Ahmed Cherkaoui, (Boujad, Morocco, 1934–Casablanca, 1967), Les miroirs rouges (Red Mirrors), 1965

Block Museum of Art, Northwestern University presents

Taking Shape:

Abstraction from the Arab World


Etel Adnan (Beirut, 1925–Paris, 2021) Autumn in Yosemite Valley, 1963–64 Oil on canvas
Etel Adnan, (Beirut, 1925–Paris, 2021), Autumn in Yosemite Valley, 1963–64

A groundbreaking exhibition drawn from the collection of the Barjeel Art Foundation based in Sharjah, United Arab Emirates.

The exhibition explores mid-20th-century abstract art from North Africa, West Asia, and the Arab diaspora, including works by postcolonial Moroccan artist Mohamed Melehi and renowned Palestinian artist Maliheh Afnan.



'Composition' by Mohamed Melehi (Asilah, Morocco, 1936–Paris, France, 2020). Acrylic on wood, 1970
‘Composition’ by Mohamed Melehi (Asilah, Morocco, 1936–Paris, France, 2020), 1970

The show comprises nearly 90 works by artists from countries including Algeria, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Morocco, Palestine, Qatar, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The paintings, sculpture, drawings, and prints on view here reflect the wide range of nonfigurative art practices that flourishes in the Arab world over the course of four decades.

Decolonization, the rise and fall of Arab nationalisms, socialism, rapid industrialization, wars and mass migrations, and the oil boom transformed the region during this period. With rising opposition to Western political and military involvement, many artists adopted critical viewpoints, striving to make art relevant to their own locales. New opportunities for international travel and the advent of circulating exhibitions sparked cultural-educational exchanges that exposed them to multiple modernisms—including various modes of abstraction—and led them to consider their roles within an international context.

The featured artists—a varied group of Arab, Amazigh (Berber), Armenian, Circassian, Jewish, Persian, and Turkish descent—sought to localize and recontextualize existing 20th-century modernisms, some forming groups to address urgent issues. Moving away from figuration, they mined the expressive capacities of line, color, and texture. Inspired by Arabia calligraphy, geometry and mathematics, Islamic decorative patterns, and spiritual practices, they expanded abstraction’s vocabulary—thus complicating its genealogies or origin and altering how we view non-objective art.

Huguette Caland, (Beirut, 1931–2019), City II, 1968
Huguette Caland, (Beirut, 1931–2019), City II, 1968

At its heart, Taking Shape raises a fundamental question: How do we study abstraction across different contexts, and what modes of analysis do we use? Looking critically at the history and historiography of mid-20th-century abstraction, the exhibition rethinks art-historical canons and expands the discourses around global modernisms.


Chafic Abboud, Hamed Abdalla, Yvette Achkar, Etel Adnan, Maliheh Afnan, Malika Agueznay, Shakir Hassan Al Said, Dia Azzawi, Ezequiel Baroukh, Farid Belkahia, Néjib Belkhodja, Fouad Bellamine, Abdallah Benanteur, Kamal Boullata, Huguette Caland, Mohamed Chebaa, Ahmed Cherkaoui, Saloua Raouda Choucair, Saliba Douaihy, Muhanna Durra, Simone Fattal, Asma Fayoumi, Abdel Hadi el-Gazzar, Jilali Gharbaoui, Samia Halaby, Mohammed Hamidi, Menhat Helmy, Adam Henein, Jafar Islah, Ibrahim Ismail, Saadi al-Kaabi, Munira al-Kazi, Mohammed Khadda, Helen Khal, Rachid Koraïchi, Miloud Labied, Hussein Madi, Najat Makki, Seta Manoukian, Mohamed Melehi, Omar El Nagdi, Nabil Nahas, Rafa Nasiri, Hind Nasser, Samir Rafi, Aref El Rayess, Ufemia Rizk, Mahmoud Sabri, Ibrahim El-Salahi, Juliana Seraphim, Hassan Sharif, Hussein Shariffe, Ahmad Shibrain, Madiha Umar, Wijdan, Ramses Younan, Jassim Zaini, Afaf Zurayk.




SELECTIONS is a platform for the arts, focusing on the Arab World.

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