First Impressions: Block Student Associates on ‘Taking Shape’

The Block Museum Student Associates (BMSA) work together to exercise close-looking skills and bring their experience and curiosity to bear on understanding works of art. Before executing research on the works in the exhibition Taking Shape: Abstraction from the Arab World, 1950s–1980s, the group challenged themselves to write down their first impressions, interests, and inquiries into the works they encountered. The BMSA students are happy to share these initial thoughts and hope to inspire similar questions and a curious spirit in exhibition viewers.

Seta Manoukian, Across the Town (1970)
Oil on canvas, 90 × 110 cm.

The cool color tones and texture in this painting struck me when I turned the corner in the exhibit. I immediately questioned whether the artist was trying to capture the essence of some natural subject in front of them, or if it truly was a reflection or meditation on a feeling or moment the artist had experienced. To me, the painting felt as if it was toeing the line between an abstract representation of a feeling and a more impressionist representation of the natural world. I imagined this painting as an essence-capturing depiction of storm waves crashing over brisk, rocky coastlines, but what I love about art is that it’s a form of expression with endless impact and meaning for different individuals.  – Gabby Bliss

Jafar Islah, The Void (1967)
Acrylic on canvas, 122 x 95 cm

The first work of art in the Taking Shape exhibit that elicited an emotional reaction for me was “The Void”. Art has a beautiful way of touching viewers’ lives in different ways, and for me, the thin, white rectangular outline on a seemingly black background immediately caught my eye because it was almost identical to the iconic symbol of the 1975, my favorite band. Of course, the rectangular outline carries different meanings in these different contexts, but the work intrigued me in terms of what it represented for the artist at the time of the painting’s conception. The title almost seemed ironic at first, as from afar the shape looks flat on an opaque black surface, while The Void alludes to an entity of infinite depth. But upon closer inspection, layers of color create a depth to the painting as the viewer gets closer, making it feel as though the artist and painting are rewarding the curious with entry to The Void through a thin white doorway, which I love. – Gabby Bliss

At first glance, the composition seems simple: a black canvas with a thin almost-rectangle in the center. Over time the ‘black’ background reveals itself to be a radial gradient with a central deep green shade (The wall text reveals that the background is actually made up of 20 colors). Learning that the ‘void’ took up various layers and shades of paint complicated this object’s meaning for me as viewer, as the title and process seem antithetical. The central white frame also becomes a facet of this opposition – is it framing the void named in the title, or should it be considered an aspect of the void as well? – Solome Bezuneh

Huguette Caland, City II (1968)
Oil on canvas, 80 x 100 cm

This work gives nautical city vibes and I am so here for it. I love the color palette, particularly the blues, and the way that the rectangular shapes appear suspended, crowding and confronting one another to create one mass. I think the work displays Caland’s brilliance in their ability to make the shapes appear at once flat and facing the viewer while also facing one another within the painting. It’s labyrinth-like, and intrigues me for its resemblance to cities in real life. From afar they comprise a mass, something we can see from great distance and identify as a whole. But from up close, or from within, they each have their own faces and positions and confrontations and colors. Like buildings in a city, the shapes on the canvas are distinct yet unified and I think Caland’s piece here is such a cool representation of that. – Carolina Carret

Hussein Madi, Untitled (1969)

The dynamic nature of this painting as well as the rich color drew me in from the start. I absolutely love the seeming order of the blocks of color which occupy the canvas behind the thickly painted human-like silhouette. The figure reminds me of a person jerking backward, yet expanding in different directions, spanning different blocks of color. It makes me wonder: What was the artists intention in rendering the figure this way? Is it even supposed to resemble a human, and if so what should one make of its touching on different colors, stretching across the canvas? My current reading of it is a human figure in motion, expanding over the different the colors like a person touches and experiences on different energies. It’s just a really fun and captivating piece, I think! – Carolina Carret

