"Abstraction from the Arab World" and "Twenty-One in Truro"
A new exhibit, “Taking Shape: Abstraction from the Arab World, 1950s–1980s,” at the McMullen Museum of Art. “Twenty-one in Truro,” at the Cape Cod Museum of Art featuring 21 female artists that have come together annually for over 20 years to paint and support one another. The work of painter, author and bird watcher, David Allen Sibley at the Museum of American Bird Art, and Texas artist David Mc
>> It's like going on a journey of discovery of our region.
It's almost like being an archaeologist.
>> JARED BOWEN: I'm Jared Bowen, coming up onOpen Studio,
they're some of the 20th century's greatest artworks.
So why is this the first time we're seeing them?
Then for one week every year,
the same group of women gather on Cape Cod to paint.
They are the 21 in Truro.
>> I'm used to being alone in the studio-- it's very solo.
So for me, it's just that energy
that you get being with like-minded people.
>> BOWEN: And we go birding with author and illustrator,
David Allen Sibley.
>> I would look for birds, sitting up in the open,
and then pull out a sketch pad and do some quick sketches.
>> BOWEN: It's all now onOpen Studio.
First up, art changed dramatically
in the 20th century, with credit often going to artists
like Picasso and Jackson Pollock.
But as a new exhibition at the McMullen Museum of Art reveals,
there was a positively breathtaking output
coming from somewhere few have ever looked before.
>> This work is one of the most important works
in the collection by a Sudanese artist who was born in 1930.
His name is Ibrahim El-Salahi.
>> BOWEN: This painting has never been publicly shown
in the U.S. or most of the world, for that matter.
And neither has this.
In fact, most of what you see in these galleries
has been largely overlooked by the art world,
despite a growing recognition that many of these works
are masterpieces from the latter half
of the 20th century.
>> You see a lot of references to Arabic letters.
You also see references to the moon
and other planets and the crescent.
This commemorates the passing of the human soul
into the afterlife.
>> BOWEN: This exhibition is calledTaking Shape
and looks at the advent of art
throughout the Arab World from the 1950s
to the 1980s.
It's the collection of Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi
and when, not on tour,
is housed at the Barjeel Art Foundation
in the United Arab Emirates.
>> I realized through the collecting
that the more I collected,
the more I realized how little I knew.
>> BOWEN: So over the last 20 years,
Al Qassemi honed this collection--
embarking on a quest
to paint a more detailed picture of art history
by amassing work stretching from North Africa
to West Asia.
>> It's like going on a-a journey of discovery
of our region-- it's almost like being an archeologist.
That you're trying to uncover different layers
of what was shown, displayed.
Many of the artists in this show had been forgotten.
>> In this exhibition, you will see artists
of Armenian, Jewish, Persian, Turkish, Circassian,
as well as Arab descent.
>> BOWEN: Suheyla Takesh is the show's curator
and says the U.S. and Europe were not the only places
where art underwent a radical change in the 20th century.
The artists we find here were often influenced by the West,
but they grounded their work in their own cultural histories
and just as many of their countries
were breaking free from colonial rule.
>> We see a lot of play with things like body tattoos.
Artists going back to, um Mesopotamian artifacts
to Pharaonic histories and then reinventing those forms.
We see artists looking at ancient jewelry,
>> BOWEN: And language, as some artists began taking
a letter-by-letter approach in their work.
>> This trend became known as Hurufiyya,
which comes from the Arabic word huruf,
which stands for letters.
Many of these artists began to deconstruct letter forms
into their formal elements and basic shapes,
and then using those to create abstract compositions.
>> BOWEN: Other artists here render the body
in the form of folded fingers.
Or with, shall we say, a bottoms up approach.
While others plumb spirituality.
>> What ties these works together is this interest
in kind of creating from a place of transcendental meditation.
Omar El-Nagdi's piece in the exhibition
is perhaps visually a little different from the other ones.
He repeatedly writes the number one
or the letterelif in Arabic,
which could stand either for the first letter of the word
God in Arabic, or if we read it as a one,
then it signifies, kind of, the oneness
of the divine and of all.
