ELLEN AVRIL: My name is Ellen Avril. I am the Chief Curator and the Judith H. Stoikov Curator of Asian Art here at the Johnson Museum. Welcome to today's program, held in conjunction with the exhibition Taking Shape: Abstraction from the Arab World, 1950s to 1980s.
Taking Shape is organized by the Grey Art Gallery, New York University, and curated by Suheyla Takesh and Lynn Gumpert. Major support for the exhibition is provided by the Barjeel Art Foundation. Additional generous support was provided by the Charina Endowment Fund, the Violet Jabara Charitable Trust, the Grey Art Gallery's Director's Circle, Inter/National Council and Friends, and the Abby Weed Grey Trust.
The Johnson Museum's presentation of Taking Shape is supported by a generous gift, endowed in memory of Elizabeth Miller Francis, Cornell class of 1947. The exhibition remains on view at the Johnson until June 12th. The Taking Shape exhibition has important Cornell connections as well. Salah Hassan, Goldwin Smith Professor of African and African Diaspora Art History and Visual Culture and Director of Cornell's Institute for Comparative Modernities, and Iftikhar Dadi, the John H. Burris Professor of History of Art and Visual Studies and Director of the Cornell South Asia Program, both contributed essays to the exhibition catalog.
Before introducing our speakers, I'd like to announce an upcoming program related to one of the artists in the Taking Shape exhibition. On May 18, at 4 o'clock, the museum's book club will be discussing Etel Adnan's meditation on life and art entitled Journey to Mount Tamalpais. For further information and to register for the Zoom event, please see the Johnson Museum's website, museum.cornell.edu.
And now, it's a great pleasure to introduce our special guest, Sultan Sooud Al-Qassemi, who, more than anyone else, is responsible for the Taking Shape exhibition. He is the visionary founder of the Barjeel Art Foundation, based in Sharjah, United Arab Emirates, which he established in 2010 for the purpose of building a prominent and publicly accessible collection of modern and contemporary art from North Africa and the Middle East.
A lecturer and researcher on social, political, and cultural affairs in the Arab Gulf states, Sultan Sooud Al-Qassemi is currently a visiting scholar at Columbia University. He has lectured on the politics of modern Middle Eastern art at many US institutions. He contributed the essay toward Abstraction, the case of Kuwait in the 1960s to the Taking Shape catalog, and is co-editor of two new books, Building Sharjah, published in 2021, and Urban Modernity in the Contemporary Gulf: Obsolescence and Opportunities, published in 2022.
On the first day that the Taking Shape exhibition was open to the public at the Johnson Museum, Sultan brought a group of his students from Columbia to Ithaca and engaged them with an enthusiastic and informative tour of the exhibition, which Jessica and I were privileged to be a part of. We thank him for making the trip back to Ithaca today to share his insights.
Facilitating today's conversation is Cornell's own Iftikhar Dadi, the John H. Burris Professor of History of Art and Visual Studies and Director of the Cornell South Asia Program. Professor Dadi's teaching, research, and writings have focused on modernism and contemporary art of South Asia and West Asia and their diasporas.
He co-curated the traveling exhibitions Lines of Control: Partition as a Productive Space and Tarjama/Translation that were held at the Johnson Museum in 2012 and 2010, respectively. We are grateful to Professor Dadi for his many collaborations with the Johnson Museum over the years and for being here today to bring his perspectives as an art historian and as a practicing artist to this conversation.
So today's program, Sultan will begin by showing some slides and talking a little bit. And then Iftikhar will talk briefly. And then the two of them will be in conversation together. So please give a warm welcome to Sultan Sooud Al-Qassemi and Iftikhar Dadi.
SULTAN SOOUD AL-QASSEMI: Thank you so much for having me and thank you so much for showing up. It's great to see so many familiar faces, even though some of them are behind masks, but I can tell who's who. And it's also good to be here back at this museum, which I really admire and I first visited, I think, five or six years ago. And it is a dream to have a collection that I helped build on display at this wonderful institution. I'm a big fan of modernist architecture, of course, keeping in mind the great IM Pei and the work he did with this great institution.
So I will talk a little bit about what inspired me to start this collection. This is a collection that today's is about a standard 2,000 artworks. I started 20 years ago in 2002. And so what is the idea? What's the genesis? Where does this collection come from? How did it end up here at the Johnson? So I thought I'd share a little bit with you about the origins of this collection and what inspired me as a collector. I'm 44 years old, so I started at the age of 24.
So I'll tell you a little bit about collecting history in the Middle East, or what we prefer to call West Asia and North Africa. So one of the earliest collectors of the region I come from was Mahmoud Khalils. Mahmoud Khalils was an Egyptian who lived in France, married this lady, who I believe was also French, and moved to Cairo. Was very much inspired by his time living in France in the early 20th century, and established one of the most important collections of art anywhere, really, in the world in that period of time.
I always think of him as the Isabella Stewart Gardner of the Middle East or something along these lines. Because he really not only left the collection, but he also endowed the house that hosted this collection for many, many years. And he's sort of survived by his spouse, who continued this project, so it kind of reminds me a lot of her life.
Amongst the masterpieces he has, of course, one of Monet's [? Jardin ?] [? Giverny ?] works, but also very a much sought after Van Gogh, which was stolen twice. So I say "sought after" because it keeps getting stolen, so somebody is interested in this work.
This museum actually was open to the public in the mid-20th century after his wife passed away, and then it was appropriated by the government. It became administrative offices. I don't blame them for wanting to have their offices there, but the public was denied access to this museum for a good 30 years. And then it was open to the public in the '80s. And then it was shut after the Arab Spring for 10 years, and it was just reopened.
So it's a very interesting story of being private, then being public, then being private, accessible, inaccessible. So I always was intrigued by this idea of keeping the collection open for as long as possible. So this is really-- when I think of Middle East collecting, this is one of the first persons I think over a century now, maybe even more than a century, who has contributed, I think, to this field of sharing art.
