Mohamed Ahmed Ibrahim
59th Venice Biennale, National Pavilion UAE
For this year’s 59th Venice Biennale, the National Pavilion UAE is presenting a major new installation by Mohamed Ahmed Ibrahim, curated by Maya Allison, Executive Director of The New York University Abu Dhabi Art Gallery. Mohamed Ahmed Ibrahim is an influential member of the UAE’s historic group of experimental, conceptual artists who have led the vanguard of visual art in the UAE since the 1980s.
Titled ‘Mohamed Ahmed Ibrahim: Between Sunrise and Sunset’, this project derives from the artist’s deep connection to the local environment of his hometown, Khor Fakkan.
The exhibition will be accompanied by the first comprehensive monograph on the artist, titled ‘Mohamed Ahmed Ibrahim: Between Sunrise and Sunset / Works: 1986-2022’. The publication is co-edited by Maya Allison and Cristiana de Marchi (curator, and poet based between Dubai and Beirut, who has a long record of work with and writing on this UAE art community) with multiple contributing writers documenting the artist’s journey, work process and art forms to date. This project marks Ibrahim and Allison’s fifth collaboration together and the third book that Allison has worked on that studies Ibrahim’s work – marking a special collaboration for them.
Mohamed Ahmed Ibrahim (b. 1962, UAE) is part of the UAE’s first generation of contemporary artists from the late 1980s, an avant-garde scene that included Hassan Sharif, Abdullah Al Saadi, Hussein Sharif, and Mohammed Kazem. In March 2018 Elements, a survey of works spanning three decades of his practice, was presented at the Sharjah Art Foundation, curated by Sheikha Hoor Al Qasimi. Ibrahim’s recent solo exhibitions include The Space between the Eyelid and the Eyeball at Lawrie Shabibi, Dubai (2019), and a series of solo shows at Cuadro Gallery, Dubai (2018, 2016, 2015, 2013).
Not everyone wakes up at dawn, it is true, but those who have had the opportunity at least once to surprise the night as it turns into day are fortunate enough to know what sweet emotion this fleeting blooming of time instills. It’s a different story when it comes to the sunset. During the sunset – although it’s a fast phenomenon too – time melts away and at the same time anticipates and prolongs its manifestation through the thousand colors of the sun. It is a spectacle that is more easily offered to the eye, that of sunset (it happens in the common waking hours, it seems to last slightly longer), but the sun never sets in Khor Fakkan, hiding behind the mountains, always out of sight of even those willing to see it in its act of vanishing. Khor Fakkan is located between the Hajar Mountains and the Arabian Sea, and it is one of Sharjah’s few cities that looks eastwards towards the Gulf of Oman rather than westwards to the densely urbanized west coast of the Emirates. Khor Fakkan is also the place where you’ve lived your whole life, and you’ve practically shaped this landscape into your art, deriving your colors from the sunsets that the mountains block from your view. Not being able to see the sun lowering beyond the horizon, you’ve long imagined the sun’s vivid tones shimmering with their light on the ocean waves. Would you like to give us an impression of Khor Fakkan through your words? Can you talk about your relationship with the natural environment and how it has inspired your work?
Mohamed Ahmed Ibrahim:
All my work is derived from my personal connection to the local environment of my homeknown of Khor Fakkan, where I live and work to this day. The City, harboring the rocky Al Hajar mountains and the waters of the Gulf of Oman on the east coast of the Emirate of Sharjah in the UAE, has always been a source of inspiration for me. By mid-afternoon, the mountains block the sun, and the town remains somber until the day after— so living here means you never see the colors of sunset. My artworks evolve from what I see in the space between the pupil and the eyelid as well as the connection I have with local materials that i have worked with for over four decades.
What do sunrise and sunset represent for you, and what do you see “between” them?
I grew up in Khor Fakkan, which is surrounded by mountains, and I did not see or know what the sunset looks like. The first time I witnessed a sunset was in the city of Sharjah, which is on the other side of the UAE coast. I was a child then, and the view of the sunset really affected and touched me, with its shades of purple and the changing colors of the sunset.
At that moment, this newfound awareness of the sunset became associated in my mind with the city of Sharjah or cities in general, and sunrises with my small town of Khor Fakkan or small towns and villages, where we had a very different life.
Coming back to the space between sunrise and sunset, the distance [to me] is the road trip between my town and the big city. Back in the day, it was a very long trip [between Sharjah and Khor Fakkan] – it would take 7-8 hours through valleys, mountains, and the desert, to reach the other coast. Subsequently, the space is a symbol of the journey and an expression of experiences – experiences in nature, the environmental surroundings of villages, and the homes you pass by to get to the sunset or the city. It is not just about the natural phenomena of sunrise and sunset to me, but the distance between the city and the village, and it carries sentimental value in such a way that it is an ongoing cycle linking to the natural, social, and geographical aspects throughout the journey, and the phenomena of the sunset and sunrise.
