Distilled Lessons: Abstraction in Arab Modernism at Mathaf
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The Arab Museum of Modern Art (Mathaf) presents Distilled Lessons: Abstraction in Arab Modernism. Curated by Amin Alsaden, this group exhibition explores experiments in abstraction that make Arab modernism differ from its counterparts around the world. The show will be open to the public until 5 March 2024. 

In the exhibition, one has the opportunity to admire the works by Dr Wafa al-Hamad (Qatar), Thuraya Hassan Al-Baqsami, Shakir Hassan Al-Said, Samia Halaby, Omar El-Nagdi, Saloua Raouda Choucair, Madiha Umar, Ibrahim El-Salahi, and Charles Hossein Zenderoudi. The exhibited art pieces, which are drawn from Mathaf’s collection, demonstrate how Arab artists have drawn ideas, visual elements, and techniques from the rich heritage of the Arab-Muslim world, especially calligraphy and ornamentation.

Distilled Lessons: Abstraction in Arab Modernism (installation view). Mathaf, Doha, Qatar, 2023.

About the artists

Thuraya Hassan Al-Baqsami (b. 1952, Kuwait City, Kuwait), a printmaker, painter, and writer who still resides in her hometown, is among the Gulf’s pioneering contemporary artists. In her work, she focuses on faces and the human. Al-Baqsami witnessed the 1990-1991 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, which had a lasting impact on her art. She described her experiences in her book Cellar Candles (1993) and received the Kuwaiti State Prize for it.

Shakir Hassan Al-Said (b. 1925, Samawah, Iraq – 2004) was a painter, sculptor, writer, philosopher, art critic, art historian, and writer. One of Iraq’s most innovative artists, he took part in the formation of two art groups that impacted post-colonial art in his home country. Al-Said’s work was influenced by European avant-garde art movements such as Expressionism and Cubism. He also drew inspiration from his Arabic-Islamic heritage and pop culture. After he got interested in Sufism in the 60s, the artist started to integrate Arabic letters as a visual element in his compositions. 

Shakir Hassan Al-Said, Untitled, 1976. Mixed media on wood. 106 x 184 cm | 41 3/4 x 72 1/2 in

Samia Halaby (b. 1936, Palestine) is an artist, writer, educator, activist, and scholar based in New York (USA). In her work, she uses the elements found in reality and their interaction with vision, perception, and illusion creating depth and movement in flat spaces. Halaby’s geometric compositions are inspired by early Islamic architecture, European avant-garde movements, and the nature of Palestine.

Samia Halaby, For Jean Gordon, 1990. Acrylic on canvas. 86 x 117 cm | 34 x 46 in

Omar El-Nagdi (b. 1931, Cairo, Egypt – 2019) was an esteemed artist, philosopher, and musician, whose practice drew from Cubism, Expressionism, and the tradition of Egyptian wall decoration. He is famous for a series of artworks based on singular forms of calligraphy. El-Nagdi produced rhythmic abstract works based on the repetition of the Arabic numeral for “one” (wahed), which shares its form with alef, the first letter of the Arabic alphabet. 

Omar El Nagdi, Untitled 1, 1970. Acrylic on canvas. 88 × 88 cm | 34 3/5 × 34 3/5 in

Saloua Raouda Choucair (b. 1916, Beirut, Lebanon – 2017) was a pioneering abstract artist who produced paintings, sculptures, textile works, homeware and jewellery designs, illustrations, and architectural models. Her work was inspired by Arab-Islamic history and the philosophy of Sufism. Choucair believed that the rejection of form led to the search for the essence of what was meant to be expressed and that this was a fundamental way of understanding Arab intellectual thought.

Madiha Umar (1908, Aleppo, Ottoman Empire – 2005) is considered the first Arab artist to have incorporated calligraphy with abstract art, which makes her the precursor to the Hurufiyya movement characterised by the use of calligraphic writing, in which one would simplify Arabic script into abstract shapes. The first woman to receive an Iraqi government scholarship to study art in Europe, she graduated from the Maria Grey Training College (London (UK). Umar aimed to emancipate letters from the methodological restrictions of calligraphic art. In some of her works, letters do not form themselves into words; they appear detached, floating in the space of the paintings, infusing the compositions with a sense of movement and rhythm.

Madiha Umar, Untitled (The Letter Ein), 1986. Oil on canvas, 74.5 x 85 x 4 cm 

In his work, Ibrahim El-Salahi (b. 1930, Omdurman, Sudan), a renowned painter, combines painting and drawing often using motifs from African, Arab and Islamic art as well as Western references. He is one of the artists who founded the Khartoum School movement (part of African Modern art). The other two founders were Ahmed Shibrain and Kamala Ishag. The School used primitive and Islamic imagery and the Hurufiyya aesthetic.

Charles Hossein Zenderoudi (b. 1937, Tehran, Iran) is a painter, calligrapher, and sculptor who lives and works between Paris (France) and New York (USA), is a pioneer of Iranian modern art. Interested in Iranian-Islamic traditions, he created the Saqqa-Khaneh movement in the late 50s. It was rooted in a history of coffee-house paintings and Shia Islam visual elements and focused on the incorporation of national, folkloric, and religious elements into contemporary Iranian art.

Charles Hossein Zenderoudi, FIRST NAME, 1977. Acrylic on canvas. 51 1/8 X 76 3/4 in

To learn more about Distilled Lessons: Abstraction in Arab Modernism, please visit the exhibition’s official web page.

You might also be interested in visiting Lasting Impressions: Samia Halaby.