Another person that I was very much inspired by is Kuwaiti. Sheikha-- "Sheikha" means like "princess" or something-- Sheikha Hessa Al Sabah from Kuwait, who is closely related to one of the members of the ruling family. I think her-- the emir, or the ruler, the monarch, was her uncle, I believe. And she was very much interested not only in collecting Islamic art but also the preservation of architecture. And I think when I was introduced when I was-- [INAUDIBLE] introduced me, she said that I had these two publications on architecture.
So, again, my interest overlapped between art and architecture. I feel like, especially in modernity, they very much overlap. And she made it her life interest to go after these buildings that are under threat, and then she preserved them. And she displayed her work in these buildings.
And one thing I want to show you is how active she was in terms of showing her collection. This is too small for you to read. But I think what I will do is I will highlight for you some of the works, some of the locations in which her very, very important collection of Islamic art went on tour around the world. And this kind of mirrors my ambitions for this collection.
So if you look at the very bottom, you will see the Hermitage Museum and the word "Leningrad, USSR." And this is in 1990. So not only is it interesting that she was able to penetrate the Soviet Union while it was still the Soviet-- while Leningrad was the Leningrad. But what's interesting about this collection is it's acted like a-- how do you say, a public diplomat or a cultural diplomat-- is that the word-- that went around and represented Kuwait and represented her region.
And if you also look at the date, this is such an interesting story, I think. The date that the show opened is the 6th of August 1990. And you might think it's very specific for me to mention this date. Why is that an interesting date? Because Kuwait was occupied by Iraq on the 2nd of August 1990, so four days before the opening.
And so you can imagine her sending her collection a month earlier. And then the collection is on display, about to be inaugurated. And then she's in Russia, probably waiting for the next three or four days, the inauguration, helping them select which works to go where, and then the country's occupied.
So for that period of August 1990, the work represented Kuwait internationally. In fact, the next location it went to was the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore. And that was where a lot of the American representatives went to speak about the importance of liberating Kuwait. Because Kuwait is this location that hosts this massive collection of art. So art becomes both-- has both an aesthetic value, educational value, but also a diplomatic value that you're showing the importance of Kuwait internationally.
And then so you could-- I won't read, of course, everything, but then USA, Canada, Holland, Italy, Portugal, Egypt, Australia, all the way to Sharjah in the UAE, right about the time that I started the foundation in 2009. So again, this very much inspired my building of this collection.
Another person that very much mirrors and a trailblazer in my field with Sheikh Hassan Al Thani, who was a Qatari Sheikh who amassed the largest collection of art from the Middle East, modern art. And his collection was acquired almost in its entirety by the state of Qatar. So he's a private collector, and the state came and bought about 4,500 works.
He kept 200 or 300 works with him, but they were more personal portraits and works that he felt are very, very personal to him. So these weren't sold. But otherwise, the vast majority of his collection was acquired by the state, and that became what the picture on the bottom right, the state collection of Qatar. So this is somebody, again, that I really looked up to and I admired.
Going forward, our beginnings, again, our first exhibition in 2009, this is when I wrote to the government. And I said, listen, I'll tell you how this started. I was buying art in 2002 to 2008. And there was something called BlackBerry, which some of you have never heard of but some of you might remember. So BlackBerry had an instant-messaging service. And so I was sending photos to friends and saying, this is an artwork that I bought. And then friends would say, where can we see it?
So I thought, you know what, it'll be worth thinking about showing the works publicly. And then I wrote a letter to the government. And I said, I'd like to have a space to show these works. And then finally, I was given this space, which is even smaller, about 3/4 of this space where we are today. And we had about 50 artworks, and only 20 or 30 could be on display.
And the collection started growing. We started doing public talks. Some of them were very, very popular. And then we started loaning. And this is the first time we loaned 10 years ago. It was an exhibition in Japan, of all places. So the works go to Japan, then they go to Antwerp, and so they travel to museums around the world.
And then finally, our first exclusive exhibition, one that we organized almost entirely from the collection, was in Singapore. That was about nine years ago in the Singapore Art Museum. I don't know why this picture is pixelated, but it's pixelated.
And it's an image from our most successful exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery. And we had 300,000 visitors go to that show. It was hugely successful. The chair, Iwona Blazwick, is actually stepping down now from Whitechapel after 20 years of being there. But some of the works in that show are here today, so Hassan Sharif and others.
Then, being in America was so important for us because America has this almost unique model to the US, which are the university museums. It's a place where the collection is open to the public, but really the main audience are the students, which I think adds so much value. The professors can interact with their students and academia can be enriched.
And so this was one of the first instances in which we worked with a university art museum. Again, some of the works, including that work on the left, [INAUDIBLE], is on display here, as well as the Shakir Hassan on the right. These works are here on display as well. They're very, very important artworks.
I think of the 30 international shows that we did in 10 years, 30 international shows is quite active. There are three shows a year. For a small foundation, it's very, very active. Of the 30 international shows, the most significant one, I believe, was the one we did in Iran, in Tehran. And I'm not sure you know, but Tehran has a museum, a beautiful museum that was founded in the '70s that I had the pleasure of visiting twice.
But during this, when this collection went to Iran, it took me two or three years to get the collection there. And it was a time of great political sensitivities. There was a war in Yemen that just started. And Iran was backing one side, and Saudi Arabia was backing one side, and my country was involved. And so it became so sensitive that I wasn't able to go to Iran, and I never saw this show. So this is the only exhibition that I never saw.
And I think it's probably the location that I really wanted to see more than anywhere else because it was the first time that a collection of art from the Arab world travels to Iran. Iranians have never seen modern art from the Arab world. Even though they neighbor Iraq, they neighbor the Gulf states, they neighbor so many countries, they've never seen their art.