Mountains and water, as a result of the unique qualities of the environment in which you grew up, are two aspects that are significantly present in your background as a human being and as an artist. If the immediate perception of the mountain transmits to us the characteristics of stability, solidity, and immutability, we should not forget that it is also a site of silent geological changes as well as thundering transformations, such as landslides and avalanches, that originate from the gradual but inexorable motion of water, which metaphorically represents the perpetual flow of change. Thus, if the mountain considered in itself can suggest the function of stability and maintenance, as soon as it is associated with water, it shows its dynamic characteristics of generation and change. In this perspective of an experience of the mountain marked by a profound transformative value, two dimensions can be interconnected: the external “visible-practicable” mountain and the internal “invisible” one. The first is that which can be covered (and not necessarily climbed) with the body; the second is that which can be explored with the mind. From this perspective, the peak as a destination is irrelevant; what is essential is the path, the journey, and it is at each stage of this journey that one should get a better understanding of oneself. The path, in fact, more than an ascent towards a transcendent reality, represents an entry into one’s own interiority. The path around the mountain is therefore constituted as a path of transformation that does not necessarily contemplate the idea and practice of climbing or, even less, that of winning the mountain. On the contrary, it is precisely the abandonment of victory, and embracing the path that produces transformation. Walking also reveals to us the ‘relational’ and provisional nature of our perception.
Hence, walking becomes a particularly effective exercise in realizing the relational and provisional nature of both reality and our experience of it. In this sense, each ‘hike’ becomes a pilgrimage that reveals and reinforces the meaning of nature made up of forms, materials (stones, branches, clouds, water, etc.), interconnected elements and transitory moments. The mountains help us to understand that none of the things are autonomous and isolated, but that each one is in various ways connected to the others and every step reveals to us the nature of each reality and at the same time our own nature.
In this sense, I find that your work is very much in line with the theme of this year’s Biennale. Do you think so too?
Absolutely. The 59th International Art Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia, under the theme The Milk of Dreams, questions the representation of bodies and their mutation to other forms, and the connection between bodies and earth. In resonance with this theme, the sculptures I’ll be presenting at the exhibition cluster in undulating colour and movement – suggesting bodies, mutation, and the process of transformation.
Could you please tell us more about your creative process and the importance of materials in your work?
Khor Fakkan – my hometown and the place I live in to this day is an essential point of departure for all my artworks. It is a source of inspiration, not only in terms of subject matter and concepts, but also materials, and it cannot be separated from me or from my art. I believe deeply in the importance of protecting and celebrating the environment and natural world through sustainable, low-impact practices and focus on adding to the landscape, rather than intervening in it.
What does the mountain represent for you? And the act of walking?
The mountain from my view is a mysterious being for anyone who observes it from a distance – a being that gives off feelings of dryness, aggressiveness, and solidness. But to me the mountain was like any other being – something you should get close to and get to know. So, I started getting closer to the mountain. At a close range you realize that the mountain is lively and full of life, full of calm and tranquility, and heavy with the knowledge and the life that inhabits it – the plants, the sounds, the insects. I also realized that mountains allow you the space to be with yourself, just you and your thoughts, and really inspires you. Mountains also control your path – when you walk up a mountain, it forces you on a path based on its topography and terrain and its living beings, because you try to avoid harming them – you avoid stepping on plants, insects or animal – so this all determines the path you take and opens up parts of the mountain for you to explore.
We discussed how your strong connection to the local environment is evident in all of your work, whether in the studio, installations, drawings, or objects.
I especially enjoy your hand-made objects, which are shaped like primordial tools and even seem to have been unearthed from some old natural hiding spot rather than being created by hands. When you paint, then you reveal a real “form” of “language” – inscriptions, lines and abstract shapes reminiscent of an ancient time – your “figures” mark time and memory through “meditative repetition” – and although minimalist, they are always familiar to us. It is interesting this concept of meditative repetition in your work, I think how this formal transposition is faithful to the themes that drive your practice – even in nature everything repeats cyclically. Sunrise and sunset etc. And as for dawn and dusk, there is a dual aspect in your practice, you communicate this strong connection to the territory but at the same time you are a human being who communicates a message on a universal level and this happen precisely because, in the end, it is also a message that knows no language, culture or geographical implications. You have created a “visual alphabet”, reducing the “symbol” to a minimum, which now becomes “form”, but unlike the “symbol” (which inevitably indicates something already overcharged with meanings), the “form” by its very nature is something that we can recognize but at the same time it is always in the making and invites to new interpretations.
On the other hand, even in nature everything is destined to never have a definitive form, everything is in continuous transformation, in nature, in our minds, bringing us together as human beings, in the places we inhabit, it is a transformation that guides us through the formal clues we recognize in our collective memory (e.g. blue lines are the sea, the circle can be a wheel, etc.).
