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

Tuesday, Apr 28 – Jul 26, 2020

Northwestern University
40 Arts Circle Dr.
Evanston, IL 60201

Main Gallery

From the 1950s through the 1980s, painters and sculptors throughout the Arab world explored the challenges and possibilities of abstraction in art. “Taking Shape”, an exhibition of works from the collection of the Barjeel Art Foundation in Sharjah, United Arab Emirates (UAE), presents the work of Middle Eastern and North African artists whose creative visions stretched beyond the boundaries of representation. Including artists originating from or working in Algeria, Egypt, Iraq, Kuwait, Lebanon, Morocco, Palestine, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia and the UAE, this exhibition, organized by the Grey Art Gallery at NYU, reveals the global reach and regional importance of abstraction in the 20th century.

Ranging from the hard-edged to the dreamlike, the nearly 80 works in “Taking Shape” reveal a variety of formal approaches and cultural sources. Compositions by Omar El Nagdi of Egypt and Hussein Madi of Lebanon take inspiration from Arabic calligraphic forms, while human and animal contours emerge from the canvases of Iraqi painter Dia Azzawi and Kuwaiti mixed-media artist Munira al-Kazi. Elsewhere, the exhibition explores intricate geometries of color and line, as in the silkscreens of Palestinian artist Kamal Boullata. From earthly to celestial, fluid to precise, the works in “Taking Shape” suggest the inexhaustible richness of non-objective approaches to painting, sculpture and printmaking.

Though abstract, these diverse works reflect the larger cultural, intellectual and spiritual negotiations of the Arab world in the 20th century. “Taking Shape” illuminates these broad horizons, introducing visitors to the diverse schools and movements that developed within and across these nations in a time of heightened international dialogue and diaspora. 

The exhibition will be on view at Grey Art Gallery at NYU from Jan. 14 to April 4, 2020 before coming to The Block. The exhibition is curated for The Block by Kathleen Bickford Berzock, associate director of curatorial affairs and Michael Metzger, Pick-Laudati Curator of Media Arts.


Image: Omar el Nagdi, Untitled, 1970 (detail)