>> BOWEN: This was a time that also found artists
collaborating in clusters--
most notably in the Casablanca School.
Formed in 1965, its artists were intent on rethinking
how art could be made, says Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi
>> They didn't like the fact that art
was exhibited for the elites in galleries,
and hotels, and mansions.
And so what they did in 1969, they literally walked
into the most famous public square in Morocco in Marrakesh,
called el-Fna square, and they hung their artworks
for the public to view.
And that was their way of reintroducing this modern art
to the public.
>> BOWEN: A half century later, the re-introduction continues.
Al Qassemi is adamant that this collection
feature the women who, once marginalized,
became key figures in the art movements charted here.
Like Lebanese artist Saloua Raouda Choucair.
I love this work-- it glows, it hums, it seduces.
>> (chuckles) This is what happened with me--
now you know how I feel, Jared!
She is seen by many as one of the first abstract
fine artists in the region.
She's very much inspired by Islamic architecture
and Islamic design.
She came up with an algorithm to convert and transform
her studies and her sketches into lines and shapes and forms.
>> BOWEN: It's details like these
that are only just beginning to emerge on a large scale,
as art experts excavate a period and region
that's received scant attention.
>> It is a canon of art that hasn't been written yet.
If you compare it to Western art, there's been dozens,
scores, hundreds of books on Picasso, for example.
You don't have the equivalent of that in Africa and Asia.
We are still writing the stories of our artists.
>> BOWEN: Meaning for this art era,
the end is only the beginning.
>> BOWEN: Next, call it the sisterhood
of the traveling paintbrushes.
For more than 20 years, a group of women have gathered annually
on the outer Cape to spend an entire week painting.
They are called the 21 in Truro and their work is now on view
in a new show at the Cape Cod Museum of Art.
Two of the artists recently joined me in the studio.
Suzanne Packer, Jane Lincoln,
thank you so much for being with us.
So, Suzanne, I'll start with you.
How did this come to be, 21 women in Truro?
>> 1999, there were two artists that met
in a Hyannis art store, and they started talking about
the cottages up at Corn Hill and they said, "Gee,
wouldn't it be great if we could go up and paint for a week?"
48 hours later, there were 21 women artists signed up,
and then we said, "That's it!"
>> BOWEN: And so tell me what you do here.
>> Well, we have a whole week,
and it's basically-- it's like an artist retreat.
It's just that energy that you get
being with like-minded people.
>> BOWEN: Well, Jane, on that point of the energy,
what happens, considering that you-- probably most of you
are alone for the most part in your studios as you're creating.
So what happens, how does it change the process?
How does it change the work when you're all together?
>> Well, you're influenced by seeing
what other people are doing.
You can ask questions of materials or you might--
that might spark an inspiration,
an idea that what you're doing, you could do in a different way.
>> BOWEN: Well, Suzanne, tell me about what Truro is like,
artists have flocked to that part of the world,
we're so fortunate to have it here in Massachusetts...
>> Right. >> BOWEN: For as long as...
probably forever, as long as humankind has existed
because of the light, because of this kind of magic
that people have often described it on the outer Cape.
What do you find there?
>> It's being outside where you can see the sky
from early morning to late at night,
being on the water, both the Pamet River--
and then I love to go over to the ocean side on Ballston Beach
and all the ocean over there.
There's an energy being around other artists
I have to get up and get out there and get that before,
you know, as the sun's coming up and... or going off
with some other artist to a place
that I maybe I wouldn't know of on my own.
>> BOWEN: Well, speaking of how you can
constantly find the new in something
that would otherwise perhaps be familiar to you,
I understand that you both have pieces in the show
that reflect that.
Tell me about your pieces in the show, your two pieces.
>> I'm the one that came up with the idea for the show,
So I realized that the way we perceive something at first
changes and it changes because I'm growing as an artist.
I'm growing as an individual.
Um... I think about things differently.
I'm affected by things differently.
And all of that plays into the paintings.
So I... the whole idea of the show is
to take a painting that you did in the past,
and then reflect on it now.