Your forms, however abstract they may be, communicate a precise visible story, yours story, that of the places you inhabit, but they leave room for a universal reinterpretation communicating at the same time something about you as well as about nature and mankind. This reduction of form to its minimum terms, starting from its natural origin, produces a sense of familiarity in which the universality of your message resides, in the mute communicability of the experiences, ideas and places that are no longer offered to the ear and only to memory, but is offered to the eye – almost a little payback on that sunset hidden by the mountains that you spent so much time longing to see.
What led you to create this “form” of communication?
In my work I am not trying to create a new language or alphabet, but what I try to achieve is the ultimate abstraction and simplification of forms. The dot is the starting point for a shape, and what I try to do is reduce any form back to that simplest shape – a dot.
Let us take an example of a car – I would reduce it to two circles to represent the tyres, the body of the car will be a rectangle, and I would connect them with two lines, and that is it. This is my process; I keep doing this with different objects and things and come up with many different simplified shapes and forms in my works.
What do the concepts of ‘meditative repetition’ and change represent for you?
For me there is no [true] repetition, when you draw a line, and then draw another line next to it, it is impossible that they are both identical. Each line has its own movement and its own time, so they are not the same, and hence there is no repetition. If I refer back to one of my previous collections of work – Sitting Man – audiences initially think or perceive them as repetitions, but in reality, each painting had its own time, its own raw materials, and my effort and thoughts behind each of them were different. So, [to me] repetition is creating something new and different that isn’t really a repetition.
Your art stems from exercising your imagination to embrace your deep connection with the natural environment of the UAE.
You are part of the first generation of contemporary artists in the UAE (1990s–2000s), an avant-garde with artists such as Abdullah al Saadi, Mohammed Kazem, and the late Hassan Sharif, with whom you became a founding member of the Emirates Fine Art Society in the 1980s, forming the basis of the creative community that defines the artistic scene of the UAE today. On the occasion of this Biennale, an upcoming publication accompanying the exhibition will be presented, a monograph that will be the first comprehensive publication on your work, contextualizing your figure within the UAE’s contemporary art scene and your contribution to its development over the last four decades.
In what way do you think your nationality influences your role as an artist?
I am inspired by the environment and the natural landscape of the UAE and specifically that of my hometown of Khor Fakkan. Between Sunrise and Sunset is a perfect illustration of my connection to the nature of Khor Fakkan – it reflects the local landscape in the very theme of the exhibition and also incorporates local materials in the works themselves.
How do you perceive the concept of creative community / can art build community? What are your thoughts about the Emirates art scene today and what do you think can still be done or needs to be done?
I would say art [and the art community] in the UAE are going in the right direction. Art took huge strides in our society, and there is now an audience for art, which is the most important thing [for an artist] because you create art for an audience to see. We now have a new generation of young artists, who are serious about their craft, who are honest and concious, and who have clear goals for themselves and where they want to be. I think we need [more] institutes and schools to teach all the different arts – not just drawing and painting – institutes to teach music, theater, acting and all the other arts.
You became an Artist in the Emirates at a time when the visual arts were not yet really culturally valued or taught in University.
What motivated you? What was the trigger that moved you to turn your everyday experience into visual art?
Back then the art scene included some Arab artists and a small number of Emirati artists who studied abroad and graduated from art schools in Egypt and Baghdad [Iraq]. At the time, the cultural and visual art scene was limited to these artists, as the art movement and audience were both still very nascent.
As you know, the concept of visual art – in the formal sense – was new to the UAE and the art ecosystem was very small.
An artist is like all other human beings – they’re part of a society, they are affected by what happens in this society and also have an effect on it. The only difference is that artists see things differently, as they always look at things from an art context or perspective. Artists link everything to art – [the simple acts of] walking, seeing things, and hearing the news are all seen through an art lens. This in turn is reflected in the artist’s art production, because as an artist – at the end of the day – one has a message and a work that they are producing.
What are your hopes and expectations for this important experience at the Venice Biennale?
Can you please tell us more about ‘Between Sunrise and Sunset’ from your point of view?
My appointment is a great honor and comes with great responsibility. I am thrilled to be engaging with some of the world’s most intriguing artists and concepts. The Venice Biennale is the ultimate platform where artists from all the different fields of the art world come together for each of the biennale’s editions to showcase, discuss and be part of the global art discourse, and I look forward to representing my country alongside my curator, Maya Allison, and be part of this dialogue.
Between Sunrise and Sunset was inspired by Khor Fakkan’s unique nature and its location – with the Hajar mountains towering over it on one side, and the sea opening it up to the vastness of the world on the other side. The exhibition, which has two parts, one colorful and one black and white, reflect the tension between Khor Fakkan’s colorful bright mornings, when the sun rises over the ocean, and the disappearance of color in mid-afternoon when the sun drops behind the mountains that loom over my hometown. This is why we can never see the sunset or its colors in Khor Fakkan, but we can imagine it on the other side of the UAE.