Ibrahim El-Salahi, The Last Sound (1964)
Oil on canvas, 121.5 X 121 .5

The first image I could make out in this piece was a person’s side profile. I could make out the purse of their lips, the curve of their head, the bump of their ear, and the stretching of their neck. The reddish, brown colors emerging from the center of the painting seem to be coming out of the person’s throat, as if it is their voice. The stretch of the neck but also the color of their voice—this reddish brown that suggests warmth, mud, and blood—makes it seem as if the person is crying out and singing at the same time. It makes me think of the call to prayer or the way Sudanese women ululate during important celebrations/gatherings. It felt painful but also like a call to witness something beautiful. The surrounding colors and shapes remind me of the dry, desert landscape. The one shape above the head reminded me of bakhoor, scented coal that is burned to release a pleasant and strongly permeating smell. Not only did I see and hear this painting, I could also smell it. – Toy Suliman

Ibrahim El-Salahi’s The Last Sound is an especially eye-catching work for me. It’s remarkably visceral, with the center of the image almost appearing to be a disembodied trachea with soundwaves emanating from it. The dark red of the central mass starkly contrasts with the largely beige background, and this helps me visualize it – at least personally – as an almost anatomical object. I would like to know more about the Arabic calligraphy used in this artwork; the calligraphy appears to be very precise and formulaic, which is much different from the rest of the work’s composition. How did El-Salahi incorporate the calligraphy into this piece? Did he write it himself? Did he trace it? Did he create the calligraphy on another piece of canvas and apply it to The Last Sound? Understanding the physical composition and deeper meaning of the calligraphy is something I’m very interested in. – Zeki Hirsch

This piece originally caught my attention because it was so oddly unique. I was so confused by its sight that I felt it needed more time to even generate thoughts. With scripture towards the top, I guessed that they were Quranic scriptures although I have absolutely no idea as Arabic calligraphy is difficult to both read and write, requiring special training. The central “figure” or element that seems to take most of my attention is continually elusive in trying to understand anything about it. Within this thin silhouette of a potentially pregnant figure, is a dark wood shaded spirit like void, which I can only guess symbolizes some life of a person, slowly being drained by this circle (voice? Sound?) emanating from its head. – Zayn Elmasry

When I saw this piece initially, I immediately was drawn in because it looked like a special edition book cover of my favorite book. After looking at the piece for a bit, I noticed the chalice-looking swirl at the top with a dot within it, which reminded me of the Arabic alphabet. This was also contrasted by its light background which made it pop, which makes me wonder what the artist had in mind to emphasize a potential letterform in this contrasting way. The dot in the center drew me in as well, especially as lines which look like spokes on a wheel led into it. It reminded me of the musical instrument (the lute) I saw in the book cover due to its brown wood color and upright shape. I also began to notice the crescent moon shapes all around the piece, which raises questions about the piece’s connection to Arab culture and religion. – Hank Yang

Samia Halaby, White Cube in Brown Cube (1969)
Oil on canvas, 122 x 122 cm

This immediately sparks an art historical frame of mind. I am curious how the artist would describe Malevich’s Black Square influence on this piece, and then, how art that emerged from the Russian revolution may influence how the Palestinian freedom movement has developed and used their own artistic style as a form of political power. Throughout the collection of art in the Block’s Taking Shape show, there seems, to me, to be a clear correlation between color blocking and geopolitical messaging. Color and form tell the viewer a story of occupation, colonialism, and the constant struggle to control space that is being covered over by foreign forces. –Eli Gordon

Ramsès Younan, Composition No. 3 (c.1964)

At a distance, the layers of brown in this painting reminded me of tree bark. Getting closer, the bark became a map. But a map with no compass, no topographical lines, no key indexing these shingles of bark as sites that I might recognize. I tried seeing some of the amorphous shapes as bears, as birds, and even as humans, but the piece refused my attempts to order this representation of space. It’s not that the painting failed to live up to my way of knowing reality, but that I needed to imagine beyond the instinct to categorize and delineate what I see. From what tradition did I inherit this habit of projection, and how might I unlearn it? – Bobby Yalam

