FROM MODERN TO CONTEMPORARY I Highlights

Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art

ADHAM WANLY (1908-1959)
أدهم وانلي

Adham Wanly, like his brother Seif, was a prolific artist. His early works are influenced by his Italian teacher, Ottorino Bicchi, who was close to the Italian macchiaioli, a group influenced by the French impressionist movement and the École de Barbizon.

Bicchi introduced the Wanly brothers to outdoor painting and capturing the light, colors and shades of nature. Adham was later influenced by modern pictorial trends, such as cubism and fauvism.

Wanly among others painted landscapes and portrayed people of the numerous lands that he visited while traveling together with his brother Seif. He was also known to be a talented observer of the performance dynamics.

Together with his brother, he developed a passion for performance arts, such as circus, ballet and theater and captured the vibrant and dynamic movements of the performers on stage.

​​​​​​​​​​​​​​Written by Dr. ​Nadia Radwan​​

GAZBIA SIRRY (born 1925)
جاذبية سرّي

Her early paintings are characterized by depictions of strong, imposing female figures of all social classes. Through this variety, she emphasized that one singular, anonymous woman could not represent Egypt, but rather many different women defined the new Egyptian Republic. She painted these works in vibrant colours with strong black contours and a slight flattening of the picture plane, which became her signature style.

In 1967, figural representations vanished abruptly from her work (after a period of the scholarship in the United States, latter experience introducing her to the American style of abstract expressionism). Throughout the 1970s, Sirry painted abstract "cityscapes" – complex grids that evoke urban skylines simply but are primarily exercises in color and shape.

She remains one of the most significant artists of her generation and still responds to political shifts in Egypt, reacting to the January 25th Revolution with an exhibit of new work in the Spring of 2012.

As the 1950s and 1960s progressed, the prominent figures in her early work faded until 1967, when they disappeared altogether. Her canvases still depicted Egyptian figures, but in the late 1950s, her backgrounds became increasingly abstract as her interest in non-representational color and line grew.

This fading can perhaps be attributed to her increasing disillusionment with the Egyptian government.

In 1959, the government imprisoned her for several days, and her husband for three years due to their alleged Communist activity. Though she recalls her own experience with pride, her husband's imprisonment dealt a severe blow to her faith in the Nasser government.

Written by Alexandra Dika Seggerman

SALOUA RAOUDA CHOUCAIR (1916 - 2017)
سلوى روضة شقير

Art presented by Saloua Raouda Choucair with a hyper-reality in which to explore universal structure, cosmic meaning, and the transformation of the self and society. Following her holistic vision, she produced sculptures, architectural plans, fountains and pools, housewares, and jewelry.

Fiercely intellectual, she read across quantum physics, Arabic poetry, molecular biology, and optics. Critics seeking to attach her work to schools in Paris, Beirut, Baghdad, and Cairo from the 1950s to the 1980s brandish the labels "Abstract," "modernist," "geometrist," "neo-plastic," and "Arab-Islamic," but each misses an aspect of Choucair's drive to map the expanses of experience.

Most importantly, she never pursued intellectual exploration merely for its own sake. She conceived of each artwork as containing possibilities for its maturation and metamorphosis, and for social intervention by provoking the audience's self-reflection. Her greatest goal—to install her work in ordinary outdoor arenas, especially in the Arab world whose growth was so dear to her—was never satisfactorily realized during her career.

Despite early recognition of her talent, masterful mentors, and relative material ease, Choucair refrained from professional art practice until she was in her thirties. Perhaps her long reticence relates to her subsequent insistence on integrating art into public space and domestic life.


Continually inspired by both cutting-edge science and Islamic theology, Choucair sought principles of art form that could both generate universal interactions, on a cosmological scale, and account for minute, particular events in the viewer's immediate experience. The ability of quantum mechanics to explain unmeasured possibility and discrete actuality at once was critical to Choucair's self-formulation.