So for mine,
I had a pastel I had done on-site in 2018,
right at the Pamet.
I was having trouble in 2020 and 2021
with the-- I was having great trouble, really, painting.
Everything was black and red,
and it looked like bombed out cities.
I just couldn't take them.
So one day I looked at some of those pastels
and I thought, "Oh, yeah."
So I took a large canvas...
small pastel, took a large canvas,
was inspired by that pastel to do a large abstract of it.
So... but also when I'm looking at it,
my colors were a little more somber
than I usually use-- lots of dark lines.
>> And I thought, yeah, between the pandemic and the politics
and what's going on in the world,
it definitely is in that painting.
So that's for me how it changed.
>> BOWEN: Jane, guide us through your works in the show.
>> (chuckles) Yes.
So the small pastel was 2007.
I was a plein air painter, but after I got my master's,
I realized that my concentration was color
and I wanted to become more contemporary.
So what I did was take the composition of the small pastel
and enlarge it in abstraction.
>> And you can see in both of them
the subject is the thin strip of cerulean blue
through the center, which is the water.
The painting is a simplification,
but it's also just concentrating on the colors, nothing else.
>> BOWEN: Well, talking of the last year
and thinking about the loss that a lot of people experienced,
and I understand there is one artist in the show
who's specifically dealt with loss in her canvas?
>> Yes, that was Christie Velesig.
What happened was in 1994, her mother was dying,
surrounded by family,
but her mother still felt very lonely, very alone.
So Christie did a large watercolor of her mother.
and it's called Troubled Waters.
And then... (clears throat)
just before the pandemic hit,
Christie's husband of over 50 years
died after a lengthy illness.
>> So her second painting is a small painting
of just the water, the rough, dark water,
and it's called Troubles Revisited.
Christie said she just can't wait to heal to the point
where she can get back to her bright colors.
>> BOWEN: We've seen a lot of physical change on Cape Cod
as we have seen climate, the havoc of climate change
all over the world-- you must have seen a lot
over 23 years now as you've been doing this.
How has that been reflected in the work?
>> One of the artists in the show, Joyce Zavorskas,
concentrates on erosion.
Her first painting observed circumstances.
She said, "I let the first layers of paint be drippy
"and loose, allowing gravity to pull the paint down
and form interesting shapes as in nature."
Now her second work, they're both the same size,
which is interesting, pairing them up,
and the compositions actually connect if you look at them.
So the second one she did in her Orleans studio
this past year, and it was nine years later
and the original dune had disappeared.
>> BOWEN: So this happens in the end of...
at the end of September.
What's the anticipation like for, for both of you
as that time is approaching?
>> To me, it's....
one of the captions on our show says
Vision/Revisions...stepping into the same river twice.
Which were right on the banks of the Pamet River.
And I know no matter what cabin I'm in,
I look out the window and there's that gorgeous view.
And it doesn't change year after year.
And it's just, "Oh, I'm back here again, it's wonderful."
>> You know, that quote actually came from Hercules, who said,
"No man can step into the same river twice."
So we just sort of turn it around
since we're on the Pamet River
and said stepping into the same river.
>> BOWEN: Well, we really appreciate you coming here.
People can see the work,
your 23 years together, what's been produced in that.
It's such an extraordinary story.
And I think a lot of us are envious that you,
you have this community and have had it for so long.
Thank you for being with us.
>> Thank you! >> Thank you, Jared.
>> BOWEN: Hallelujah.
A tribute to Leonard Cohen is one of the many events
you'll find in Arts This Week.
Attend the Jewish Arts Collaboratives' tribute
to Leonard Cohen, Tuesday.
>> ♪ Come over to the window
♪ My little darling
>> BOWEN: Led by Israeli singer-songwriter David Broza,
the performance includes a glimpse into
Cohen's artistic life as inspired by Jewish
and Buddhist teachings.
One of America's most celebrated jazz artists, Miles Davis,
was born 95 years ago Wednesday.
His groundbreaking album Kind of Blue
has sold more than five million copies
since its release in 1959.