The painting is composed of many little parts. At first it seems like the parts have jagged edges but upon closer examination, I realize smooth rounded structures that resemble human bodies and faces. On the left side of the painting there even seems to be a silhouette of a house. The earthy and warm color palette is synchronized yet unblended, where you also spot touches of blue. I feel like this painting gives off the impression of being unrehearsed but really each section is painted with lots of intention and detail, where the shapes of the smudges are sharp and clear and encircle the canvas. There seems to be more detail in the center of the piece and blur as it gets to the corners. I wonder about the location of the painting. What are the meanings of the layered smudges that bleed down the canvas, obscuring the content beneath? –Joyce Wang

Munira Al-Kazi, Untitled (1962)
Monotype, 38 x 34 cm

The canvas upon which this piece was made refuses to be overlooked. Its grid of fibers creates a topography of paint, with valleys and cracks like a desert landscape. It even has a “grand canyon” of sorts, on the right hand side, where the paint seems to fall into a tear in the canvas. I was struck by this unassuming part of the piece because of the fibers protruding from the scarred canvas. They’ve broken from the grid that’s otherwise prominent throughout. They reach outward like roots, as if the viewer is underground, looking at the site of this painting’s growth. From the deeply contoured grid, to these dendritic protrusions, does the moniker of “painting” even apply in this case? How do we encounter forms that exist between what we think of as sketches, paintings, and sculptures?  – Bobby Yalam

Kamal Boullata, Fi-l Bid Kan-al-Kalima (1983)
Silkscreen, 58 x 58 cm

Kamal Boullata’s Fi-l Bid Kan-al-Kalima immediately caught my attention through its use of Kufic script. Kufic, to me, is Arabic calligraphy at its highest point. It’s been used from the Islamic Golden Age to the present and I just sort of melt whenever I see it in an artwork. Boullata is clearly revitalizing a very ancient art form in this work, but he is doing so in an unconventional way. The work’s color scheme is atypical of medieval Islamic art, and the work’s central square disrupting the rest of the image is also atypical. My assumption is that Boullata is deliberately doing this so his artwork straddles the threshold between traditional Arab art and Arab modernism. I would love to know more about his thought process behind this decision and the series of works it is a part of. – Zeki Hirsch

Wijdan, Untitled (1977)
Oil on canvas, 100.5 × 100.5 cm

When I first saw Wijdan’s Untitled (1977), I was immediately drawn to it. In person, you can see the painting has a lot of texture, with raised marks, and an appearance of being aged. The marks themselves look like tally marks, almost as if something is being counted. The central shape, a mix of red, blue, and orange marks, is reminiscent to me of a land mass, with the blocks of colors between them creating pseudo-borders. Although the reds, blues, and oranges at first glance appear distinct from each other, upon closer inspection, you can see the colors bleeding into each other and overlapping, making the borders more nebulous. I would love to just know more about this piece, but especially about the artists’ choice to use marks (almost lines) as units of composition, and how that came about. The piece for me raises a lot of questions about borders as well: what is a border? How do we create them, what separations are generated, and what assumptions underlie our thinking? – Ipsita K

During the Taking Shape exhibit opening, the speakers focused their discussion on how many pieces in the collection incorporate and play with the written form. That stood out to me primarily with this piece by Wijdan, in which a canvas is covered in a mass of black, red, and orange tally marks. This piece stood out due to the way the artist attended to its textural landscape. These elements together remind me of a map, in which words, texture, and color offer different information about the place in question. If that is the case, I wonder what the artist may be telling the observer about the place she’s chosen. – Kevin Foley

Hussein Shariffe, Dream Walkers (1959)
Oil on canvas, 51 x 127 cm

Hussein Shariffe’s Dream Walkers (1959) has a cinematic quality. Through closer inspection, the seemingly-abstract shapes turn into humanesque figures, walking together in a line to an unknown destination (with at least five figures embarking on this journey). When I first saw this painting, the dark colors and the border evoked a somber, almost darkness, making me think of figures walking through the cave, but then I noticed a distinct circular shape in the top, with faint lines surrounding it, resembling a sun, suggesting that the scene is outdoors. The piece ultimately does have a very dream-like quality about it, and makes me wonder who are the figures? Where are they going? It also fascinates me how abstract shapes can evoke such a familiarity. Why and how do certain forms become so familiar to us, and how do we draw parallels between art and other things in the world? – Ipsita K

