Arts, On Campus

‘Taking Shape’ Exhibit Shares Art From the Middle East

After nearly 11 months of online programming and virtual exhibitions, the McMullen Museum of Art opened its doors on Feb. 1 to the Boston College student body and staff who scheduled museum appointments. This new visitor policy is accompanied by the debut of the museum’s current exhibition, Taking Shape: Abstraction from the Arab World, 1950s-1980s

Originally curated by the Grey Art Gallery at New York University, Taking Shape is on display at McMullen in person until June 6 by appointment, but the museum will also offer virtual tours to the public beginning on March 4. 

Presenting the work of 58 unfamiliar artists from the Middle East, the exhibit offers a new lens through which to view the emergence of abstract art in the mid-20th century. The exhibit poses questions regarding the traditional Eurocentric narrative of the development of abstract art. 

“It is very important, I think, for university museums in particular to take the lead in showing work that otherwise hasn’t been accessible to American audiences,” Lynn Gumpert, co-curator of the exhibit and director of the Grey Art Gallery, said in a video on display at the exhibit. 

The exhibit emphasizes that traditional conceptions of abstract and modern art often center around European notions, yet artists from the Middle East, West Asia, and North Africa have such diverse artistic ranges and revolutory contributions to the modern art scene to offer to audiences. 

Although multiple ethnicities and religious backgrounds are connected in the Middle East, West Asia, and North African regions alone, the exhibit is coherently organized. The pieces, however, are not organized by these geographical divisions, which better allows spectators to create the thematic connections across that diaspora themselves. Some featured artists, like Yvette Achkar, are considered to be leading Arab modernists, yet they hail from other regions across the world. Achkar, for example, was born in São Paulo, Brazil to Lebanese parents. 

The viewing experience feels very personalized as a result, yet still didactic and intriguing. Some artists play with color, geometry, and calligraphy while others might employ a single shade and manipulate its opacity.

One fiercely red-orange canvas is sure to catch the eye. Unaccompanied by other neighboring pieces, the isolated painting, “Body Parts” by Huguette Caland (1971), draws the eye while walking through the exhibit. It’s not simply provocative because of the content itself, but also because of the artist’s ability to identify specific objects and depict images in modern art that are warped by abstraction. 

Nevertheless, Caland’s abstract interpretations of sensuality challenge our understanding of the human form. This approach pushes Caland, and viewers, to redefine sexuality. 

It becomes more obvious that even human imagination is grounded in some familiarity, and making space to accept other people’s imaginative, abstract creations is an important aspect of the entire Taking Shape exhibit.  

Pieces like Lebanese artist Nabil Nahas’ Untitled (Kitty Hawk) also visually support the multi-layered theme of abstract art from the Arab world. This acrylic on canvas painting evokes plenty of dimension and balances structure with simple geometry. Its blue backdrop greatly emphasizes the shapes and lines that are layered on top of the piece. 

In addition to displays of the art, Taking Shape also features interviews with some of the actual artists to round off the globally engaging experience. 

According to a press release from McMullen, the 1950s through the 1980s was a pivotal time for Arab-based artists to develop their own criticisms toward Western political and military involvement, decolonization, and migration, among other socio-economic factors. During this time, increasing globalization and international travel allowed artists to share their work with others around the globe through circulating exhibitions to learn about modern artistic movements outside of their regions. With increasing international reach, artists began to consider how their work functioned and influenced in a global context.

Photos Courtesy of Ikram Ali / Heights Editor

February 17, 2021