Modern Art in the Arab World

Primary Documents

Modern Art in the Arab World

MoMA Primary Documents

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Book Pages: 464 Illustrations: 102 illustrations Published: March 2018

Art and Visual Culture > Art Criticism and Theory, Art History, Middle East Studies

Modern Art in the Arab World: Primary Documents offers an unprecedented resource for the study of modernism: a compendium of critical art writings by twentieth-century Arab intellectuals and artists. The selection of texts—many of which appear here for the first time in English—includes manifestos, essays, transcripts of roundtable discussions, diary entries, exhibition guest-book comments, letters, and more. Traversing empires and nation-states, diasporas and speculative cultural and political federations, these documents bring light to the formation of a global modernism, through debates on originality, public space, spiritualism and art, postcolonial exhibition politics, and Arab nationalism, among many other topics. The collection is framed chronologically, and includes contextualizing commentaries to assist readers in navigating its broad geographic and historical scope. Interspersed throughout the volume are sixteen contemporary essays: writings by scholars on key terms and events as well as personal reflections by modern artists who were themselves active in the histories under consideration. A newly commissioned essay by historian and Arab-studies scholar Ussama Makdisi provides a historical overview of the region’s intertwined political and cultural developments during the twentieth century. Modern Art in the Arab World is an essential addition to the investigation of modernism and its global manifestations.

Publication of the Museum of Modern Art
Distributed by Duke University Press


"The translation and publication of these documents is particularly important for scholars. A problem with studying 20th-century Arab art has been lack of access to primary materials. Many of them are still in the hands of artists or their families, and have not been well-catalogued nor digitised – or are in Arabic and inaccessible to an English-dominated field. As study of Arab modernisms grows, projects like this allow artists’ voices to be heard, rather than others speaking for them." — Melissa Gronlund, The National

"This is a book to relish and dig into time and time again. Each article takes on a different meaning on further reading. . . . This book inspires a love for Arabic art history and should encourage further historical and contextual illustration that will illustrate the subject and render it more accessible."  — Omar Kholeif, Critical Inquiry

"The constant awareness of both the possibilities and difficulties of speaking or writing about art and its potentially revolutionary mission makes this fascinating anthology a worthwhile contribution to the global conversation about art." — Raphael Cormack, Apollo

"A unique reference for students of modern Arab art and a fascinating window into cultural debates in the region." — Ursula Lindsey, Al Fanar Media

"The compelling format of Modern Art in the Arab World allows us to understand not only the various genres and histories, but also the multiple roles Arab artists often occupy in the context of the world at large. . . . I found myself wanting to converse with the texts, because they feel alive, contextualized, yet un-homogenized. The advancement of the arts, aligned to faceted histories of war and peace, conquests, manifestos, economic development, and technological advances, makes reading this book feel unburdened by issues of who did what first. Like a map, this work allows you to connect points of inception and departure, to gather parallel and random threads that reveal new intersections." — Doris Bittar, Al Jadid

"An unprecedented anthology of source material on modern art in the Arab world. . . . Modern Art in The Arab World provides not only a substantial archive, but also a liminal space of textual fluidity to revisit modernity outside of its North Atlantic core." — Golnar Yarmohammad Touski, Contemporaneity

“This is a unique collection of writings of extraordinary interest. The richness and variety of the documents allow you to listen in, across more than a century, to the debates among artists and critics about the nature, value, and political direction of art. Their manifestos, reflections, essays, dialogues, and letters capture a vibrant modernism as it was forged, elaborated, and contested.” — Timothy Mitchell, William B. Ransford Professor of Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African Studies, Columbia University

“This volume on Arab art is an important addition to MoMA’s remarkable Primary Documents series. It demonstrates how cumulative research raises the stakes and positions the colonial modern as a determinant within twentieth-century art, and how modernity is co-produced and thus embedded with contradictions that historicize it the more. With an excellent introduction by the editors, art writing from across Arab cultures is chronicled and debated in ways that change interpretive modalities: the pan-Arab imaginary—treated as trope, ideology, material practice—becomes, for instance, Arab meta-discourse on internationalism. This volume will precipitate discourse in contexts beyond the West and, like its predecessors in the series, change parameters within the discipline of art history.” — Geeta Kapur, critic, curator, and author of When Was Modernism: Essays on Contemporary Cultural Practice in India


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Anneka Lenssen is Assistant Professor of Art History at the University of California, Berkeley.

Sarah Rogers is an independent scholar.

