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Adham Isma'il's Arabesque: The Making of Radical Arab Painting in Syria


© 2017 Koninklijke Brill NV, Leiden, The Netherlands. The essay explores how the Syrian artist Adham Ismail (1922-63) linked his modernist painting strategies to the activism of the Bath 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 Ismail'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. Ismail 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 Ismail'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.

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