Written by Kirsten Scheid

PAUL GUIRAGOSSIAN (1925 - 1993)
بول غيراغوسيان


He is one of the region's most celebrated artists. Born in Jerusalem to Armenian parents who had survived the 1915 Armenian Genocide, Guiragossian eventually settled in Beirut after being evacuated from Palestine by the British. Within less than a decade, Guiragossian would establish himself as a key figure in Lebanon's burgeoning modern art movement, in a prominent way preparing ground for the contemporary artists.

Throughout the sixties and seventies, artist's reputation continued to grow throughout Lebanon, the Arab world, and Europe.

In what would become an integral feature of his distinctive style, he uses long, vertical brushstrokes to depict the bodies of his figures as abstracted and elongated so that the imagery has echoes of Byzantine icons.

A true Modernist, Guiragossian began producing during the late sixties complete abstract paintings. Applying bright, bold colour in blocks to the canvas, he then left parts of the surface untouched, generating depth and movement through a creative embrace of negative space.

Written by Sarah Rogers

FARID BELKAHIA (1934 - 2014)
فريد بلكاهية

One of the foremost modernist artists in Morocco, Belkahia turned away from oil painting and easels in the early 1960s and began working primarily with large-scale hammered copper. While retaining multiple dimensions, the copper was meant to be hung on walls and was used to create bas-reliefs.

Belkahia was an active voice in the debates around post-colonial artistic modernism in Morocco. Using the cultural heritage of Morocco in his shapes, materials, and technique was a way of rooting international modernism within the local context.

Since the mid-1970s, Belkahia is best known for the work he has done with leather, which he treats using traditional techniques and stretches over shaped supports. He then paints the leather with naturally occurring dyes such as henna.

The process of the work on both copper and leather is for Belkahia an important aspect of the creation of his art, and his work typically highlights not just the organic shapes that make up the content of the work, but the texture and dimensionality of the materials themselves.

He has a consistent and carefully theorized taxonomy of symbols, shapes, and materials that resurface throughout his oeuvre. Belkahia's work typically uses sinuous, organic shapes that recall bodies or corporality.

Many of his works use triangles, arrows, and hands, and often involve questions of sexuality. He often employs Tifinagh letters from the Amazigh alphabet and symbols culled from traditional visual culture within Morocco, derived from rugs, tattoos, and architecture.

Part of the interest of his work, however, is the way in which these symbols are re-constituted and re-imagined to become an integral part of his modernist visual vocabulary.

Written by Holiday Powers

MOHANNA DURRA (born 1938)
مهنا الدرة

�​Durra is considered to be a member of the first generation of Jordanian artists to receive formal training after being awarded government scholarships to study abroad.

Alongside his portraits is an equally fascinating body of abstract compositions. Dating to the early sixties, and representing some of the earliest examples in Jordan of abstract painting, Durra's compositions document a range of technique and method—from fragmented geometric color blocks to the more fluid drip paintings.

This body of work is united by a sustained exploration of light and dynamism.

Often directing movement diagonally across the canvas, he overlays color—at times, incorporating fabric material—to produce depth and texture. These planes of transparent color in turn generate a sense of motion. Whether working with a monochromatic palette or one combining bold, primary colors, Durra infuses his canvases with a penetrating light so that line and color engage in a dynamic dance across the canvas.

Written by Sarah Rogers

YOUSEF AHMAD (born 1955)
يوسف أحمد

Yousef Ahmad is considered a pioneer for his significant contribution to the evolution of Modern and Contemporary art in Qatar. Observing the socio-economic, cultural, artistic and historical developments which his country witnessed during the 1970s and 1980s, Ahmad set upon himself the responsibility, as an art advisor and educator, to document the development of the art scene in Qatar.

His artistic journey underwent various phases. Initially he experimented with wax, cardboard, and black and white engraving on glass. Academic training, together with his exposure to many stimulating influences, ignited his passion for broadening his experimentation with different media and techniques, moving on from a realistic approach toward an abstract treatment of Arabic letters.

