Letter from Cairo
IBRAHIM AHMED Pressing Fallacies
JANUARY 21 – FEBRUARY 25, 2016
On December 29, 2015, Egyptian authorities raided and shuttered the internationally respected Townhouse Gallery (founded in 1998) in Cairo, along with its affiliate, the Rawabet theater—the most recent in a series of actions taken by President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi to quell dissention amongst the city’s cultural and artistic voices.1 These moves, as reported by the New York Times and other internationally credible sources, were precipitated by growing concern on the part of Sisi’s government in the lead up to the five-year anniversary of the 2011 uprising against former President Hosni Mubarak, on January 25th of this year. I recently returned from Cairo in the wake of these maneuvers, where the level of state security was undeniably palpable. Redacted graffiti lined the walls of the city’s densely trafficked arteries. Townhouse Gallery’s primary location in downtown Cairo, precariously close to the site of the initial protests in Tahrir Square, was closed indefinitely, and there was considerable talk amongst the artist community there about how and what one could say about their work publicly.
In the midst of this climate of instability and state-funded repression, Ibrahim Ahmed’s solo exhibition, Pressing Fallacies opened at Townhouse’s second location on the outskirts of the city. To see Ahmed’s work in this context was particularly prescient, his conceptual aims concerned with challenging the political lines that define borders and the so-called authenticity of “national identity.” The series of work on display, titled “Ard El Lewa (Land of the General),”is botha reference to the area of Cairo where Ahmed has his studio (not coincidentally, a thriving but economically and ethnically marginalized neighborhood of the city) and the artist’s conception of transnational borderlessness. Utilizing assemblages of cloth fabrics that have been layered together, painted upon, and then distressed as a point of entry, Ahmed visualizes the underlying ambiguities that surround the construction of postcolonial identity, both for the individual and the collective.
The artist, whom I initially met as part of the Newark art scene, was born to Egyptian parents living in Kuwait, spending his childhood between Egypt and Bahrain before moving to the U.S. at the age of thirteen. Neither comfortable identifying as fully Egyptian or American, this experience left an indelible impression on Ahmed whose work has long since mined the in-between space of belonging, one not defined by geography or heritage; a tenuous space also inhabited by artists like Etel Adnan and Mona Hatoum. In his complex and layered painterly works, Ahmed attempts to tease apart the liminal strata that define the diasporic condition, drawing parallels between theoretical constructs of postcolonial discourse—themes of fluidity, oppression, heterogeneity, flux—and aesthetic visualization. Ard El Lewa, #17 (2015) embodies these dichotomies, featuring a diptych composition of white and gold, split along a vertical axis that bisects the work into two equal halves. On the left is what looks to be a Victorian filigree pattern, distressed and worn by Ahmed’s visceral layering and peeling away of paint; on the right, the pattern of the fabric is almost completely occluded by gold acrylic paint, a frequent reference in his work to wealth as a motivating source of colonization. Having spent a number of weeks in the country, it was difficult not to also read this choice of pigment as symbolic of Egypt’s contemporary quandary, land of ancient and cultural riches and modern political impoverishment. At the top portion of the piece, a horizontal yellow band joins the two planes of color, with one of the filigree patterns repeated on the right hand side. Here, connection is manifest, Ahmed unifying the two pictorial planes as a way of questioning nationalist ‘purity,’ established by shifting geographical borders and the inevitable bleeding through that results from this same diversity of contact and interaction amongst peoples. This situation, the artist explains in an interview with curator Flavia Malusardi, is both a constructed fallacy and a physical reality: “these paintings acknowledge the intertwined history of the human experience, which can be neither compartmentalized nor separated.”2
Ahmed’s use of medium is particularly significant. The artist selects palettes and textiles that reference specific countries and identities, namely those found along the ancient trade routes of the Silk Road. These signifiers can be found in Ard El Lewa #6’s (2015) transparent blush of Chinese lace or the arching scripts of Ard El Lewa, #16 (2015), that sweep across the wall in cut and collaged half-spherical passages of bright turquoise, crimson, and royal blue. As opposed to Ahmed’s earlier work, which consisted of layers of painted and sanded fabric affixed to rectangular wood panels, each piece in the new series directly references the built environment, the paintings’ nonconformist edges riffing on architectural motifs the artist has come into contact with in his travels throughout the Middle East, Africa, and Europe. The stunningly intricate designs of Old Cairo’s Islamic windows, the archways that line the Mosque of Ibn Tulun, built in 879 BCE, the spiral minarets that dot the landscape from Turkey to North Africa, these are just a handful of ornamental reliefs recognizable and transformed in Ahmed’s process-based executions. The decision to float these pieces away from the wall, or, in one instance suspend them from the ceiling, reinforces Ard El-Lewa’s architectural associations, the works hovering, ghostlike, in Townhouse’s raw, brick-lined space.
In the end, it is this play of juxtapositions—the international gallery relegated to the suburbs, Ahmed’s arrestingly seductive, delicate paintings hung amidst the half-finished detritus of urban sprawl—that amplifies the force of the works, positioning the pieces as all the more precious in a climate that refuses to acknowledge complexity and change. Pressing Fallacies is like a flashpoint, a reminder that freedom of expression, and expansion, is one of our most valuable (and fragile) human rights. As culture makers, we have a duty to protect these liberties; with his latest body of work, Ahmed dissolves the barriers that occlude our vision, laying bare the necessity for preservation and the evolution forward.
Ahmed’s work will also be on view as part of Volta Art Fair’s special curated section, “Something I Can Feel,” organized by Derrick Adams, March 2 – 6, 2016 at Pier 90.
- Kareem Fadhim, “Egypt Shuts Art Venues Amid Signs of Clampdown,” New York Times, December 29, 2015.
ContributorKara L. Rooney
Kara Rooney is a Brooklyn-based artist, writer, and critic working in performance, sculptures and new media installation. She is a Managing Art Editor for the Brooklyn Rail and faculty member at School of Visual Arts, where she teaches Art History and Aesthetics.