The Block Museum’s fall exhibition, “Taking Shape: Abstraction from the Arab World, 1950s – 1980s,” opened on Thursday, Sept. 22 after being postponed for two years due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Taking Shape” redefines the history of 20th century modernism by highlighting the works of artists from the region who have historically been written out of dominant narratives of art history.

The exhibit showcases nearly 90 abstract works from North Africa, West Asia and the Arab diaspora, drawn from the Barjeel Art Foundation based in Sharjah, United Arab Emirates.

Over 120 people packed into the museum’s auditorium on Wednesday, Sept. 28 for the exhibit's debut conversation. The night opened with remarks from the director of the Block Museum, the museum’s academic curator and the Barjeel Art Foundation's founder.

“Development of abstract expressionism was taught as an art that led from Europe to New York, where it became a visual manifestation of American innovation and American exceptionalism,” said Lisa Corrin, the museum director. She explained that this exhibit aims to “decolonize the study of mid-century art."

Northwestern scholars, Rebecca C. Johnson, Caroline Kent, Michael Rakowitz, Sarah Dwider, served as panelists for the opening dialogue of “Taking Shape”, moderated by Hannah Feldman. Photo Credit: Sara Ibrahim

Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi, founder of the Barjeel Art Foundation, shared in pre-recorded remarks that the exhibit was created to encompass and amplify the greatest number of voices from the region as possible.

“[This exhibit] dispels a lot of notions and stereotypes about my region,” Al Qassemi said. “It shows a time where people of different faiths and different cultures come together.”

Al Qassemi also emphasized the diversity in voices shared in this exhibit, which includes art from Armenian artists, Jewish artists and Amazigh (Berber) artists, as well as a “significant presence of women artists” all from the region.

Corinne Granof, the Block’s academic curator, said this is the Block's first exhibit dedicated to presenting art from the Arab World during her 20+ years working at Northwestern.

The artwork features bold geometric patterns, rich colors and expressive Arabic calligraphy. Within the artwork, there are figures inspired by Sufi spirituality, Quranic verses and Berber symbols. The mediums used in the exhibit are unique to the region, such as henna and papyrus. The art also subtly conveys themes centering national heritage, identity and liberation.

Many pieces incorporated elements from the Hurufiyya movement, synthesizing Arabic calligraphy with modern and abstract art.

‘Untitled’ by Omar el Nagdi, displays elements from the Hurufiyya movement with the repetition of the Arabic numeral one, wahed. Photo Credit: Sara Ibrahim

Hidden messages and political commentary are in the background of the artwork, as countries in West Asia and North Africa began gaining independence and undergoing the process of decolonization during the 1950s - 1980s. Identity movements such as the pan-Arab and pan-African movements also began to flourish – highly influencing artists during the course of these four decades.

Samir Rafi, one of the artists featured in the exhibit, is believed to have used abstraction as a way to make political arguments that avoided the Egyptian government’s crackdown on opposition. Abdallah Benanteur’s piece "The Garden of Saadi" is believed to refer to the Algerian liberation movement through the subtle reference in the title to Saadi Yacef, a prominent leader of the movement.

The Block Museum will hold further programming including artists' talks, gallery talks, live Middle Eastern music and a guided gallery tour for the Middle Eastern North African Student Association.

”Taking Shape” has traveled all over the United States for the past two years. It began at the Grey Gallery at New York University, then went to other universities in Boston, Tampa and Ithaca, with the latest stop here at Northwestern.

“Taking Shape” is on display at the Block Museum from Sept. 22 to Dec. 4, free and open to all.