Ahmad's fascination with paper grew within him since his early childhood when he used to play with paper planes. Later on in his life, he travelled to Japan, Thailand, Nepal and India, calling himself the "crazy about paper" as he was always exploring locally handmade papers.

Ahmad resorts to both primary and secondary colors, and at times cold and warm colors are harmoniously nuanced, while at others they are distinctively contrasted. Earth colors such as light brown, pale yellow, beige, orange, which represent the Eastern environment, as well as other colors such as green, gold and blue inspired by Islamic culture remain predominant in his work. He skillfully manipulates tones and shades of colors, which impart to his work a unique and deeply felt spirituality.

To execute al-Zubara (1993), a commission by His Excellency Sheikh Hassan, Ahmad worked with high quality Holland oil paints to develop specific range of colors as close as possible to those of his natural environment.

​In his recent artwork, Ahmad, inspired by his local environment makes extensive use of earth colors such as those of dust and sand. Ahmad remains committed, if not determined, to utilize these local media in order to highlight local traits in abstraction, and to present his country and aspects of Arab identity in a contemporary way.

Written by Samia Touati

SLIMAN MANSOUR (born 1947)
سليمان منصور

Sliman Mansour is one of the most distinguished Palestinian artists working today. Throughout his forty-year career, Mansour has established himself as an internationally recognized artist dedicated to giving visual expression to Palestinian identity.

The artists participated in the intifada by boycotting art supplies imported from Israel. Working instead with natural materials such as coffee, henna, and clay, the artists tied the process of art making to both the land and the struggle.

This body of work documents an important moment in the history of Palestinian art.

Mansour has contributed extensively to the development of an infrastructure for the fine arts in the West Bank.

Although the artists adopted a nationalist agenda similar to other artists working in the social realist style, the distinction lies in an abstracted composition.

Art no longer merely represented the political, but instead artistic production itself constituted a political act.

Mansour has become acclaimed for a unique body of work that uses mud as a medium. Layering and molding mud into figural compositions on a wooden framework, Mansour deploys the actual land to depict Palestine, its history, and people.

Written by Sarah Rogers

SUAD AL-ATTAR (born 1942)
سعاد العطار

Suad al-Attar's is one of Iraq's leading female artists. She's counted among the many modern and contemporary Iraqi artists who are committed to preserving the cultural traditions of their homeland.

Suad al-Attar became actively engaged in the Iraqi art scene in the 1960s. However, her artistic output reached maturity in the 1970s. During this time Iraqi art gained unprecedented international exposure.

Encouraged by her graphic sensitivity, much of her work is flat, linear, and emblematic. Pattern and ornamentation play a central role in her compositions.

Her work is featured on the Iraqi National Museum of Modern Art's Red List, meaning her work was looted from the museum in the wake of the US-led invasion.

Al-Attar's vision of Iraq's past and present is imbued with fantastical properties. Her oeuvre is composed of a kaleidoscope of surreal landscapes, mythical creatures, and epic characters. They gaze out at the viewer, inviting them to participate in an emotive and epic narrative as if the audience is the ultimate interpreter of the enigmatic scene.

Al-Attar's visual interpretations of poetry and folklore are deeply personal and provocative in a way that is distinct and still resonates with viewers. Her more recent works continue this emotively imaginative quality, yet at the same time also engage more directly with current national realities, exploring and expressing the trauma that Iraq has suffered since the 1990s.

Written by Tiffany Floyd

DIA AL-AZZAWI (born 1939)
ضياء العزاوي

Dia al-Azzawi was introduced to the arts by his older brother Majeed who was involved in the theater. Al-Azzawi possessed a natural inclination to draw, as a child often reproducing illustrations from magazines or sketching scenes of family life.

