by Matt Hanson
A historical group show of paintings from across the Arab world, “Taking Shape,” curated by Sheila Takesh and Lynn Gumpert at Boston College’s McMullen Museum of Art represents a new historiography of modernism
In the years between 1950 and 1980, the Arab world survived the world’s precarious geopolitical balance as the lines that distinguished East from West were being redrawn. Suffused with heritages of unrivaled global mixture, inheriting overlapping traditions and conflicting identities, Arab artists from India to Morocco, Kuwait to Paris pursued educations in modern techniques, painting in dialogue with canonical Western developments. But while their oeuvres encompassed avant-garde creative visions from the West, even if some decades late, their adaptations of indigenous motifs relayed the complexity of making art in the Arab world.
Abstraction, like most art terms, is a catch-all convenience for what, more exactly, includes a range of diverse, perhaps coded, representations of methodology and perception, with their puzzles of meaning, emotion or expression according to each specific artwork. “Taking Shape” verbalized its titular metaphor for abstract art as another way to say that these artists told the stories of their national and ethnic identities in the process of coming together. Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi, founder of Barjeel Art Foundation, who advised on “Taking Shape,” confessed that it was a stretch for him to focus on abstract art, his least favorite genre.
While it might be overcritical to state that “Taking Shape” is a heavy-handed branding of art from what, in the U.S., remains the “developing world,” the sweeping curation of is not immune to generalization. In an explanatory video accompanying the show’s prolific catalog of works, texts and interviews, Qassemi reveals that he would have preferred art with a more salient focus on themes pertinent to the social sciences, for example. And yet throughout, “Taking Shape” instills its audience of walking eyes with a profoundly subjective knowledge of the Arab world, direct from the lives of its minorities, women and exiles.
While the identity, “Arab,” is at the forefront of the show with respect to the mainstream and official languages of the nations represented, its inclusion of artists who identify or whose descendants are Amazigh (Berber), Armenian, Circassian, Jewish, Persian, Turkish, demonstrates the inherent complication of using a single category to understand, and even more problematically, to define where a person and their relations to others begins and ends. The impetus to create beyond knowable forms of social representation, towards a visibility of pure individualism is arguably a primary motive in the pursuit of abstraction.
And true to the polymathic varieties of West Asian and North African intellectualism, many of the artists exhibited were authors of criticism, manifestos and literature that detailed the extent of their explorations and insights into the utterly shared power of individual thought and free expression, especially when held against the hard light of nationalist politics and the conditioning of its often monolithic and xenophobic cultural education. The many works by Palestinian artists at “Taking Shape” are a testament to the resilience of life in search of grace.
Of air and earth
The two floors of galleries that comprise “Taking Shape” on the bucolic, inner-city campus of Boston College at the McMullen Museum of Art begin at the westernmost edge of the Arab world, in Morocco. In Arabic, the word for North Africa is “maghreb”, which literally means west, but also etymologically denotes that which is strange, foreign or other. In Turkish, it is pronounced, “garip,” and can signify the exotic. Moroccan art blossomed into modernism through the Casablanca School of the 1960s. Artworks by co-founders Mohamed Melehi and Malika Agueznay are complementary in their vivifications of op-art color, framing and pattern.
Agueznay found inspiration in the corresponding structures of calligraphy and algae as she stylized her distinctive abstract, religious naturalism to the sociocultural ambiance of a newly independent Morocco, as one observer among her people, appreciating the precious and irreplaceable integrity of the local ecology with a collective sense of magic and the sacred. Calligraphy, or letterism, a direct translation of the “Hurufiyya” movement, is a common thread that connects artists of the Arab world, most of whom are raised, or come to themselves within the logocentric backgrounds of Islam.
“Taking Shape” recognizes the multi-faith web of its pale, in which Jewish, Bahai, Druze and other faiths struggle, shoulder-to-shoulder with their Muslim compatriots for those slivers of light that might afford them a glimpse of their muse. In which case, the exhibition’s generous attention to women complements the idea that artists are like the canaries that go first and headlong into the mine of the future, prophetic in their leadership. Such was the case for calligraphic painter Madiha Umar, who, born in Aleppo, became the first Iraqi woman to receive a government scholarship to study in Europe.
“Hurufiyya” artists of the letterism movement came to bolster a midcentury chorus within the Arab, Persian and Pakistani milieus. Umar’s essay, “Arabic Calligraphy: An Inspiring Element in Abstract Art” was published in 1949, the year of her first U.S. solo show at the Georgetown Neighborhood Library. Her piece at “Taking Shape” is an untitled watercolor on paper from 1978 in which lunar and planetary calligraphic markings are seemingly inhabitable, their proportions extraterrestrial, transcendent. Brushing closer with tradition, the calligraphic renderings of Palestinian artist Kamel Boullata are curated just steps from Umar’s work.
Boullata, who enjoys, however posthumously, the display of a series of related pieces at the McMullen is known outside of his visual art as a renowned scholar and the author of “Palestinian Art, 1850-present” (2009). In 1983, he was producing silkscreen prints in the manner of letterism, forming novel variations on religious proclamations essential to Islam and its time-honored legacy of calligraphy. The geometric interplay of coloration and sequences of linguistic linearity that Boullata exacts sharply counterpose the parallel history of pop art in the West as mimetic and prescribed to an in-group of culture-specific consumers and agents.
In silent words
The deceptive simplicity of Arabic, as Umar has written, is ideal for the cause of abstracting on visual formality, its rudimentary alphabet of lines and dots borrowed from ancient the Phoenician and Nabatean civilizations of the Levant and Arabian peninsula. Yet, artists born with Arabic on their tongues or in their ears have apparently turned to the infinite diversification of its letters to grapple with the ethnocentric nationalism of its modern societies.
Far more than a show about calligraphic art visualizing the Arabic language afresh, “Taking Shape” is sensitive of its artists’ pools of genesis, from Frank Stella and Josef Albers to Japanese and Chinese art history. The didactics of exotic appeal for “Taking Shape” is symptomatic of the neglect that curators in America have sought to ameliorate by rewriting of Western art history as a symbiosis with those previously unseen. This is evident in the show’s curation of “The Last Sound” (1964), an oil painting by Sudanese modernist Ibrahim El-Salahi, who, in 2013, became the first African artist to earn a solo retrospective at Tate Modern.