Episode 126: Al-Harf as a site of Negotiating Modernism and Unity
The articulation of the Arabic letter in modern art in the Arab world has been a popular topic of discussion. The letter served 20th century artists on multiple levels and allowed for contradictory arguments. The letter became part of a more complex discourse of signs that drew on a collective and historical memory of difference, rupture and continuity. It disrupted and subverted the rhetoric of regional separation and promoted unity; its prominence in this imaginative and constructed discourse alluded to an emphasis on cultural overlaps, intersections, connections, and continuity between the Mashriq and the Maghreb. Equally, it gave artists comfort and confidence that came from the immediate perception of a marked cultural (and at times political) identity for the work. Manipulating the Arabic letter in art, thus, served as a mediator between national identity, heritage and modern art.
Nada Shabout is a Regent Professor of Art History and the Coordinator of the Contemporary Arab and Muslim Cultural Studies Initiative (CAMCSI) at the University of North Texas. She is the founding president of the Association for Modern and Contemporary Art from the Arab World, Iran and Turkey (AMCA). She is the author of Modern Arab Art: Formation of Arab Aesthetics, University of Florida Press, 2007; co-editor with S. Mikdadi, New Vision: Arab Art in the 21st Century, Thames & Hudson, 2009; and co-editor with S. Rogers and A. Lenssen, Modern Art in the Arab World: Primary Documents, Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2018. She is also founding director of Modern Art Iraq Archive. Notable among exhibitions she has curated: Sajjil: A Century of Modern Art, 2010; traveling exhibition, Dafatir: Contemporary Iraqi Book Art, 2005-2009; and co-curator, Modernism and Iraq, 2009. In 2017, she received The Crow Collection of Asian Art’s Achievement in Asian Arts and Culture Award, and in 2018, the UNT Presidential Excellency Award. Shabout was the Project Advisor for the Saudi National Pavilion, Venice Biennale 2019. Shabout is on the Board of Directors, Visual Art Commission, Ministry of Culture, Saudi Arabia (2020-2023), the Board of The Academic Research Institute in Iraq (TARII), and the College Art Association (CAA) Board of Directors (2020-2024). Her current projects include, leading an AMCA team, as part of the Getty Foundation Connecting Art Histories initiative, in support of “Mapping Art Histories from the Arab World, Iran and Turkey,” coediting with Sarah Rogers and Suheyla Takesh, Modern Art in the Arabian Peninsula, and working on a new book project, Demarcating Modernism in Iraqi Art: The Dialectics of the Decorative, 1951-1979, both under contract with the American University in Cairo Press.
This episode is part of the Modern Art in the Maghrib series, and was recorded on April 9, 2021, via zoom. This is part of a larger Council of American Overseas Research Centers program organized by the Centre d'Études Maghrébines à Tunis (CEMAT) and financed by the Andrew Mellon Foundation that seeks to collaborate with local institutions for a greater awareness of art historical research in north Africa.