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Groundbreaking Exhibition’s Exclusive New England Display:
Taking Shape: Abstraction from the Arab World, 1950s–1980s 

February 1–June 6, 2021
Exhibition Rethinks Mid-Century Abstract Art from the Middle East, Introduces Artists to US Audiences

CHESTNUT HILL, MA (January 2021)—The McMullen Museum of Art at Boston College will present the exclusive New England display of Taking Shape: Abstraction from the Arab World, 1950s-1980s. On view February 1–June 6, 2021 in the Daley Family and Monan Galleries, the groundbreaking exhibition is organized by the Grey Art Gallery at New York University and is drawn from the collection of the Barjeel Art Foundation based in Sharjah, United Arab Emirates (UAE). The exhibition opens to the public for virtual view on March 4, 2021, with a series of events. [More information below.]

Taking Shape explores mid-twentieth-century abstract art from North Africa, West Asia, and the Arab diaspora—a vast geographic expanse that encompasses diverse cultural, ethnic, linguistic, and religious backgrounds. It comprises nearly ninety works by artists from countries including Algeria, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Morocco, Palestine, Qatar, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, and the UAE. The paintings, sculpture, drawings, and prints reflect the wide range of nonfigurative art practices that flourished in the Arab world over the course of four decades.

"The McMullen Museum is pleased to present to our audience this landmark exhibition," said Inaugural Robert L. and Judith T. Winston Director of the McMullen Museum of Art Nancy Netzer, a BC professor of art history. "Taking Shape opens new avenues of inquiry into traditional understandings of the development of abstraction in the mid-twentieth century by introducing the works of fifty-eight artists from the Middle East and beyond, most relatively unknown in America.

"We extend special thanks to the Barjeel Art Foundation for assembling this outstanding collection of works representing artists from more than thirteen countries and for organizing this exhibition with the Grey Art Gallery at NYU." [Media Note: A selection of press images and captions is available here. Please email Kate Shugert at the McMullen Museum with questions.]

The McMullen display of Taking Shape features video interviews with several artists as well as with co-curators Suheyla Takesh and Lynn Gumpert and Barjeel Art Foundation Founder Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi.

Taking Shape: Abstraction from the Arab World, 1950s–1980s

Taking Shape raises a fundamental question: How do we study abstraction across different contexts, and what modes of analysis do we use? Examining critically the history and historiography of mid-twentieth-century abstraction, the exhibition rethinks art historical canons and expands discourses around global modernisms, according to organizers.

During this period, decolonization, the rise and fall of Arab nationalisms, socialism, rapid industrialization, wars and mass migrations, and the oil boom transformed the region. 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 and educational exchanges that exposed artists to multiple modernisms—including various modes of abstraction—and led them to consider their roles within an international context.

The artists featured—a varied group of Arab, Amazigh (Berber), Armenian, Circassian, Jewish, Persian, and Turkish descent—sought to localize and recontextualize existing twentieth-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 Arabic calligraphy, geometry, and mathematics, Islamic decorative patterns, and spiritual practices, they expanded abstraction's vocabulary—thereby complicating its genealogies of origin and altering the viewer's understanding of nonobjective art.

"Via a critical examination of abstraction in the collection of the Barjeel Art Foundation, the exhibition invites a (re)consideration of the attribution of abstraction's emergence to a single historical moment," explained its co-curator Suheyla Takesh, the Barjeel Art Foundation curator. "In its own way of emulating the artistic practices of the time, the exhibition is also a vantage point on how contemporary discourse on global modernisms and decentralized genealogies of abstraction is unfolding or, in a nod to the title of the show, taking shape. Mathematics served as a practical tool for artists in search of these paragons, both for its precision and for its potential to curtail human error."

Added co-curator and New York University Grey Art Gallery Director Lynn Gumpert, "The Grey Art Gallery takes great pride in partnering with the Barjeel Art Foundation. It is very appropriate that, as a university museum, the Grey broadens vistas and looks closely at art made over the four decades in question by individuals that come from so many different nations, with different belief systems and histories. We chose an exhibition title, Taking Shape, that recognizes and conveys to the public that our approach to abstraction in the Arab world is not static—even with regard to the art of this defined time frame—but is, rather, in formation."

Exhibition Organizers, Catalogue, and Touring Schedule

Taking Shape: Abstraction from the Arab World, 1950s–1980s is organized by NYU's Grey Art Gallery and curated by Takesh and Gumpert. Major support is provided by the Barjeel Art Foundation. Additional generous support is provided by the Charina Endowment Fund; the Violet Jabara Charitable Trust; the Grey's Director's Circle, Inter/National Council, and Friends; and the Abby Weed Grey Trust. At the McMullen Museum, the exhibition has been underwritten by Boston College with major funding from the Patrons of the McMullen Museum.

