Abu Dhabi: For those who attended the Guggenheim’s Dialogue with Abstraction: Arab Artists in Conversation on Sunday January 24, not only were they given the opportunity to interact with four pioneering artists, but also to learn just how diverse the world of abstract art really is.

Organised in collaboration with the Tourism Development and Investment Company (TDIC), the lecture allowed members of the public to interact with four acclaimed artists from various backgrounds and influences.

Dr Nasser Rabbat, Aga Khan Professor of the history of Islamic Architecture and Director of the Aga Khan Progamme for Islamic Architecture, Michigan Institute of Technology (MIT), and moderator for the evening, provided an overview of abstract art, especially in relation to Arab artists who use it as a means of expression.

“Many Arab artists feel the pressure of their abstract pieces being compared to those in the West, but they can’t be compared because Arab modern art did not have the same time span as the West to develop. The movement was delayed and then compressed into a short period of time,” Rabbat explained.

Not all the members of the panel agreed with that assessment, and they each sought to highlight their views on Abstract art in the Arab World.

“Abstract art is about reality; never about the artist or what they are feeling…it’s art without subject matter but plenty of meaning. Arab Abstract art is based on symmetry…with roots dating back to the pre-Islamic eras,” Samia Halaby, a Palestinian American artist, explained.

One thing that they all emphasised on was the importance of knowing the history of art, especially for fellow artists.

“As an abstract painter, I hold myself responsible to know the history of not only Western art, but also the history for African art, Chinese art… art from all around the world,” Halaby said.

Adam Henein, an Egyptian artist, agreed and added. “In Ancient Egypt, the way the pyramids were built…also religious images and images of daily life…they all reveal a style of abstraction. As for any influence by the West, it began when artists came with Napoleon to detail everything they saw in Egypt. In the 19th century many Egyptian expeditions were sent to France and returned with Renaissance art…also, artists began to get familiar with tapestries.”

But for those who don’t have the opportunity to formally learn about art, they can still express themselves creatively by drawing on their experiences and even using skills utilised for seemingly non-artistic fields.

“Growing up, I knew I wanted to be an artist but unfortunately at the time, there weren’t any art universities in the region. So instead, I received a degree in mathematics, which I also like. But I’m happy to see that now there are options for people who want to study art,” Ebtisam Abdul Aziz, an Emirati artist, said.

Ebtisam, whose works have been exhibited across the UAE, such as the 2001-2008 Emirates Art Society Annual Exhibitions at the Sharjah Art Museum, noted that as a result, her pieces all have mathematical elements in one form or another.

“One of my pieces incorporates numbered squares that also have a colour that matches it…for others, I used photographs to highlight certain aspects of my subject,” Ebtisam explained.

Because abstract art pieces may appear to be difficult to approach or enjoyed by some, Kamal Boullata, a Palestinian artist and historian, has these words of advice for budding art lovers.

“When you listen to music, do you hear the music and enjoy it, or do you want to know its meaning? If you just like what you hear…that feeling is where abstract art comes from. So if you approach it [abstract art] in that framework of mind, then you will go away with something special,” Boullata said, smiling.