So how could you have-- no wonder you have all these political problems when you don't have cultural dialogue between countries. So this was one of our most successful shows. 25,000 visitors over a period of seven weeks went to this exhibition, many students and academics. These are some of our publications. I won't talk about them now. And very much mirroring what you saw earlier, we're trying to be as active as Sheikah foundation.
And one other thing is when I started this collection, I felt like I was leading this collection. But now, I very much feel that this collection is leading my life, that my life is very much shaped by where this collection goes and what happens and who asks for it. And I know that the collection has an identity to the extent that I can't bring in an alien artwork.
The collection has its own, I feel, personality that things have to really just fit in for-- and when we-- as Iftikhar and I were talking about, I was sent an NFT artwork, and I'm so conflicted because I still don't know what NFT is. And I don't know if NFT would be welcomed into this collection. I don't know if the artworks would welcome this intruder, if you will.
So one other thing is, as I was building the collection, it's so difficult for folks to find great works in the region. Why? Documentation, archiving, photography. Most of the books were published in the '50s, '60s lack color, so we don't know what the works look like. Really, we don't know what they look like.
In many instances, artists, they passed away 30 years ago, they go into obscurity. Many of them didn't have kids, and so who do you contact for their estates? But in this case, this work that's outside, you can see it in the museum. The way we acquired it was so interesting because I was looking--
I kept wondering to myself, I said, well, I see so many abstract works by male artists. I wonder if there were abstract works by Egyptian female artists. So I put out this tweet and I said, I'm looking for abstract works by female artists.
And then this woman messaged me and said, I used to live-- this is the direct message she sent me-- I used to live in this apartment in Cairo, and there was an artist who lived in the same building as I. This is her daughter's contact. And so I contacted the daughter. And we ended up acquiring the work. And this is the family visiting the exhibition at the opening at the Grey Art about two years ago.
So, again, how you find works is so-- it's kind of also different in the region, right? It's not like you can open the catalogue raisonné of Picasso and say, well, where is artwork number 3,155, and you know where it is. Here, it's a labor of love. It takes so long to find works.
Another thing is we made the decision to show an equal representation of male and female artworks. So we try-- I mean, in this collection, I try to be as inclusive as possible. Even the word an "Arab" artist, really, sometimes, I find it to be very difficult to use that word.
And what I mean is artists who live in the Arab world, so in this collection on display in the museum, you will see works by artists who are Jewish, artists who are Christian, and Muslims of all sects, artists who are Armenian, who follow the Baha'i faith. And so many other religions in between and sects and ethnic groups and Amazigh, which is the-- which is an ethnic group in North Africa.
And so one of the things we try to do is be as inclusive and show 50% female and male artists. In this case, it was important for us to showcase women abstract artists from Morocco. And the pioneer of this movement is Malika Agueznay, who in her work-- this work is on the left here, Blue Algae. She's inspired by calligraphy, by the Quran, and by something she calls magic words. So the magic words for her are "love, peace." All these words that bring together people, these are what she calls magic words. And this is how she tries to play with calligraphy and spirituality.
And here she is. And it's so important to think about her because she's standing on the right there. And she is in a room that's basically full of men. There's another woman. And so it was so difficult to acquire this work, especially when you find out later that your competition is the King of Morocco, that the King of Morocco is acquiring the work. So I kept thinking, why can't I find one of her works? Because the King of Morocco is interested. But we managed to find one work from 1968.
Again, she is from this pioneering art generation of Morocco, so it was so important to make sure that her work is represented. And by the way, two of the other artists, Mohammed Melehi here and the person wearing the suit up there, Farid Belkahia, are also represented. So they were her teachers but also her colleagues.
Moving on, I'd like to say the collection is amazing, everything is great, but it's not true. We have a lot of holes. We have a lot of gaps that we have to fill. And I want to talk a little bit about missing abstractions. So for example, yes, there are 14 countries represented, but there are so many places and movements and artists that are not represented, and one of them is Saudi Arabia.
Mohammed Al Saleem was a Saudi artist who was a pioneer of a movement called horizontalism. So he came up with this idea where he embeds the artwork in these desert dunes. So you could imagine this dune, but he actually puts a word in the dune. I'm not sure if you can actually see it.
And in many cases, the word is inspired by Islam or inspired by, I think to borrow Malika Agueznay's words, magic words, so peace and whatnot. And so again, he's a published writer. He was very much a person who came up with theories. So we're missing him. Since the exhibition opened, we've bought his work, but he's not represented here.
Another artist, another movement that is missing is the Damascus group of which over the past year, I've made sure that we've acquired all works by Damascus group artists. There's only one Syrian represented, for example. So there's a lot of gaps that we are missing. And the Damascus group of artists was this movement that started between '63 and '67. And they had five major exhibitions. And now, we're very happy to say that all these artworks are represented in the collection. So Taking Shape Part II at Cornell, in a few years, will have these works.
And then finally, there was this art movement in Jordan that had a very important artist called Suha Shoman. And she's very much inspired by mysticism, by spirituality. Again, that's another movement that's missing. Since the collection went on tour where we cannot add works, so that was the summer of 2019, we've managed to locate one of her artworks.
It takes years to find a work sometimes. Because an artist like her sold 12 artworks in her entire life. The rest of the works are donated to the foundation that she started. And so how do you find one of the 12 works? And we managed to find one of them. The one-- here she is visiting the foundation two years ago, I believe, just before COVID, to see her work on this big-- it's one of two works that she doesn't-- she didn't buy back.
Finally, since this collection went on display, we've lost at least six or seven artists. So we've lost Huguette Caland. We've lost, just a couple of months ago, Etel Adnan. And you have the reading coming up in May, I think in a few days. So Etel Adnan, who just had a Guggenheim exhibition, she passed away just a few months ago.
