Egyptian Artist Explores Themes of Identity and Belonging
CAIRO—The Egyptian artist Ibrahim Ahmed has traveled many miles to arrive back at his homeland. His studio today is situated in Ard El-Lewa, a lower-middle class neighborhood in Giza located on the outskirts of Cairo’s city center.
In this densely-populated neighborhood, Ahmed, who’s 34, shares a studio with another young artist. Outside their shared space is a world that evokes the world of the writer Naguib Mahfouz, of children running through narrow alleys, women hanging laundry, older men sitting smoking shisha pipes at sidewalk cafes, and a market selling the most delicious fruit in Cairo.
Ard El-Lewa is also home to a large number of refugees and migrants passing through from Sudan, Somalia, Syria, Yemen and elsewhere. Most of them live in recently-constructed low-rise buildings made mostly of red brick left bare and unpainted. It is one of Egypt’s most colorful and cosmopolitan neighborhoods today.
Born in Kuwait to Egyptian parents and raised in Bahrain, Ahmed moved with his family to the United States as a young teen, and began then to grapple with his identity before becoming an artist.
Living in Newark, New Jersey, he studied English literature at Rutgers University, and after graduating became an active member of the local art scene, gaining an informal art education from his full-time day job as an art handler in New York City, a short commute away.
Despite not having attended art school or a prestigious Master of Fine Arts program (the norm for most artists of his generation trying to succeed in the contemporary art world), Ahmed has managed to build a global reputation for himself based on painting and conceptual mixed-media works that are deeply rooted in theories about identity, geopolitics and patterns of migration—works that are both so aesthetically unique and original in concept that they have quickly gained the attention of global curators.
He participated in Dakar’s Bienniale of Contemporary African Art last May with his latest installation, Only Dreamers Leave, which is composed of multiple sails with embroidered motifs that Ahmed made with the help of a local tailor.
“This installation is a metaphor [of] the narrative of the immigrant dream to include the reality of global systems of exclusion and segregation,” says Ahmed. Upon closer inspection, the motifs on the sails are in the patterns of wrought-metal gates of palatial villas in Cairo—a direct reference to the sense of exclusion from society that many have experienced in their own countries, and of those who aspire for a better life elsewhere.
“Only Dreamers Leave came from my own transient experiences,” says Ahmed. “Through conversations with others, I realized that my personal experience matched the experiences of many people that chose or had to leave the place they called home.”
He was recently invited to participate in the Havana Biennial, which considers itself a venue for non-Western art, in 2019 after the biennial’s curators saw his work in Dakar.
Ahmed found his métier of creating art from found materials when living in Newark. “In 2010 Newark was a dilapidated city and access to found materials was abundant,” he says. “I would repurpose material, adding to their narratives a new relational layer.”
Moving to Cairo “by chance” four years ago during what was meant to be a short research trip throughout the Mediterranean region, today he seeks comfort in his state of anonymity here.
“I felt that I could just be in Cairo—something I was not afforded in the U.S. Being from North Africa, with a specific appearance that signified something in the American context, I was always a symbol of politics, and people took the liberty to always engage politically with me. I didn’t have the privilege of just being at a party or a bar without being questioned. In Cairo, I was just another brown face in the crowd.”
When pressed, Ahmed identifies himself not as an Arab but as a North African. “My work reflects my experience,” he says, “and that experience has always been in transition, not bound by one region or nationality. I hope to expand beyond these constricted labels, for they don’t speak to a complexity possessed within my singular experience, let alone the complexity of several regions.”
Identity and belonging are themes that Ahmed explores in his earliest works such as in the Ard El Lewa series, a project that highlights “the meeting points in history” of people who encounter one another on the routes of migration and movement.
It is evident in these works how inspired Ahmed is by the neighborhood he chooses to live in, and the people who inhabit it. The works are made of gathered scraps of fabric, given to him by various neighbors, which he has collaged together and then painted on. He has integrated architectural elements and decorative motifs into these works, and they meld together harmoniously.
He repeated a similar process in his next series, South x South. Emulating the bricks that compose the low-rise buildings in his neighborhood, Ahmed has taken African batik, Egyptian tarp canvas and denim fabric, among other textiles, and densely layered them and then fixed them together with a glue bath, giving the works a hard density and texture akin to that of a brick. Upon close inspection, the bricks reveal a motley of designs as the patterns of the various scraps have fused together. This series, explains Ahmed, “renegotiates the parameters and terms of cosmopolitanism by rethinking it geographically, economically, culturally, and racially.”
More recently, he has turned inward to reflect on more personal questions with his series Burn What Needs to Be Burned, a multidisciplinary project that uses religious themes, architectural aesthetics and elements of car culture to discuss masculinity as a societal construct—a construct which, argues Ahmed, dictates a performance to exhibit masculinity.
The first iteration of the work was literal: He created a series of masks welded together from old car parts. The effect of the masks when worn by Ahmed is incredibly dramatic, literally and also conceptually. In this work, he effectively argues that the limitations brought on by societal constructions of masculinity impede the emotional development of men. The creation of this series was catalyzed by questions he was grappling with about allowing himself to be vulnerable in a personal relationship, and how indoctrinated concepts of masculinity should be reconsidered so as to allow for better personal connections.
Ahmed has his sights set on establishing a residency in Cairo for artists from the African continent. He hopes that such a residency program might help to foster dialogue and expand Egyptian cultural understanding and practice beyond the Western-centric ideologies so often ingrained in the Egyptian art sphere today.
For now, he’s focusing on getting ready for a solo exhibition at the Sara Zanin Gallery in Rome, and for upcoming group exhibitions in the Middle East.