This Thursday, check out the Boston Pops' presentation
ofExquisiteElla, a 1976 concert
featuring Ella Fitzgerald.
>> ♪ The radio and the telephone ♪
>> BOWEN: Hear songs by Gershwin, Porter, and Ellington
in this performance from Symphony Hall's archives.
Friday, Handel and Haydn Society streams selections
by two of the 18th century's most influential composers:
Haydn and Saint-Georges.
Set sail Saturday to visit
the Peabody Essex Museum's exhibition
In American Waters to see how painters have depicted the sea.
Next, the 19th century had John James Audubon.
We have David Allen Sibley-- a bird watcher and painter
renowned for his books on birds.
This is one of the final weeks you can see an exhibition
of his work at the Museum of American Bird Art.
And that's where I caught up with him this past winter
in the woods for a look at nature and his paintings.
>> There's probably a little flock of chickadees,
titmice, there might be white breasted nuthatch.
>> BOWEN: To walk in the woods with David Sibley
is to slow down,
to trace the flecks of sun shining through trees
and to let silence be your guide.
So take me a little bit into your process
when you get into the woods.
>> I would just look for birds and when I find some birds,
try to find one that's, that's cooperative that...
...that's sitting up on a...
sitting up in the open and, and just watch.
And then pull out a sketch pad and do some quick sketches.
>> BOWEN: Which he's been doing since the age of five.
The son of an ornithologist and a lifelong birder himself,
Sibley has published the go-to-guides for birds.
And now, in his most recent book,
he delivers us into What It's Like to Be a Bird.
What changes for you when you have minutes
to be spending with a bird?
>> Then I can really just settle in and look at all kinds
of details and, and start asking questions.
>> BOWEN: We find his answers here at Mass Audubon's
Museum of American Bird Art,
where the illustrations for his latest book are now on view.
From the wide-eyed owl...
to the roadrunner.
I was surprised not to see any dynamite with the roadrunner.
Well, in the book, one of the essays in the book is about,
is a roadrunner really faster than a coyote?
In real life a coyote is quite a bit faster than a roadrunner.
>> BOWEN: So you're not only a famed birder,
you're a myth buster, too.
>> BOWEN: Another myth busted?
Blue jays aren't actually blue.
In the bird world, the color blue technically doesn't exist.
>> It is a color because it's what we perceive,
it's the blue wavelengths of light are reaching our eyes.
But the way the bird is... the way the feathers
are reflecting only blue is due to the structure
of the feather and not to pigment.
>> The turkey isn't necessarily thought of as
the most beautiful bird ever,
but I think that in this painting,
David really captures that and also creates
almost an abstract painting at the same time.
>> BOWEN: Amy Montague is the director
of the Museum of American Bird Art--
the only one of its kind known to exist.
Here you'll find sculpture and works from John James Audubon
to avid birder Frank Weston Benson
to avid Pop Artist Andy Warhol.
And all situated on 124 acres of a wildlife sanctuary.
>> Birds are deeply fascinating to people,
but they're also really symbolic.
You think, birds symbolize hope, they symbolize freedom.
>> BOWEN: And one of David Sibley's great gifts, she says,
the connections he brings.
>> He's really tried to capture the spirit of the birds.
You take away some of the wonder that he has for bird life,
which is extraordinary.
>> Who wouldn't be interested in the fact that birds
have two different balance sensors--
one in their inner ear like us,
and one in their hips, in their pelvis,
and that's how they balance on a slender twig
that's swaying in the breeze.
>> BOWEN: From eating to soaring to swimming,
Sibley gives us a bird's eye view of their lives.
Speaking of which,
the eyes have it all, he says.
>> The eye is the most important single thing in a painting.
And a lot of it... a lot of what we ascribe
to a bird's personality, we interpret the facial expression
in sort of human terms.
Hawks look a little bit angry because they have this
eyebrow ridge that makes them look like a...
like a cartoon drawing of an angry person
with the dark lines slanted down.
>> BOWEN: Sibley's work is based on photographs,
sketches he does in the field,
and more than 50 years of experience
and memories of the natural world.