So we've lost so many artists. And I think this sort of makes me think of the alarm bell ringing. These are the artists that need to be interviewed, that need to be documented, that need to be archived, and we're missing out. And that's why it's essential to have essays by the likes of Professor Iftikhar Dadi and Salah Hassan, and all the other contributors because they've interviewed these artists. But now, you can imagine that scholars who are beginning, they've missed out this window of speaking to a lot of the pioneers who are represented here. I'm going to end here. Thank you very much.
IFTIKHAR DADI: Thank you so much, Sultan. That's a very good introduction to your collection and to some of the themes of the exhibition as well. I wanted to take a little bit of a different approach to think about the question of abstraction and what it means in the Arab world.
So one of the ways in which we-- the way we think about abstraction really generally is-- the canonical or dominant understanding is that abstraction is, we think of the three kind of pioneers, which is Kandinsky, and Mondrian, and Malevich, and that they begin their work in basically in the 1910s, essentially. And then abstraction, as a movement, consolidates and becomes known by this name. But it's also important to know that in Europe, this was also a period of intensified travel and exchange and-- as artists works and styles traveled widely across borders.
So another thing to really think about modernism itself is to think of it more capaciously. So modernism in Europe emerged through praxis, several generations of artists who transformed intellectual and aesthetic legacies that sustained engagement with the non-Western art world was absolutely pivotal for non-Western art and aesthetics.
And for example, the Japanese woodblock print in the case of the impressionists and Van Gogh, the African masks in relation to Picasso, et cetera. The question of the "primitive," quote unquote, landscape and artifacts of Oceania, quote, unquote, "Islamic art" for people like Matisse and Paul Klee are just some of these touchstones, as are intellectual movements such as theosophy, anthroposophy, Zen, and other kind of, quote, unquote, "Eastern" philosophies.
So the refusal of artists by European artists, really, the configuration perspectivalism and realism is central to the development of modernism, and in which non-Western aesthetics have played a formative role. That's why it's so easy. In some ways, modernism becomes global. That's why it's so easy for modernism to-- for artists all over the world to participate in, and that would be my argument. And abstraction is a very important facet of modernism itself.
So in the historiography of art history in early and mid-20th century scholarship, you had people like Coomaraswamy, Carl Einstein, Herzfield, Kubler, Riegl. They all, in their different ways, transformed and broadened art history to account for kind of global and non-Western kind of aesthetics and developments.
All these scholars had engaged deeply with non-Western art and architecture. They advocated new methodologies to value these against dominant Eurocentric frameworks that privileged the figurative art of Greco-Roman classical antiquity, the perspectival and anatomical realism of the Renaissance, and other Western developments. So, in other words, there was also an art historical theoretical-- that kind of thinking that was broadening the sense of what-- how to value art.
More recent postcolonial scholarship has critically examined both of these developments and has made major new contributions by studying the careers of artists and institutions at various global sites. It has expanded the scope of how we might understand abstraction methodologically.
And also, the last thing I would say is that abstraction can now be viewed both as a proper name whose appellation becomes hegemonic at a particular geographic and temporal juncture, which is basically that the interwar years in Europe. And it's buttressed by institutional power, of course.
But it's also a multiply diverse global aesthetic, registered long in practice, well before the 20th century. Because the accusation against non-Western art precisely was that it was not figurative. So in other words, abstraction was very built into the very way of understanding what non-Western art and crafts were. So abstraction is haunted already, in other words, by all of these-- abstraction as a concept is already haunted by its global kind of manifestations.
And also, when you think about the Arab world, you really-- I mean, basically, abstraction really begins in the late '40s. But by the mid-60s, especially in North Africa, you have very powerful expressions of artists who are really making a claim for inhabiting abstraction. For example, Naceur Ben Cheikh says, I think the only true painters are abstract painters. So an assertion like this by this time is acceptable, or, in other words, it's a polemical assertion, but it's an assertion that is accepted.
So I wanted to just focus on three artists. But one is Madiha Umer, the second is Mohammed Khadda, and the last is Ibrahim El-Salahi. So the work we have of Madiha Umer, which is upstairs, is this one, Untitled. But Sultan just informed me that he has acquired another Madiha Umer.
So Madiha Umer is actually a very important artist because she is, in some ways, the pioneer of abstraction and also a pioneer of thinking about the Arabic calligraphic form and its relation to painting. And she begins to kind of explore this really from the early '40s onwards, well before anyone else.
And she was born in Syria, but she lived most of her life in Iraq, but also was short extensively in the United States, including an early show in Washington DC. And so for example, she will make statements like this, "to me, each Arabic alphabet says something in abstract design, and through their variety of expressions, they have become inspiring elements."
The next artist I'm going to focus on is Mohammed Khadda, who is not only an artist, but he's also a very important thinker. And so it's important also to think about his statements and his discursive kind of projects. So he grew up in Algeria from a childhood experience marred by extreme poverty. He was very tenacious and intelligent. And he taught himself art and exposed himself to wider cultural and intellectual currents, becoming an accomplished artist and a leading promoter and organizer of modern art in Algeria.
As a young man, he was also a participant witness to the great political and social upheaval, as Algeria finally attained freedom from French rule after a protracted and bloody struggle. And I quote, "the political transition influenced the founding in 1967 art movements, known as Aouchem, Amazigh, Tattoo, and the School of Signs of which Khadda was an active participant. In other words, he's very much also thinking about Amazigh patterns and so on.
Despite witnessing tremendous social upheaval firsthand, his embrace or abstraction in his mature career suggests that abstraction offered for him a language more capacious in addressing his life and the times he inhabited then versions of realism, or the art of protest. So in an important manifesto from 1964, this is what he says. So he says, high art, in opposition to the art of agitation, is what, in the long-term, transforms social customs as it transforms itself.
And against the claim that the people are the only judge, in other words, the claim that art should be populist or popular, or it should be accessible. He says, "According to this assumption, the work of art is judged by its level of accessibility to the public. This is a seductive idea, and seems revolutionary, but in reality it's demagogic and will only slow down the evolution of the people. The people are not a single entity but have multiple tastes and needs," right?
