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Adham Ismaʿil’s Arabesque: The Making of Radical Arab Painting in Syria

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The essay explores how the Syrian artist Adham Ismaʿil (1922­–63) linked his modernist painting strategies to the activism of the Baʿth political movement during Syria’s independence decade through a conceptual reworking of the “arabesque”—the rhythmic pattern of unending line and pure color that Orientalist scholars considered a product of the Arab and Muslim episteme and French modernist painters adopted as a fresh compositional device. It draws on a new archive of correspondence, writings, and sketches, supplemented by political memoirs detailing Ismaʿil’s experience of displacement after the 1939 transfer of his native Alexandretta to Turkey, to uncover his efforts to forge new aesthetic unities as a mechanism for Arab activation and rebirth. Ismaʿil and his comrades accorded a radical charge to the concept of vital Arab energy in particular; once manifested in the sensory experience of line and color, it promised to assemble audiences in new collectivities and to help topple the Syrian status quo. The essay thus analyzes Ismaʿil’s radical Arab painting as evidence of not only the complexity of the intellectual debates in the Middle East but also the generative fragmentation of modernist tenets under the (not quite) postwar, postcolonial world order. 

Affiliations: 1: History of Art Department, University of California, Berkeley

This article is drawn from a book in progress tentatively entitled Beautiful Agitation: The Mobilizing Arts of Painting in Syria and the Arab East, 1920–1967 and is based on research undertaken in Damascus, Beirut, Cairo, Rome, and Paris as part of my doctoral dissertation (made possible by support from the U.S. Fulbright Commission and the Social Science Research Council, International Dissertation Research Fellowship). The argument took form first as a paper for the 2013 College Art Association panel “Abstraction and Totality,” chaired by Ara H. Merjian and Anthony White; it was further developed as a lecture at the University of California-Berkeley in December 2013; and was workshopped at the MENA Colloquium at the American University in Cairo, May 2014. I thank Robin Greeley, Caroline A. Jones, Ellen Kenney, Gülru Necipoğlu, Stefania Pandolfo, Nasser Rabbat, Nada Shabout, Adam Talib, Lisa Wedeen, and especially the anonymous Muqarnas reviewer for their questions and suggestions. Finally, I wish to acknowledge the generosity of the families of the artists here discussed—including in particular Alma Ismaʿil, Lubna Hammad, and Ishtar Hamoudi—in giving time and care to this project of recuperation.

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