Geometric shapes line up next to each other in a horizontal fashion, with triangles drawn below ovals. A muted undertone fills each shape and seems to be rubbed out, tethered, and old. The rust-like texture denotes passing of time. The shapes lean to the same side. It gives me the feeling of a family or a group of friends. The long rectangular shape of the canvas compliments the borders of the painting that act like a container enclosing the space. The background has colored vertical panels with faint white scratches and cracks. I wonder how this painting was created with the layers, cracked texture, and spots. Why is the subject matter closed off by the picture-like frame painted around the borders and why do I feel like there is more beyond the canvas? Was this painting dedicated to a certain person? Is it a part of a series? – Joyce Wang

Abdallah Benanteur, The Garden of Saadi (1984)
Oil on canvas, polytype of four paintings, 95 x 120 cm

The shape of The Garden of Saadi caught my eye before anything else. The middle of the frame is tall and the sides are shorter. It looked, at first, like a funerary triptych. After getting closer, I realized the frame is not paneled, the canvases are simply separated into four sections. Within those sections, there is an abundance of natural colors: greens, blues, browns, and yellows. When you look closely, there are even more colors within the others. Among the colors are many bird-like and animal shapes. I love the nature-scape that Benanteur creates within the piece. Many people say that it is pejorative to compare non-western art with Eurocentric artists and styles; Benanteur brings this topic into question with this piece and the one next to it titled To Monet, Giverny. I am curious about what others have to say about this issue , and what Benanteur wants people to gather. – Rowan McCloskey

I was originally struck by this painting because of my own interest in nature and gardening. Benanteur’s abstraction of a natural landscape reminds me of a Monet, mainly due to some of the softer colors blended throughout the canvas. However, The Garden is more exciting to me since the landscape is less realized, allowing the observer’s imagination to play a larger role interpreting the image. Moreover, given that the Taking Shape exhibit is centered around the Arab World, I was really interested in the artworks that center around a physical place and was curious to know what inspired the garden in the painting. I wonder in what ways the artist’s home (whether it’s part of the Arab World or abroad) inspired his depiction. – Kevin Foley

Shakir Hassan Al Said, Untitled (1970)
Oil on wood, 65 x 46 cm, c. 1970

I walked into the Alsdorf gallery, and knew I would not have enough time to look at all of the pieces sufficiently. Untitled (1970) caught my eye because, from afar, it is much darker than many other pieces in the gallery. Upon getting closer and looking longer, the painting does not feel very dark at all. There are reds, greens, and earth tones seemingly stemming from behind the lightly colored centerpieces. It is unclear if those tones are stemming from the white lines or if they are already there, simply obfuscated by the darkness. The white lines in the fore appear to be letters, but only because I know that the exhibit is Arabic and many other pieces use letters in their subjects. However, I wonder if they are actual letters or rather playing with the idea of language. If they are letters, are they making up words? What words? – Rowan McCloskey

Miloud Labied, Composition (1980)
Oil on paper, 47 x 34 cm

I was drawn to this image primarily because of the balance of earthen and bright tones as well as the whimsical shapes portrayed. The more I looked at the image, the more I wondered about the choice to place a bold, black figure at the bottom left corner, and if it was intentional in terms of contrasting the playfulness of the other colors. To see many of the shapes enveloped within others brings up feelings of lightness and safety – they seem to mimic the loving ways in which young children stick to their caregivers. I am curious about the writing at the bottom right corner and what that signifies – why are there numbers? Lastly and most importantly, I noticed how the whimsicality of the figures incited a multi-sensory experience, as I felt as if I could hear this image. – Meena Sharma

Rachid Koraichi, Sans toi, moi ou l’hallucination nostalgique (1986)
Ink on clay on panel, 64.5 x 49.5 cm, 1986

