City 2, an abstract oil painting by Huguette Caland made in 1968. features stripes of blues, blacks, creams, whites, and browns that resemble skyscrapers
Huguette Caland’s 1968 oil painting City II Credit: Courtesy the Block Museum

It’s rare for me to be surprised by a painting show, but I didn’t see “Taking Shape” coming. The exhibition is a generous survey of abstract art made from the 1950s to the 1980s, drawn from the collection of the Barjeel Art Foundation based in Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates. “Taking Shape” includes the work of over 50 artists, representing more than a dozen countries throughout the Middle East and North African (MENA) region. Some of the artists have had successful art careers, but none enjoys name recognition in America like Pollock or Kandinsky. I know of few prior attempts to take a snapshot of nonfigurative art from midcentury MENA artists.

In many parts of the world, art has traditionally been employed to illuminate faith or governmental sovereignty. That’s not to say that Malevichs weren’t used to promote the Soviet state or that de Koonings weren’t employed as propaganda for the U.S., because they were, but that wasn’t always the intent of either of those artists. The idea that an artist’s work is solely an expression of their own feelings or ideas, apart from the society they belong to, wasn’t common or accepted in the countries represented in this show.

Interform, a wood sculpture by Lebanese artist Saloua Raouda Choucair Credit: Courtesy the Block Museum

Much of the difficulty in contextualizing these paintings is the very different political situations in each artist’s home country. A succession of upheavals, from colonial subjugation to experiments in socialism and democracy, to lapses into theocratic rule, are the experiences under which this work evolved. In the bios of most painters included in the show, there’s time spent at art school or travel to Europe or the U.S. early in their development. Whatever the impact or influence of this foreign approach, it seems each artist spent the rest of their career reconciling it to their own native traditions.

Walking through the galleries I spotted echoes of abstract expressionism, color field painting, suprematism, and other recognizable Western styles, but the closer I looked the less familiar they became. An amazing thing happens when a person picks up a brush: even if they’re trying their best to imitate something they admire, their own unique signature is spelled out all over the canvas. No two people can ever paint a picture the same way.

“Taking Shape: Abstraction from the Arab World, 1950s-1980s”
Through 12/4: Wed-Fri noon-8 PM, Sat-Sun noon-5 PM, The Block Museum,
40 Arts Circle Dr., Evanston, 847-491-4000, blockmuseum.northwestern.edu

Highlights include Hamed Abdalla’s 1975 work Al-Tamazzuq (The Rupture), a wide-brushed evocation of Arabic letterform set on a cracked blue background. Shakir Hassan Al Said’s 1983 work Al-Muntassirun (The Victorious) reminds me of a scuffed-up and graffitied city wall. Huguette Caland’s Bribes de Corps (1971) is a playful riff on a favorite part of the human anatomy, and Etel Adnan’s Autumn in Yosemite Valley (1964) is a quilt-like composition that suggests both leaves and landscape. When I go back to see the show next time, I know I’ll find half a dozen other favorites. Each wall of the show had paintings that made me stop and linger.

Egyptian artist Omar el Nagdi created this untitled mixed media on wood work in 1970. Credit: Courtesy the Block Museum

Abstract art’s greatest strength is also its fatal flaw. Because there’s nothing in a nonobjective picture that can be conclusively defined as meaning one thing rather than another, it can be used to stand for whatever one would like it to. That’s how a Pollock drip painting can represent breaking free from the bonds of European easel painting and be used to fight the perceived atheistic threat posed by the Soviet Union during the Cold War at the same time. An added wrinkle in this case is the influence of traditional Islamic law, which forbids graven images fashioned by human hand, believing images to be the province of the divine. I doubt every artist included painted their canvases for the glory of God, but their abstract form allows for such an interpretation.

Gathered together by Sultan Sooud al Qassemi in the UAE and sent on a tour through the U.S., I assume there’s some diplomatic intent to this exhibition, but thanks to the nonfigurative styles represented that intent can’t be spelled out and cannot diminish the quality of the art on its own terms. Paintings, books, music, and other cultural products are often used as a kind of soft power, to exert influence on behalf of those that commissioned or otherwise made them possible. Whatever the Barjeel Art Foundation’s purpose, the result is a revelatory introduction to a body of work few in the West will be familiar with. The uncanny impression I left with was of spending time with pictures I didn’t know I knew. Like seeing a foreign landscape or a stranger’s face and recognizing it all the same.