Abstract and Arabic: “Take Shape” at the McMullen Museum

Between 1950 and 1980, the Arab world survived the world’s precarious geopolitical balance as the lines that distinguished East from West were redrawn. Imbued with the legacies of an unparalleled global mix, inheriting overlapping traditions and conflicting identities, Arab artists from India to Morocco, from Kuwait to Paris have been trained in modern techniques, painting in dialogue with canonical western developments. But while their works encompassed avant-garde creative visions from the West, even decades behind, their adaptations of indigenous motifs relayed the complexity of making art in the Arab world.

Abstraction, like most artistic terms, is a catch-all convenience for what, more accurately, encompasses a range of diverse, perhaps coded, representations of methodology and perception, with their puzzles of meaning, emotion or expression according to each specific work of art. “Taking Shape” verbalized its titular metaphor for abstract art as another way of saying that these artists told the stories of their coming together national and ethnic identities. Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi, founder of the Barjeel Art Foundation, who advised “Taking Shape”, confessed that it was difficult for him to focus on abstract art, his least preferred genre.

Rachid Koraiichi, “Without you, or me, or nostalgic hallucination”, 1986, ink on clay on wood. (Photo by Matt Hanson)

While it may be overly critical to assert that “Taking Shape” is an art-heavy branding of what in the United States remains the “developing world”, the radical retention of is not immune to generalization. In an explanatory video accompanying the exhibition’s prolific catalog of works, texts and interviews, Qassemi reveals that he would have preferred art with a more salient focus on themes relevant to the social sciences, for example. deeply subjective knowledge of the Arab world, live from the lives of its minorities, women and exiles.

While the “Arab” identity is at the forefront of the show with regard to the dominant and official languages ​​of the nations represented, its inclusion of artists who identify themselves or whose descendants are Amazigh (Berber), Armenians, Circassians, Jewish, Persian, Turkish, demonstrates the complication inherent in using a single category to understand, and even more problematic, to define where a person and their relationships with others begin and end. individualism is arguably a main motive in the pursuit of abstraction.

And true to the polymatic varieties of West Asian and North African intellectualism, many of the artists exhibited were authors of critiques, manifestos, and literature that detailed the breadth of their explorations and ideas. on the wholly shared power of individual thought and free expression, especially when held against the harsh light of nationalist politics and the conditioning of its often monolithic and xenophobic cultural upbringing. The many works by Palestinian artists at “Taking Shape” testify to the resilience of life in search of grace.

Air and earth

The two floors of galleries that make up “Taking Shape” on the bucolic downtown Boston College campus at the McMullen Museum of Art begin in the far west of the Arab world, in Morocco. In Arabic, the word for North Africa is “maghreb”, which literally means west, but also etymologically designates what is strange, foreign or otherwise. In Turkish, it is pronounced “garip” and can mean exoticism. Moroccan art flourished in modernism through the Casablanca school of the 1960s. The works of the co-founders Mohamed Melehi and Malika Agueznay are complementary in their vivifications of color, framing and op-art motif .

Agueznay found inspiration in the corresponding structures of calligraphy and seaweed as she stylized her distinctive abstract and religious naturalism with the sociocultural vibe of a newly independent Morocco, as an observer among her people, enjoying the invaluable and irreplaceable integrity of the local ecology with a collective sense of magic and the sacred. Calligraphy, or lettering, a direct translation of the “Hurufiyya” movement, is a common thread that connects artists from the Arab world, most of whom grew up or established themselves in logocentric circles of Islam.

“Taking Shape” recognizes the multi-faith web of its pale, in which Jews, Baha’is, Druze and other faiths struggle shoulder to shoulder with their fellow Muslims for those flashes of light that could give them a glimpse of their muse . In this case, the exhibition’s generous attention to women complements the idea that artists are like the canaries who enter first and head down into the mine of the future, prophetic in their leadership. Aleppo, became the first Iraqi woman to receive a government scholarship to study in Europe.

The “hurufiyya” artists of the literate movement came to strengthen a mid-century choir in Arab, Persian and Pakistani circles. Umar’s essay, “Arabic Calligraphy: An Inspiring Element in Abstract Art” was published in 1949, the year of his first solo exhibition in the United States at the Georgetown Neighborhood Library. His work in “Taking Shape” is an untitled 1978 watercolor on paper in which the lunar and planetary calligraphic marks are apparently habitable, their extraterrestrial proportions transcendent. Coming closer to tradition, the calligraphic renderings by Palestinian artist Kamel Boullata are curated within walking distance of Umar’s work.

Mohamed Melehi, 'Composition', 1970, acrylic on wood.  (Photo by Matt Hanson)

Mohamed Melehi, “Composition”, 1970, acrylic on wood. (Photo by Matt Hanson)

Boullata, who enjoys even posthumously the exhibition of a series of related works at the McMullen is known outside his visual art as a renowned scholar and author of “Palestinian Art, 1850-present” ( 2009). By 1983 he was producing lettering-style serigraphs, forming new variations on religious proclamations central to Islam and its centuries-old legacy of calligraphy. The geometric interplay of coloring and sequences of linguistic linearity that Boullata demands strongly opposes the parallel history of pop art in the West as mimetic and prescribed to a group of culturally specific consumers and agents.

In silent words

The deceptive simplicity of Arabic, as Umar wrote, is ideal for disregarding visual formality, its rudimentary alphabet of lines and dots borrowed from the ancient Phoenician and Nabataean civilizations of the Levant and the Arabian Peninsula. Yet artists born with Arabic on their tongue or in their ears have apparently turned to the endless diversification of his letters to combat the ethnocentric nationalism of his modern societies.

Much more than a show on calligraphic art visualizing the Arabic language again, “Taking Shape” is sensitive to the genesis pools of its artists, from Frank Stella and Josef Albers to the history of Japanese and Chinese art. The exotic appeal didactics of “Taking Shape” is symptomatic of the neglect that American curators have sought to ameliorate by rewriting the history of Western art in symbiosis with those never seen before. This is evident in the curating of the exhibition of “The Last Sound” (1964), an oil painting by Sudanese modernist Ibrahim El-Salahi, who in 2013 became the first African artist to win a solo retrospective. at Tate Modern.

About Wesley V. Finley

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