So it's a very important theoretical observation, especially in the wake of the Algerian Revolution, which was really-- Algeria became independent after a very, very bloody struggle. So the question of populism and accessibility was an important debate that was taking place there.
And also, in Tunisia, you have an artist, Najib Belkhodja, who says, the Tunisian and his country cannot be painted as they are. They are shown exactly as the colonizer sees them. Thus, they are reduced to the most specious of appearances for the sake of tourists, cheap folklore, and bazaar Orientalism. So this, what he would mean would be realist paintings about everyday life and so on. There is no stranger alienation than that of the man who continues to paint himself, and his colonizer taught him to see himself and who deceives himself and in deceiving others.
So all of these artists are really-- if you look at the dates, in the mid-60s, there's really a very powerful current, especially in North Africa, which is trying to claim abstraction as a very legitimate, and, in fact, a language that is trying to, in a sense, overcome what they see as the shortcomings of realism.
So in the case of Mohammed Khadda's work, I would say that chromatic intensity characterizes many of Khadda's abstract works. In this one one, Vert Sur Fond Orange, or Green on Abstraction on Orange Background, the surface is worked over to create texture that accentuates the glowing intensity of the orange color field, on which a calligraphic sign hovers at a diagonal angle. The lower quarter of the canvas creates a break in the orange field, with the raw masked white forms that bear resemblance to distant architectural motifs, but might equally evoke a sign or a calligraphic motifs rendered in kind of blocks.
By amalgamating these characters towards abstraction, Khadda's reference is more abstract than legible citation of the Arabic script. It simultaneously evokes the Arabic script and Amazigh patterns that are inscribed on the body and that are also analogous to the manner in which architectural forms are silhouetted against the stark Algerian landscape.
OK, the next artist I'm going to consider is Ibrahim El-Salahi, and who is a Sudanese artist who lived in Sudan and also lived in Qatar, and as well as in the United Kingdom where he's now based. So his painting, The Last Sound, is executed on a square canvas, which is upstairs. And it's a carefully limited palette of grays and earth tones, organized around a central circular dynamic coat. Radiant lines thrust outward from a barely perceptible African mask-like form. Celestial bodies, elements of calligraphic, geometric, and animate shapes and actual palimpsest-like Arabic calligraphy prayers surround the central form, creating a universe in which the last sound is echoed.
The title refers to the Islamic practice of reciting prayers for the dead and the dying. In the work, El-Salahi enters the souls passage from the corporeal to the celestial as it travels towards heavenly forms, inhabiting the universe and beyond. The Last Sound is a manifestly modernist work, in which the terrifying event is metaphorized in a dynamic formal composition. Here, the abstraction of African sculptural forms and calligraphy serves to universalize the event.
But the relation that Salahi creates between abstract forms and calligraphy invokes the gravitas of the team. But this is actually a new language that he arrived at, because he trained at the Slade in a fairly academic way. And when he came to-- when he came to Sudan, he found that his academic work was not well received, so this is what he says.
So he said, we had a problem then that separated the contemporary artists from the local public. A bridge had to be built close to the gap. Something work-wise had to be done, so it's through practice. I said to myself, man, let us, for a time, forget about those archaic concepts for art and art's sake, and that unreal nonsense of the muse and ivory tower recluse that we read about and get down to work.
I worked like mad, introduced Arabic writing and decorative patterns in a corner of my works like a stamp on an envelope. People recognizing something they were a bit familiar with took note and came closer. I gradually spread the lettering with symbols, words from the Qur'an and Sufi poetry over the surface of the picture, mixing it with figurative work. They came closer, showing a greater degree of interest.
I limited my color palette to somber tones. In the next step, I wrote letters and words that did not mean a thing. I had to break down the bone of the letter-- this is his language-- the bone of the letter, observing the space within a letter and between letters. The Pandora's box opened up by before my eyes. I discovered animal and plant form, sounds, human images, and what looked like skeletons with masked faces. So in other words, this describes his practice-led journey.
But I also think that there is-- if you juxtapose Salahi's concern with reaching out to the public with Khadda's actually dismissal of being populist, then you have also this tension that abstraction is a project is-- in other words, who is this work really for? Who is the speaking to?
Do you work for the future? Do you work out of in a sense of formal and compositional exercises in a concentrated and experimental manner, or is your concern really about primarily making relationships with the public? I think all of these tensions are part of this larger project of abstraction.
So we are actually very-- the Johnson Museum is actually very fortunate to have acquired this. We have one of his best works, which is Funeral and a Crescent. Is this up right now?
ELLEN AVRIL: It's traveling.
IFTIKHAR DADI: It's traveling, OK. But if you come back, when it's back, then you can see this work as well. I just want to end by saying that, actually, the Arab world is a good place to think about these questions because of the internal plurality of abstraction, but also because the region itself is so diverse.
And this is something Sultan also mentioned that, in fact, what is the Arab world? It includes people, a large number of people of Amazigh and sub-Saharan peoples in the Mathare. In the Sudan, you have Greeks, Armenians; Kurds in Egypt; Historical and contemporary exchanges between Iran, South Asia, and the Gulf region, it includes communities who adhere to various beliefs and who speak multiple languages that include English and French.
And if a precondition for modernism is uneven social and cultural formations, the starkly irregular processes of modernity across the region during the 20th century have been especially provocative for artists. So abstraction in the Arab world cannot be subsumed under a single formal or stylistic register. Rather, there are multiple trajectories that flourish individually and in groups.
We can look at the work in various ways formally, contextually, biographically. But also, the work needs to speak to us today. In other words, there's also a claim that the work is made with a kind of a claim for future audiences that include all of us present in this room. Thank you.