I am really fascinated by the difference in scale of the characters portrayed in this image, and the shapes in which they are organized. The choice to portray one character bold and large with smaller lettering behind it makes apparent the different degrees to which words can have an impact, and how one word or phrase can be more impactful than a million words or phrases. Though this was my takeaway, I wonder about the artist’s intention in portraying the lettering at three different scales. I also wonder if there was any reason behind arranging the characters into triangular/pyramidal shapes – is this a reference to a specific location? Lastly, while I do enjoy colored images, I have an appreciation for the choice to use two colors only, and wonder what it means to bring the two colors (beige/off white and black) associated with writing into an artistic space. – Meena Sharma

This next work caught my eye as well. I was fascinated by the sumi-e type brushstrokes that reminded me of old East Asian typography artwork. I immediately wondered whether this is Arabic writing, and whether the artist got influence from East Asian writing or whether it was influenced by something else. I was really interested in the smaller lettering all around the main subject that filled in and morphed around it, almost like a student trying to fill in a cheat sheet with as much information as possible. I also wondered what the meaning of the two different shapes of the main typography was, as the first stands tall like a building, while the other slopes inward like a pyramid. I think my greatest question is the meaning behind all the words written, and whether it is relaying a powerful message or just gibberish. – Hank Yang

Dia-al-Azzawi, Composition (1976)
Oil on canvas, 35 x 35 3/8 in

The first object that was particularly striking to me was Composition, 1976 by Dia-al-Azzawi. What first caught my eye was how bits and pieces of the abstraction look like human body parts. Specifically, the center of the painting looks like interwoven fingers – it seems as if two people are holding hands. The neutral tone of the painting colors gives the piece an overall calm and serene feel. I love how these muted browns and beiges contrast with the ribbons of blue that pop throughout the work. To me, the work feels like a warm hug. The semblance of intimacy in this painting makes me wonder, did the painter have someone specifically in mind when creating this work? It also seems as though there is a portion of this painting that has some lettering – what language is the text in? How does the interpretation of this text contribute to the overall message the artist is attempting to convey? –Tamara Ulalisa

Simone Fattal, Celestial Forms (1973)

Celestial Forms, 1973 by Simone Fattal was another piece that stuck out to me and drew me in at first glance around the gallery. I love how this piece also looks like two individuals intertwining. To me, this seems like two souls dancing together. It looks harmonious, bright, and spritely. I like how the center of the piece is heart-shaped, representing warmth and bringing the eye to the pop of red color that outlines both the heart and the outside of the oblong shapes. The broad and wide brush strokes throughout the piece contribute to a feeling of grand intention in the painting. This painting makes me wonder, does the artist adhere to a certain faith? If so, how would that influence this painting? –Tamara Ulalisa

Najat Makki, Untitled [Window]
Henna and acrylic on paper, 1987, 48 x 31 cm

Najaf Makki’s Window was particularly captivating as I went through the exhibition. Forgetting its title, the painting features a tangle of brown and blue lines in the foreground. Looking closer one will notice small areas in the painting where Makki included detailed line work. These aspects are what initially caught my attention – they seem like they should be legible but in reality, they’re quite difficult to actually identify. When reintroducing the title of Window, the piece gains new and interesting layers of meaning. Are we looking out or into this window? What does it mean that in this window stands an undecipherable figure? – Solome Bezuneh

Jassim Zaini, Untitled No. 13 (1972)
Oil on fiberboard, 30 × 40 cm

This piece looked super interesting, with the rough segmented/partitioned canvas. I hope it doesn’t count as research, but I read the side info panel which gave the context of discovery of oil and fleeing the Arabian gulf as some identifying factors. The dark brown and rusty colors gave the sense of almost a dilapidated and post-industrial apocalyptic world. With the combination of a perceived future and the presence of oil, it gives this impression that Zaini considers industrialization inevitable when it’s even possible. The very structured elements of the piece with the corners shifting away felt like we (the viewer) were witnessing this metallic shade expanding. I’m supposing that this is potentially symbolic of oil/industrial life being birthed from the sands of the Arab world and changing the landscape from some land formerly inhabited by bedouins into some megacity hellscape that has lost its former character. – Zayn Elmasry