The Barjeel Art Foundation is an independent, UAE-based initiative established to manage, preserve, and exhibit an extensive collection of modern and contemporary Arab art. The foundation's guiding principle is to contribute to the intellectual development of the art scene in the Arab region by building a prominent, publicly accessible art collection in the UAE.

The exhibition is accompanied by a 256-page catalogue co-published by Hirmer Publishers and the Grey Art Gallery, co-edited by Takesh and Gumpert.

Taking Shape debuted in 2020 at the Grey Art Gallery. Following the McMullen Museum exhibition, it will travel to the Tampa Museum of Art (September 30, 2021–January 16, 2022), Cornell University's Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art (February 10–June 12, 2022), and to Northwestern University's Block Museum of Art (September 22–December 4, 2022).

Accompanying Free, Public Virtual Events

The McMullen Museum will open to the Boston College community by appointment on February 1. Virtual programming via Zoom is planned for the general public and Museum members. All events are free of charge. Additional virtual events co-hosted with Boston College's Art, Art History, and Film Department will include lectures by contemporary artists, visiting speakers, and department faculty featuring their new research.

For more information, and to sign up for those events that require advance registration (as indicated below), please visit the McMullen Museum Events Calendar and subscribe to the McMullen monthly newsletter for programming updates.

Thursday, March 4, 2021 (all day) and 5 p.m., register:

● Virtual Opening Day: Virtual walkthrough, didactics, videos, curatorial lectures, programming/events calendar launched online

● Virtual Walk + Talk, with Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi, visiting instructor in the Islamic Civilization and Societies program at Boston College and founder of the Barjeel Art Foundation

Wednesday, March 10, 2021, 5 p.m., register:

● Publication Highlight: "Islam & Surrealism: Abdel Hadi el-Gazzar's Postwar Painting in Egypt" with Alex Dika Seggerman (Rutgers University)

Friday, March 12, 2021, 3 p.m., register:

● Virtual docent tours begin (held every Friday)

Tuesday, March 23, 2021, 5 p.m., register:

● Members-only Crash Course in the history of abstraction with BC Assistant Professor of Art History Professor Kevin Lotery

Wednesday, April 7, 2021, 5 p.m. (registration forthcoming)

● "Museum Current" lecture with Arab American National Museum Director Diana Abouali

Monday, April 19, 2021, 5 p.m., register:

● Publication Highlight: The Album of the World Emperor: Cross-Cultural Collecting and the Art of Album Making in Seventeenth-Century Istanbul with BC Calderwood Professor in Islamic and Asian Art Emine Fetvaci

Thursday, April 22, 2021, 5:30 p.m., register:

Into the Collection: Orientalism and Expedition Photography examining works from the McMullen's permanent collection

Additional Digital Resources

Visit McMullen From Home for recordings of all lectures as well as an archive of virtual walkthroughs, digital exhibition catalogues, podcasts, interactive spotlights, and more.

View and search the McMullen Museum's new permanent collection database.

McMullen Museum of Art

The McMullen Museum aims to cultivate learning, celebrate artistic excellence, explore the visual traditions of diverse cultures, and inspire transdisciplinary faculty and student research based on the visual arts. The McMullen offers exhibition-related programs and resources for diverse audiences of all ages on campus, in the Greater Boston area, and beyond.

The Museum mounts exhibitions of international scholarly importance from all periods and cultures of the history of art. In keeping with the University’s central teaching mission, exhibitions are accompanied by academic catalogues and related public programs. The McMullen Museum of Art was named in 1996 for the late BC benefactor, trustee, and art collector John J. McMullen and his wife Jacqueline McMullen. In 2005, the McMullen Family Foundation provided a lead gift to renovate and build an addition to the Museum’s new venue at 2101 Commonwealth Avenue. Designed in 1927 in the Roman Renaissance Revival style by architects Maginnis and Walsh, it originally served as the home of Boston’s cardinal archbishops. The renovation was completed in spring 2016 and opened to the public on September 12, 2016.

McMullen Museum Hours and Tours

Admission is free; wheelchair accessible. Located at 2101 Commonwealth Avenue, Boston, MA 02135, on BC’s 65-acre Brighton Campus. Hours during this exhibition: Monday–Friday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. (by appointment to BC students, faculty, and staff); the Museum will be closed: April 2 and May 31, 2021. Contact:; 617.552.8587. For directions, parking, and program information, visit

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