Because the Institute of Fine Arts where later he studied lacked a library, his exposure to art there was limited to figure drawing and a truncated version of the history of European art, reproduced in black and white photographs. Al-Azzawi sought out objects from the Iraq Museum he knew from his study of archaeology.

Notably he worked with the Sumerian figurine, deriving from its tubular body and wide, hollow eyes centered in the face a model for the human form that would persist​ throughout his work. The major effect of this art history on his developing practice however was that it expanded his sense of the field of possible forms he could work with, opening his eyes to the expressive possibilities of popular culture.

The violence and political instability that followed the first Ba'th coup in 1963 had left Iraq scarred and confronted with the experience of what he often referred to as "tragedy" [al-masaa].

The period of politically-engaged work that began after 1967 ended with the massacre of the refugees at Sabra and Shatila.

What al-Azzawi called dafatir [sing. daftar, notebook] is a kind of art book that sought to generate visual forms for the poetry of the great Arab poets, from al-Mutanabbi to Jawahiri and to Adonis. Al-Azzawi would make over forty dafatir.

Based on the premise that poetry, at least today, is something read rather than heard, and that it thus possesses an essential visual component, the notebooks focused on transforming the relation between the words of a poem and the space on the page in which they appear.

In particular this transformation entailed the use of color to create a surface upon which the poem could be brought out of its residence in language and where it could find a visual form that would locate it in everyday life.

In addition to the notebooks, throughout the nineties he produced several paintings that interpreted works of Arabic literature.

Written by Saleem Al-Bahloly

ADAM HENEIN (born 1929)
آدم حنين

Adam Henein was born in Cairo into a family of silversmiths from Asyut and grew up in the neighborhood of Bab al-Shaariyya. He was eight years old when he discovered the Egyptian Museum of Antiquities during a class visit, which he would later recall as a turning point in his life. At the age of twenty, he decided to become a sculptor and joined the School of Fine Arts in Cairo.

Adam Henein is one of the most prominent contemporary artists and sculptors of the Arab World.

The beginning of the 1970's marked an important evolution in his art, as a result of being exposed to the work of modern sculptors in Paris, such as Brancusi. During the 1980's, abstract forms, pure volumes and the dynamic of movement characterize his sculptures, centered on the themes of sun and moon disks, as well as vertical ascension. In the 1990's, he worked on several outdoor large-scale sculptures, including The Ship, conceived as a metaphorical alternative to the museum space. Overall, his work embodies a sense of simple monumentality and timelessness.

Henein is also a talented painter who has never used oil painting on canvas but instead renews ancient techniques such as painting on papyrus sheets with natural pigments mixed with gum Arabic or the traditional technique of fresco on plaster.

His paintings, whether they represent figurative or abstract geometric subjects, are characterized by purity of form and warm tones, emphasized with a sculptural depth.

Written by Nadia Radwan

SALIM AL-DABBAGH (born 1941)
سالم الدبّاغ

Al-Dabbagh's large-scale wooden panels and canvases depict essence rather than form. A first encounter with his artwork suggests the predominance of black and white, hence his use of mono-colors for which he is known. In fact, al-Dabbagh admits his fondness for black and white films over color ones.

However, after a deeper contemplation of his work, his quest for abstract expression becomes apparent. To tackle essence, al-Dabbagh resorts to a variety of aesthetic traits such as shades, shapes, thin lines, tones mainly black and white, and volume.

At times, a tiny beam of shapeless green and/or red occupies the most discrete space or inconspicuous corner in his large scale paintings, while a square, a cube or a triangle appears in others, or some black lines intrude into the white surface. However, the endless black and white nuanced layers invite confusion as well as interpretation.

In order to break from the monotonous harmony, his drawings allow a counter color, a technique which attempts to enhance a celebration of internal connections and intersections.

Al-Dabbagh has the ability to manipulate spaces through which he expresses numerous realities. He achieves this result through the fragmentation of the dense surface amid a series of levels of tonalities that embody the notion of endless "space."

Written by Samia Touati

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