Mohamed Melehi, Composition (1970)
Acrylic on wood, 120 x 100 cm

Melehi’s Composition challenged me in terms of the balance that it strikes between color, movement, and form to express feeling. In the artwork, four separate panels, or two panes of crimson and royal blue, are bisected by an emerald green cross that is outlined with yellow and orange. When I first saw this artwork, it made me think of the supreme composition as well as movement—the panels of color almost radiate out of the painting’s center. The painting feels powerful, beatific even, to me; and it reads as expressive and generous, while retaining a self-contained quality I see held in the idea of its ‘static movement.’ – Katy Kim

Abdallah Benanteur, To Monet, Giverny (1983)
Oil on canvas, 1983, 120 x 120 cm

The artwork To Monet, Giverny interested me, as it was both like and unlike anything I’ve seen. In terms of references, the first thing that came to my mind was European impressionism, replete with dabs and whorls of expressive color. However, the color palette in this artwork felt new, refreshing, and visually distinct from that immediate association. The artwork then prompted me to reconsider why perhaps, when I first saw it, that I felt the most ease in first likening it to another visual vocabulary. How might knowing a base of references alter the experience of fully experiencing this artwork and all of its colors? Finally, the artwork presents markings that are not quite identifiable, which to me captures a sense of ‘coming into being’ or a kind of nascent expression of something beyond or prior to language, and being formed into knowledge. The artwork made me reflect on how knowledge then comes into being, and captures a feeling or expression when words are not yet spoken through color and form. – Katy Kim

Huguette Caland, Bribes de Corps (1971)
Oil on canvas, 96 × 96 cm

During the Taking Shape opening, one of the artworks that held my attention was Huguette Caland’s Bribes de Corps because of its subtle abstract design but somewhat universally-recognized undertones, creating a sense of both wonder and familiarity. The curvature of the lines and the use of negative space at the bottom of the artwork give the form presented a gentleness, warmed by the choice of color and soft shading. Because the entire canvas almost feels engulfed by the form presented, it reminds me of the concept of bodies taking up space, both metaphorically and physically, and what that means in different cultural contexts. Caland’s art poses the question of how is the body used (or not used) as a form of resistance, and how is that resistance represented portrayed in art. – Mayán Alvarado-Goldberg

Afaf Zurayk, Human Form (1983)
Oil on canvases, 46 × 36 cm

Sitting quietly in the left corridor of Taking Shape are the shadowy presences of Afaf Zurayk’s Human Form artworks. When I rounded the corner, expecting to find a blank wall, I was met with the cakey blacks, browns, and whites that span the two canvases, creating a sense of fogginess for the viewer. Looking closely at the colors, the gold and champagne highlights create what is reminiscent of human figures, but it is not clear whether the figures lie in the black streaks or the shimmering brown auras. To me, this artwork reminds me of what I would see – or try to piece together – after waking up from a dream, unclear of the details of the human forms I have come across, but knowing confidently that their presence remains. – Mayán Alvarado-Goldberg

Nabil Nahas, Untitled (Kitty Hawk) (1980) and Hamed Abdalla, Al-Tamazzuq (Torn) (1975)

The two works that struck me the most were Al-Tamazzuq (Torn) by Hamed Abdalla and Untitled (Kitty Hawk) by Nabil Nahas because of how the artists played with negative space and depth. The cracked blue background in Al-Tamazzuq (Torn) made me wonder what was beyond the painting. As in, what is going on in the background beneath the background? The painting evokes a feeling of mystery and chaos. After all, the viewer isn’t sure what the white figure is. I assumed it was a person the first time I looked at the painting, but after seeing it again I thought that it might be a broken building, which would fit in with the translated title (Torn). I have a feeling that this painting is a glance of something in action, and if it were a video we would see everything fall apart to reveal the darkness behind the blue background.

Nabil Nahas’ Untitled (Kitty Hawk) colorful and striking composition also implies movement. When looking at the painting, I felt a weird urge to poke my head through the geometric structures, as if it were a three-dimensional creation. I wonder, why does Nabil Nahas play with depth in this way? Unlike Hamed Abdalla’s painting, the blue background is fully intact. But what it is within the blue? What is Nahas trying to tell us about the world of his painting? – Jaharia Knowles

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Leave a Reply