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 until 4 april 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.
The first floor is arranged round a central axis of abstract paintings that take their inspiration from Arabic-Islamic traditions. From Kamal Boullata’s witty Pop-art takes on Kufic panels to Rachid Koraïchi’s mixing of Chinese and Arabic letterforms, the exhibition charts the development of hurufiyya (‘letterism’), a broad term for the artistic experiments with Arabic letterforms that took place in this period.
The Last Sound (1964), Ibrahim El-Salahi. Barjeel Art Foundation, Sharjah. Grey Art Gallery, New York University
The large square canvas of Ibrahim El-Salahi’s The Last Sound (1964) embodies many themes brought out in this room. This legendary Sudanese artist clusters a series of shapes evoking Arabic letterforms as well as the sun and crescent moon around a shining central point that also evokes an African mask.
Past this central axis are two smaller rooms which tell a different story of Arabic abstraction, one with more familiar touchstones for a Western visitor. On one side Abdallah Benanteur’s vibrantly coloured, impressionistic canvas To Monet, Giverny (1983) is hung among other paintings that fit more easily into the European tradition. On the other side are Saloua Raouda Choucair’s cubist Composition in Yellow (1962–65) and Jafar Islah’s Colors with Black and Gray (1968), a painting explicitly inspired by Paul Klee.
Autumn in Yosemite Valley (1963–64), Etel Adnan. Barjeel Art Foundation, Sharjah. Grey Art Gallery, New York University
Then, after a brief trip through the Casablanca School, the visitor heads downstairs to a less obviously thematic collection of work that includes a small but stunning painting by Etel Adnan, perhaps the greatest living Lebanese painter.
All the works here have come from the Barjeel Art Foundation, an institution created to house the personal collection of Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi, a member of Sharjah’s ruling family who has done more than almost anyone recently to promote modern Arab art. It is emblematic of the shift that the art market and a lot of Arabic cultural life have made towards the Gulf in recent years, a development that has often elicited mixed reactions. On the one hand, there is a worry that Arab cultural heritage may become concentrated in one small area and that art could become subservient to the politics of Qatar and the UAE. On the other hand, it is hard not to see snobbery in accusations of ‘new money’ and, sometimes, a certain racism in the charge that people in the Gulf are trying to buy culture they do not have.
But at least, this exhibition gives people the chance to see some of the gems in the most important collection of modern art in the region.
Sans toi, ni moi ou l’hallucination nostalgique (Without You, or Me, or the Nostalgic Hallucination) (1986), Rachid Koraïchi. Barjeel Art Foundation, Sharjah. Grey Art Gallery, New York University
Source: Raphael Cormack