Favorite bird to paint?
Least favorite bird?
Most-- or challenging, perhaps?
>> Favorite bird to paint is these little tiny birds
called wood warblers.
They're brightly colored, boldly patterned, very active.
The most difficult, most challenging, I would say,
are, for me, the herons and egrets.
They're very graceful, elegant looking.
But when you look closely, they're kind of
There are some weird angles and joints in that neck that...
And getting that balance, getting that... the curvature
just right in a drawing is incredibly difficult.
>> BOWEN: Fortunately for Sibley,
there's always more time and more space for the work
to take flight.
We move to Texas now where artist David McGee juxtaposes
image and language to comment on literature, pop culture,
and the Black experience.
>> The role of race in my work
is a simple reaction to me being Black.
But I'm interested in artists who don't pledge allegiance
to a tribe when it comes to what is needed in the work.
This whole idea that all of us have monsters in us
and we have the capacity to make monsters.
My work has historically been about other social issues
and the juxtaposition of certain images and language
and bits and pieces of the wreckage
that both of those deities invade into the body.
You know there's image and there's language,
and when they cross, it seems to cause abstractions.
So what you can do is you get a famous figure
and you label it with a name that doesn't go with that.
I had an exhibition at the Menil
alongside of, I can't believe I'm saying this, Salvador Dali.
And so they asked me to do something for it,
so I made a painting of a great funk musician
named George Clinton.
I gave him a Dali-esque mustache,
Salvador Dali's a famous surrealistic painter.
I'm at the museum, and there's these two white ladies
looking at the painting for a long, long time,
and I was looking at them look at it.
And after a long pause, one of the other white ladies says,
"I didn't think Dali was black."
"Neither did I!"
You know, and I just said,
okay, that's the best thing I've ever heard.
So I do things where if I'm talking about Camus
or Jean Genet,
you know, putting an African American in the prison suit
and just writing "Genet" under that, where I can parallel
that what Genet's life,
you know, as a little petty criminal in Paris.
Why not Snoop Dogg as Van Gogh?
Why can't that be that person?
Poetry and novels and reading were keynotes to how I begin
to reimagine everything,
you know, and I think how I read affects how I can spend
long hours painting a thing.
Because I just... my internal clock is boundless.
I'm not, you know, structured; I don't really care.
As you get older, the imagination begins to wander,
you know, and my imagination was wandering.
I had to physically move myself out of where I was painting.
And I went to Bolivar, not too far from here,
it's a little peninsula off of Galveston.
I had an idea of what I was gonna paint about, you know,
because I've been fascinated
with this one book my whole life,Moby-Dick.
So I said, well, I'm gonna paint a whole show aboutMoby-Dick.
And it turned out to be one of the best experiences
I've ever had.
You know, not just the work,
you know, which after three months or so, it came.
I mean, I could see it--
juxtaposing the different chapters ofMoby-Dick
to my own experiences in these level of paintings.
And one painting led to another,
and then from that another set of paintings came
called theUrban Dreads,
which were about how urban spaces has affected
African Americans, and most people.
Those paintings freed me from the emotional weights.
The subject matter doesn't change.
You know, the style may change,
you know, and you can swerve back and forth.
You can't be labeled, you know, but who needs to be labeled?
>> BOWEN: That is all for this edition ofOpen Studio.
Next weekend, it's Memorial Day and we have a preview
of the Boston memorial to Martin Luther King Jr.
and Coretta Scott King.
>> We have designed the plaza as a memorial
to the 1965 freedom march that King led with Ralph Abernathy
and other great Boston civic leaders,
civil rights leaders of the time.
>> BOWEN: Plus a behind-the-scenes look
at the restoration of a memorial honoring the first
all-Black regiment in the Civil War.
>> We have a grand opportunity once this is restored
to expand the narrative of American history.
>> BOWEN: Until then, I'm Jared Bowen.
Thanks for joining us.
As always, you can visit us online at GBH.org/OpenStudio.
And you can follow us on Instagram and Twitter,
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