By looking critically at the history and historiography of mid-20th century abstraction, the exhibition considers art from North Africa and West Asia as integral to the discourse on global modernism. At its heart, the project raises a fundamental art historical question: How do we study abstraction across different contexts and what models of analysis do we use?

Taking Shape was conceived as a visual journey into the creative minds of some of the Arab world's most prominent artists and their approaches to non-representational art. In her essay in the exhibition’s accompanying catalogue, curator Suleya Takesh quotes Algerian painter Mohammed Khadda’s compelling observations about the potential of abstraction and his argument in favor of the freedom inherent to the movement: "The history of painting had been one of successive revolutions and continuous liberation that eventually culminated in the emergence of abstraction, allowing painting to become an art unto itself, no longer reliant on a physical subject. There was no longer a horizon, but infinity."

Al Qassemi runs the Barjeel Art Foundation, a major collection of modern Arab artworks, many of which are semi-permanently installed in the Sharjah Art Museum in an exhibition A Century in Flux: Highlights from the Barjeel Collection. The foundation also has its works on tour. It opens a show in January at New York University’s exhibition space the Grey Art Gallery in Manhattan, called Taking Shape: Abstraction from the Arab World, 1950s to 1980s.

On the heels of the exhibition “Modernisms: Iranian, Turkish, and Indian Highlights from NYU’s Abby Weed Grey Collection,” which showcased works from the 1960s and ’70s, Grey Art Gallery’s first presentation of the year further widened the lens on 20th-century art from the Middle East, Asia, and North Africa. “Taking Shape: Abstraction from the Arab World, 1950s–1980s,” curated by Suheyla Takesh and Lynn Gumpert, represented a joint effort with the Sharjah-based Barjeel Art Foundation to consider modernist movements from the region and the diaspora.

In the spring of 1964, the Beirut-based, pan-Arab cultural journal Hiwar featured a portfolio of abstract paintings made between 1959 to 1964 by Egyptian artist Fouad Kamel. The journal, which was established two years prior by the poet Tawfiq Sayigh, often featured formally experimental art that diverged from the more politically committed art that dominated other Arab cultural journals. To preface the feature, Hiwar published Kamel’s experimental text on abstract painting, titled “Meaninglessness Within and Without.” In it, Kamel espouses a belief in being “unbounded by measures of reason and logic, merging movement and energy with the tremors of solid matter,” and “shedding descriptive observation and visual knowledge.”

Writing in 1964, the Algerian painter Mohammed Khadda (1930–1991) identified “that day in 1910 when the Russian artist [Wassily] Kandinsky created the first nonrepresentational work” as marking the birth of “nonfigurative (or abstract) painting.” (Note: For the sake of consistency, I have used the exhibition curators’ transliteration of artists’ names.)

Modern and contemporary art from North Africa and West Asia has historically had a troubled reception in Europe and North America, where until the past few decades such production was often rebuffed as derivative of Western styles and not authentically “Arab” enough. The new exhibition Taking Shape: Abstraction from the Arab World, 1950s–1980s (co-curated by Suheyla Takesh of the Barjeel Art Foundation, which owns the collection that is the basis of this show, and Lynn Gumpert of NYU’s Grey Art Gallery, where it just opened) defies any such hobbled thinking with rigorous ambition.

Anyone familiar with the UAE art scene has appreciated the fruits of Barjeel Art Foundation, the Sharjah-based organisation established by Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi in 2010 to manage and exhibit his personal art collection. Al Qassemi has acquired a magnificent collection of modern and contemporary Arab art, and made the work and its underlying art history accessible to the public through numerous initiatives, most recently with Sharjah Museums Authority.

By Caitlin Albritton Sometimes, all it takes is a series of connections to make big things happen. That’s exactly how and why the exhibition Taking Shape: Abstraction from the Arab World, 1950s-1980s, is now open through Jan. 16, 2022, at the Tampa Museum of Art. Organized by New York University’s Grey Art Gallery from the impressive collection of […]

The largest collection of Arabic abstract art is currently on display in Tampa at the Tampa Museum of Art. The exhibition called “Taking Shape: Abstraction from the Arab World, 1950s–1980s” contains pieces from the collection of the Barjeel Art Foundation. It features abstract art from the Arab nations, including Algeria, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, […]

By Sara Ibrahim The Block Museum’s fall exhibition, “Taking Shape: Abstraction from the Arab World, 1950s – 1980s,” opened on Thursday, Sept. 22 after being postponed for two years due to the COVID-19 pandemic. “Taking Shape” redefines the history of 20th century modernism by highlighting the works of artists from the region who have historically […]

By J.P. Anderson The Block Museum of Art unveils a dazzling new exhibition that explores the wonders of the Arab art scene. From Morocco and Palestine to Sudan, Qatar, Tunisia, Egypt and more, every fascinating corner of the Arab world is represented in the latest exhibition at Northwestern University’s Block Museum of Art. Taking Shape: Abstraction from […]