So I'm going to ask Sultan a few questions, and then we will also have a chance to speak to all of you. So, Sultan, actually in your presentation, you already answered many of the questions I was going to pose. But one of the questions I had is that when you started collecting, you were also interested in contemporary art, right? But it seems to me-- perhaps I'm wrong, but it seems to me that your interests has shifted and you're far more interested in the modernist era. Can you speak about this?
SULTAN SOOUD AL-QASSEMI: That's right. Thank you so much. In fact, when we started-- when I started collecting-- and I don't like to use the word "I," so I always use the word "we," but that has nothing to do with me feeling like I'm more than one person. But when the foundation started collecting and acquiring works, it was heavily geared towards contemporary art. And also, it was very heavily male-dominated in terms of artworks.
And I think that over the years, there was a balance that was achieved. First, gender balanced-- the collection became much more balanced between male and female artists-- but also in terms of modernity. My interest in modernity started increasing as I realized that a lot of these works are under threat, a lot of these works are lost.
Professor Iftikhar, the number of works that we found in Iraq and Syria and Kuwait that were in such bad shape, they're from the '50s, they're from the '60s. In some cases, an artwork like we got from Kuwait, we acquired it, I think, for $2,000 or $3,000. We ended up spending three times as much conserving it because it was in such bad shape.
And I felt as though modern works needed a lot more attention, and they also tell us a lot about who we were at a specific moment in history. I like to think of the 1950s, '40s, '50s, '60s, at least in West Asia and North Africa, as being a time where you had all these communities that existed then that have since left.
You said something about the Greeks and the Italians. The Jewish communities that have left. Egypt, of which works are represented. Tunisia, Morocco, and elsewhere. Artists who lived in India and South Asia. Artists who were born in Iran.
So I feel like it was much more exciting than it is now, where artists were actually immigrants to these countries and they were welcomed. So for me, I like to tell the story of my region through art. And I feel like the mid-20th century is a very interesting point in time.
IFTIKHAR DADI: And also, you also already alluded to the issues that have to do with-- you mentioned the difficulty of finding works, even the scholarship, but also, we should remind the audience of the kind of upheavals that have kind of caused a lot of destruction, frankly, in West Asia and North Africa. I mean, you think of Iraq, for example, or Syria. Lebanon and its civil war, and so on. So I think the question also is to-- you think about the historical memory that you evoke through these works and also the debates around them, right?
SULTAN SOOUD AL-QASSEMI: Yes.
IFTIKHAR DADI: So in terms of collecting the works, are you also-- I know that you are very interested in promoting, in having people write about these works, right? And all the works of-- most of the shows you've done, you have had catalogs and you've had writers. What would you say is the relationship between, let's say, scholarship research and your collecting practice?
SULTAN SOOUD AL-QASSEMI: Oh, well, so we're very grateful to have had some of the, if not the best scholars write for the catalog of this show. Ifthikhar Dadi, Ibrahim Salahi-- sorry, Salah Hassan, [? Nadesha ?] [? Boot, ?] and so many other of the most established scholars--
IFTIKHAR DADI: Anneka.
SULTAN SOOUD AL-QASSEMI: --Anneka Lenssen and so many others. And so definitely, there is an interest on my side, on our side to invest in scholarship. Because you can invest in building the collection, and then you can invest in the collection itself. The other thing we do is we sponsor exhibition catalogs for shows that have nothing to do with us. So we pay for-- sorry, we sponsor, for example, the MoMA catalog. We partially sponsored the MoMA book, modernities, the primary documents.
IFTIKHAR DADI: The primary documents, yeah.
SULTAN SOOUD AL-QASSEMI: We paid for-- we've sponsored, partially sponsored Mahmoud Said, the Egyptian artists catalogue raisonne. And so many other catalogue raisonnes and books that are coming out, the Mohamed Kacimi of Morocco and others.
So it's important to invest in the scholarship because there's so little known about artists. There are some artists that we still don't know what year they were born and what year they died. We don't know how to spell their name. We don't know what-- we don't know where they studied.
And these are modernists who were alive until 30 years ago, but they have no kids. And they have-- there's no way to find their information. Where is their archive? Is it in a library? Where did they move to? And then you have to keep in mind that there are countries like Iraq, and I think Professor Iftikhar mentioned this, Iraq and Syria, where there were wars.
And Professor [? Nadesha ?] [? Boot ?] wrote so much about how Iraq's Modern Art Museum was neglected in 2003 when the destruction caused by the war was unleashed. Global attention went to the Museum of Antiquities, the National Museum of Iraq. People were worried about all the-- and it's very important that you think about the Babylonian, the Assyrian, the Islamic collection, and all the other-- the Sumerian collections.
Of course it's important think about them. But she wrote about how the Modern Art Museum was completely neglected. There were hoards of people who went in, picked up the work, sold them for $200. 7,000 works were stolen, of which I think 4,000 were recovered or 3,000. So it's either 3,000 were recovered, then 4,000 at large.
IFTIKHAR DADI: I think half are lost.
SULTAN SOOUD AL-QASSEMI: Half are lost. We don't know where we are. Best case scenario, we're hoping that they were stolen and not destroyed. So you can imagine that these works-- we don't have pictures. There are artworks that we don't have colored photos before.
So investing, and archiving, and documenting, and cataloging is so important. And this is really-- by some lucky coincidence, sometimes you come across an artwork, sometimes you come across a catalog that was published there are no copies of. And sometimes, it jumps up out of the blue. And so do you digitize it? Do you catalog it? You need to make it accessible to the public.
And when I started buying art, there was nothing. There was almost nothing. I had no idea if there were any books published. And now, there are so many, and so many scholars, many of whom you've taught, Professor Iftikhar Dadi, who are now publishing works. And so we're very lucky to be in that moment in history.
IFTIKHAR DADI: Yeah, I mean, this reminds me also of, of course the Arab world has its specific challenges, but these are also challenges of the Global South.
SULTAN SOOUD AL-QASSEMI: Yes.