Nada Shabout is Professor of Art History at the University of North Texas.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Foreword / Glenn D. Lowry  13
Acknowledgments / Jay A. Levenson and Sara Lookofsky  15
Introduction: About This Book / Anneka Lenssen, Sarah Rogers, Nada Shabout  18
Essay: The Making and Unmaking of the Arab World / Ussama Makdisi  28
Primary Documents
Defining Painting  36
On the Benefits of Art  37
Arab Romantics  45
In Focus. Arab Romanticism / Stephen Sheehi  55
Letter from Algiers to Paris  57
Sculpture and the Public in Egypt  58
In Defense of Egyptian Popular Art  68
In Focus. Cairo's School of Fine Arts and the Pedagogical Imperative / Dana Ramadan  72
Letter from Marrakesh to Algiers  73
On the Formation of a Modern Spirit  74
In Focus. Cultivation Discourses in the Arab East / Kristen Scheid  76
Viewing the Exhibition  77
Querying Art and Religion  80
The Neo-Orientalists/Cairo  86
Egyptian Art and Freedom Debates  87
Shaping the Fate of the Nation  106
Iraq's Wartime Transformation  109
On Agony and Beauty  110
Contemporary Art Group/Cairo  113
Plates I (1-25)  117
Surrealist Sensitivities  133
Petition for the 1 Percent Law/Tunis  138
An Early Declaration of Huroufiyah  139
In Focus. Huroufiyah: The Arabic Letter as Visual Form  142
Imagining an Immortal Arab Art  144
Toward a Material Modernism  145
Baghdad Group for Modern Art  150
The Cultural Politics of Exhibitions  155
In Focus. The Nakba and Arab Culture / Nasser Rabbat  161
Algerian Group of the Lettrist International/Algiers  163
A Call to Human Heritage  164
Considering Arab Art and Artists  167
Reviewing the Iraqi Revolution  181
Proclaiming Arab Unity  186
In Focus. Biennials and Arab Representation / Anneka Lenssen  191
Cairo: Limits on Freedom  192
Materials for a New Algerian Art  196
Plastic Arts Movement/Damascus  198
In Focus. Art and Political Patronage during the Cold War / Sarah Rogers  204
Making Spaces in Beirut  206
Personal Reflection. Three Years of Teaching Art in Khartoum, 1962-65 / Amir Nour  211
Plates II (26-49)  213
Art After the Algerian Revolution  229
Exploratory Abstraction  240
The Challenge of Art  243
Contemplative Art/Baghdad  252
Presenting New Tunisian Painting  256
Morocco's Casablanca School Dialogues  263
Debating North African Art at Home and Away  279
Aouchem Group/Algiers and Blida  292
Circulism and Kinetics in Kuwait  294
In Focus. Experiments in Modern Arabic Typography / Huda Smitshuijzen AbiFarés  301
Accounting for the June 1967 War  303
Personal Reflection. From Dreams to Achievements: A Jordanian Artist in the Era of 1968 / Mona Saudi  322
Exhibition at Djema Al Fna/Marrakesh  323
Transforming the Arts of the Revolution  324
In Focus. Revolutionary Film: The Palestine Film Unit / Mohanad Yaqubi  333
Arab Art in Federation  335
Exhibition Articulations in Iraq  343
Personal Reflection. Notes on Contact Art Gallery, 1972-85 / Waddah Faris  351
A Transregional Critical Terrain  352
Art and the Letter  357
The Diasporic Divide  362
New Realism/Baghdad  367
Response to the October 1973 War  369
Personal Reflection. Graphic Design and the Visual Arts in Iraq / Dia al-Azzawi  370
In Focus. Graphic Art in the Arab World / May Muzaffar  372
Arab Biennial Initiatives and Critiques  374
Life as a Palestinian Artist  387
Khartoum Dialogues  393
Second Arab Biennial in Rabat  408
On the Desert Style in Saudi Arabia  412
Thinking Through Culture During the Lebanese Civil Wars  415
Environmental Art at Asilah  419
In Focus. Yemen's Free Atelier: History and Context in the Arabian Peninsula / Anahi Alviso-Marino  424
The Closure of Gallery 79/Ramallah  426
Debating Commitment in a New Egypt  427
Contemporary Modes in the United Arab Emirates  443
Personal Reflection. Along New Paths: The New Visions Art Collective in Occupied Palestine / Vera Tamari  446
Index  449
Trustees of The Museum of Modern Art  464

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