Sep 28th 2022

This program will feature recorded remarks from Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi, founder of the Barjeel Art Foundation, and Suheyla Takesh, curator of Taking Shape, and a conversation among Northwestern scholars exploring the exhibition’s core questions and resonances in our context, including Rebecca C. Johnson (Northwestern Director of the Middle East and North African Studies Program, Associate Professor of English), Caroline Kent (Visual Artist, Northwestern Assistant Professor of Art, Theory, and Practice), Michael Rakowitz (Visual Artist, Northwestern Alice Welsh Skilling Professor of Art, Theory, and Practice), and Sarah Dwider (Block Museum 2021–22 Graduate Fellow and Northwestern PhD Student, Department of Art History). Conversation moderated by Hannah Feldman (Northwestern Associate Professor of Art History).


Programs are open to all, on a first-come first-served basis. RSVPs not required, but appreciated.


About the Exhibition

Taking Shape: Abstraction from the Arab World, 1950s–1980s 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 by artists from countries including Algeria, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Morocco, Palestine, Qatar, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), the exhibition is drawn from the collection of the Barjeel Art Foundation based in Sharjah, UAE. The paintings, sculpture, drawings, and prints on view here reflect the wide range of nonfigurative art practices that flourishes in the Arab world over the course of four decades.

Decolonization, the rise and fall of Arab nationalisms, socialism, rapid industrialization, wars and mass migrations, and the oil boom transformed the region during this period. With rising opposition to Western political and military involvement, many artists adopted critical viewpoints, striving to make art relevant to their own locales. New opportunities for international travel and the advent of circulating exhibitions sparked cultural-educational exchanges that exposed them to multiple modernisms—including various modes of abstraction—and led them to consider their roles within an international context.

The featured artists—a varied group of Arab, Amazigh (Berber), Armenian, Circassian, Jewish, Persian, and Turkish descent—sought to localize and recontextualize existing 20th-century modernisms, some forming groups to address urgent issues. Moving away from figuration, they mined the expressive capacities of line, color, and texture. Inspired by Arabia calligraphy, geometry and mathematics, Islamic decorative patterns, and spiritual practices, they expanded abstraction’s vocabulary—thus complicating its genealogies or origin and altering how we view non-objective art.

At its heart, Taking Shape raises a fundamental question: How do we study abstraction across different contexts, and what modes of analysis do we use? Looking critically at the history and historiography of mid-20th-century abstraction, the exhibition rethinks art-historical canons and expands the discourses around global modernisms.

Participating Artists

Chafic Abboud, Hamed Abdalla, Yvette Achkar, Etel Adnan, Maliheh Afnan, Malika Agueznay, Shakir Hassan Al Said, Dia Azzawi, Ezequiel Baroukh, Farid Belkahia, Néjib Belkhodja, Fouad Bellamine, Abdallah Benanteur, Kamal Boullata, Huguette Caland, Mohamed Chebaa, Ahmed Cherkaoui, Saloua Raouda Choucair, Saliba Douaihy, Muhanna Durra, Simone Fattal, Asma Fayoumi, Abdel Hadi el-Gazzar, Jilali Gharbaoui, Samia Halaby, Mohammed Hamidi, Menhat Helmy, Adam Henein, Jafar Islah, Ibrahim Ismail, Saadi al-Kaabi, Munira al-Kazi, Mohammed Khadda, Helen Khal, Rachid Koraïchi, Miloud Labied, Hussein Madi, Najat Makki, Seta Manoukian, Mohamed Melehi, Omar El Nagdi, Nabil Nahas, Rafa Nasiri, Hind Nasser, Samir Rafi, Aref El Rayess, Ufemia Rizk, Mahmoud Sabri, Ibrahim El-Salahi, Juliana Seraphim, Hassan Sharif, Hussein Shariffe, Ahmad Shibrain, Madiha Umar, Wijdan, Ramses Younan, Jassim Zaini, Afaf Zurayk.

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