IFTIKHAR DADI: And I also work on South Asia. There is Nancy Lin is sitting there. She works on China. So I think these are also conditions that basically the Global South faces that have to do with lack of institutions, lack of research institutions.
For Asia, there is Asia Art Archive, which is an important institution that does-- that promotes and collects primary documents and promotes research. For the Arab world, I believe the NYU Abu Dhabi is setting up something.
And, yeah, so these are all kind of, I think, important initiatives. In other words, the collection itself-- art doesn't-- artwork can't-- they can't speak-- it doesn't speak much by itself. It has to be interpreted and contextualized.
SULTAN SOOUD AL-QASSEMI: That's right. Otherwise, you misinterpret the work.
IFTIKHAR DADI: Yeah.
SULTAN SOOUD AL-QASSEMI: You think that it's inspired by something when it's not. You miss out the idea of, as you mentioned, some works being inspired by the tattoo science of North Africa, or the Quran or calligraphy. This needs to be written about.
IFTIKHAR DADI: Or the relationship between literature, between the literary sphere, the political sphere, the colonization.
SULTAN SOOUD AL-QASSEMI: Poetry.
IFTIKHAR DADI: Yeah.
SULTAN SOOUD AL-QASSEMI: Politics.
IFTIKHAR DADI: Yeah. So I think if at this stage, we can invite questions or comments from all of you, if you have any thoughts. Yes, please.
AUDIENCE: Where did most of this art go to? Are they in private collections? Because art was being purchased. And how did-- it's not as if it all disappeared, so where did it go? Like that rest of your collection that you're looking for, where is his body of work? So that's part of it.
SULTAN SOOUD AL-QASSEMI: Yes.
AUDIENCE: A small part or a large part.
SULTAN SOOUD AL-QASSEMI: So, I mean, 2,000 works isn't much if you think of a region of 300 million people or 350 million people. 2,000 works doesn't even begin to tell you the-- barely begins to tell you the story of some parts of it. But so state collections are maybe one of the most important destinations of these works.
If you think of a country like Tunisia, they have 17,000 works in their state collection. Egypt has over 9,000 works, which I feel like they should have much more, but this is what we know about. Again, some works were lost during the revolution because a couple of government buildings were torched, and there were artworks, definitely artworks inside. We don't know what we lost then.
Lebanon has just under 2,000 artworks in the state collection. So state collections in Algeria, and in Egypt, and even in Iraq-- there are about 400 artworks in the state collection of Iraq-- after about 20 years, they just went out-- they went up on display two weeks ago. So this is very, very recent that an exhibition of Iraqi modernity. You have a generation of Iraqis who was born maybe in the late '90s who have never seen Iraqi modern art until two weeks ago, until literally two weeks ago because unless they had traveled, they've never seen it. Another major segment that collected are some corporations, banks, like Bank Saradar in Lebanon.
But also in Morocco, there is no state collection. There is a state-owned bank that has thousands of artworks. So that's bank Attijariwafa, which is a huge buyer of Moroccan art, so institutions, corporations, governments, and some collectors. So there is the Qatar collection, which was founded by Sheikh Hassan Al Thani. There's 9,000 works there. Iran has a huge collection of art, again, in the state collection. But we are really just scratching the surface.
Iftikhar Dadi spoke about Madiha Umer It took us years to find that little work. It's as big as a postcard here. But ever since then, because I've been talking so much about her, I was approached by a family in Iraq that had a couple of works. So we acquired two of these works that I wish were in this exhibition.
So this is-- I feel like it's like a virtuous circle. So people hear that you are interested in women artists, or interested in calligraphy works, or interested in modernity, and the word spreads and then they end up sending you on WhatsApp, on Instagram, on Facebook, on email. You end up-- I mean, I keep getting artworks every day. My inbox is full of artworks that get sent my way, so it's exciting in a way.
IFTIKHAR DADI: Yes, back there.
AUDIENCE: Given how much the region has changed, how is the artwork viewed by the government and the populace in some of these different countries?
SULTAN SOOUD AL-QASSEMI: I mean, there are artists that are staples of the modern art movement, like Jawad Saleem of Iraq, like Shakir Hassan of Iraq, Gazzar of Egypt. These are artists that come, whether it was under the monarchy, or under a communist government, or under a capitalist government, or autocracy, they are respected and appreciated across the board.
But then you have artists whose popularity ebbs and flows depending on who is in charge. And some people say, well, he was too close to the king. And then people say, oh, he was too close or she was too close to the monarchy or too close to the republic. And so these are artists who get pushed away into the sideline. They never get shown for 20, 30 years.
So Iran, for example, has a lot of artists who were seen as being too close to the shah, and so their works were never shown except in the diaspora. You could see them outside Iran. So it really is subjected to the whims of these autocracies that rule most of the region. But there is definitely-- with scholarship, there's much more appreciation to these artists.
I mean, I collected artists who are close to the Syrian government. And you say, oh, well, how can you show this work? This person is close to the Syrian government and he supports the Syrian government. And I say, well, the artwork is beautiful.
So it really is a bit contentious when you think about whether you should be showing an artist who was close to Saddam Hussein or not, or close to Hosni Mubarak or not. And so it's a dilemma, right? I think art should be shown. But then this is a global question.
IFTIKHAR DADI: Yeah. There were also artists who were like Inji Efflatoun, who was jailed for being a communist and so on. So there were also people-- there were also-- and so I think Sultan mentioned patronage by banks and the state.
What that does is patronage also kind of shapes the art production. And if you have essentially institutions like the state or the banks collecting a certain kind of work, then they will not necessarily patronize very experimental work, for example, so one also has to keep that in mind. Yes.
AUDIENCE: So, Sultan, so much of your presentation is about searching and mining, investigating what's lost, receiving DMs as part of it. But the point is this is essentially investigative. How do you deal with the fact that there are some works that just will never be recovered? Sometimes they never discovered.
How does one represent what is unrepresentable. Especially when there's so much culturally, diplomatically at stake and represents [INAUDIBLE], how does one sort of impress a sense for like how we're hearing like the presence of like Egyptians artists, for instance, even if one can't find an adequate certainty of their work?
SULTAN SOOUD AL-QASSEMI: This is a great question. Thank you. So this reminds me of an exhibition I went to a few years ago with Caspar David Friedrich, the German artist, who so much of his work was lost during the bombing of Dresden in the 1940s. And so I remember seeing this series of light boxes of an artist who tried to revive these missing works. You'll never find them. There's literally a bomb that was thrown on that building, and the works will never be recovered. It's not like they're stolen or maybe somewhat damaged. So he revived these works by placing them on these light boxes.
One other way is through technology. I don't want to use the word "NFT," but there are other ways like technology that allows you to bring these works back into the fold. I remember there's an example of Jawad Saleem. So Jawad Saleem is the father of modernism in Iraq. He died at the age of 41, 42-- he was very young-- in 1961. And he worked on public monuments.
And he died from exhaustion because he was under pressure to finish this major monument in Baghdad for the government. So the republic was-- the president was demanding that this monument is done by the summer. And then he was so exhausted, just collapsed and died.
So his wife finishes that monument. And then in one of the wars of Iraq, I'm not sure which one, one of his paintings was destroyed, and his wife redrew it. Lorna Saleem redrew the painting, so I wonder if that is a solution.
And I'm in touch with this Yemeni artist, who won awards and he studied in Moscow or in the Surikov, I think, in the 1980s. And his works were damaged during this Yemen war, the ongoing war in Yemen. And we were trying to convince him to paint the artworks again because he fell into a depression.
And I don't know if it is right or not to do that, but there are ways for you to think about using digitization, using light boxes, using novel ideas to-- or at least investing in scholarship. Even if the work will never come back, we have paintings--
So we have images of artworks by Inji Efflatoun, the one that she spoke about in her book where she-- so Inji was this activist that Professor Iftikhar Dadi spoke about. She was jailed by the government. She was an activist. She was very-- she had demands for women's rights, for labor rights.
And she created this artwork that became a stencil that's lost. No one knows where it is. But we have images of it, and so it's living. It's like graffiti art. It could be there for a few weeks, but then if you take a picture of it, it lives forever. So I wonder if we can enhance low-quality images and revive them and color them and bring them back to life. Maybe this is a solution.
IFTIKHAR DADI: Yeah, I mean, the question of, really, kind of restitution and destruction and memory, I think these are important questions. I think many of the strategies you mentioned, it reminds me also that you recover something, but the recovery itself has the memory of loss itself as part of the recovery effort. In other words, that you cannot recreate history whole, but even if you recreate a memory of an important work or something, that process is marked by an acknowledgment that it is lost, something like that. Back there, there was a question. Yes.
AUDIENCE: I found your discussion of sources of inspiration very interesting. And it didn't have a Western orientation as I expected them to have. But are you suggesting that there was almost a separate, maybe parallel movement or development of abstraction? [INAUDIBLE]
IFTIKHAR DADI: Well, what I'm saying is that even the Western-- what we call Western abstraction is not Western. That's what I'm saying. It is very much-- from the beginning, it's marred by exchange and globality. That even when you look at, basically, Mondrian, Malevich, and Kandinsky, all of them were either theosophists or anthroposophists, for example.
So in other words, you cannot-- because the idea is when you lose-- the idea is that when you strive for something higher, which is when you lose the object, you still have to have a value that grounds your investigation, and that has to-- and for these artists, it came through their understanding of, quote-unquote, "Eastern" kind of spiritual philosophies.
Now, anthroposophy theosophy are kind of synthetic constructions, if you will. They are not really-- but it doesn't matter. What I'm saying is that it's a gambit, right? It's a gambit that tries to develop a new aesthetic regime based on a new value system that lets go of the object and offer realism.
And that procedure is-- if you think of modernism, modernism in Europe itself is a rejection of European legacies. It's a rejection of perspective. It's a rejection of depth. It's a rejection of realism. So I'm saying that modernism is all about exchange and-- OK?
And also, I think we don't need to make distinctions that there's something like Western abstraction and Eastern abstraction, because all of these artists are also very much involved in exchange. Jawad Saleem studied in Italy and so on. I mean, many of these artists actually are seeing the works of European artists and so on, whether through magazines, through books, or by travel. They're being trained.
So I really think the question of originality and separateness is not the interesting one. The interesting one is for each artist or for a school of artists, what were their concerns? What was motivating them aesthetically, socially, politically at that historical juncture? I think if you ask those questions, it becomes a much more interesting way to think about abstraction than to worry about whether this artist draws his or her genealogy from this specific lineage.
AUDIENCE: I agree. I think you just put a whole different spin on that element in this program. It's very nice.
ELLEN AVRIL: Thank you so much, everyone. And thank you, Sultan and Iftikhar, for the wonderful presentations and conversation.
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Iftikhar Dadi is the John H. Burris Professor in the History of Art at Cornell University, and Sultan Sooud Al-Qassemi is the founder of the Barjeel Art Foundation in the United Arab Emirates.
Their conversation explores the efflorescence of twentieth-century modernism in the Arab world in conjunction with the exhibition “Taking Shape: Abstraction from the Arab World, 1950s–1980s,” on view February 12-June 12, 2022, at the Johnson Museum.
“Taking Shape,” organized by the Grey Art Gallery at New York University, draws solely on artworks from the Barjeel Foundation’s groundbreaking collections of modern and contemporary Arab art. Dadi is a contributor to the accompanying exhibition catalogue.
At the Johnson, “Taking Shape” was coordinated by Ellen Avril, Chief Curator and the Judith H. Stoikov Curator of Asian Art, and supported by a generous gift endowed in memory of Elizabeth Miller Francis ’47.