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Emirati Artist’s Playful Exhibition Transcends His Local Environment

When an artist uses color freely and liberally all over an artwork, does that mean the work can only be considered a painting? Or can a sculptural work be admired both for its structural composition and its painterly visual value? These questions appear to be points of departure for the Emirati artist Mohamed Ahmed Ibrahim, who proposes through works now on view in Dubai that the line between painting and sculpture can be, and in fact should be, blurred.

Ibrahim was born in 1962 in Khorfakkan, a coastal town in Sharjah that is surrounded by the Hajar Mountains, and he is considered part of a group of five avant-garde Emirati artists who emerged in the 1980s. The others are Hussein Sharif, Abdullah Al Saadi, Mohammed Kazem, and the late Hassan Sharif.

Hassan Sharif mentored Ibrahim before his passing, and it was Sharif who pointed out that what Ibrahim was doing earlier in his practice (moving rocks in the Hajar Mountains) was land art. Ibrahim is otherwise mostly self-taught as an artist. His work seems to come from a deep primordial urge to create.

Three Distinct Series

His current solo exhibition at Lawrie Shabib Gallery in Dubai, titled The Space Between the Eyelid and the Eyeball, encompasses three distinct series of paintings and sculptural works. One series consists of paintings of a male seated figure, cropped of the subject’s head, with each painting executed similarly in terms of composition but varying in color.

The second series consists of papier-mâché sculptural works hung on a gallery wall that are executed in black and white patterns of stripes and marks. These works are representative of what the exhibition wall text describes as the “obsessive mark-making” of Ibrahim’s practice, akin to the lines and marks scrawled on cave walls, the first artworks in human history.

The third series—a large number of irregularly-shaped sculptures scattered throughout the gallery space—is the most intriguing. These works provide the logic behind the exhibition’s title. Made from papier-mâché and heavily painted in a riot of colors, they reflect Ibrahim’s first experience of a sunset, “of an explosion in [my] eyes,” the artist explains, that sparked his intense fascination with color. The natural everyday occurrence of sunsets was hidden from him while living in Khorfakkan, because of the surrounding mountains.

Using found materials in Khorfakkan, including rock, copper wire, clay, and discarded bottle caps and waste paper, the artist locally sources both his material and references. Even his natural paper pigments are handmade by the artist himself.

“I feel that his work is different because it was being made without an audience or market in mind,” says Asmaa Shabibi, whose gallery represents the artist. “So it was quite prolific and he was not afraid to experiment. A lot of what he does is with found materials—whatever is around him at the time—so it is not planned out. Hence there is a vulnerability in his works or a kind of freedom that is rare to find in other artists. It retains a childlike essence.  He really was making art for the sake of making art.”

Stories Without Stereotypes

The works show an unrestrained use of color like a child who has just discovered a large box of crayons. The sculptures are as visually radical as they are a charming encounter of abstractly painted lines, dots and dashes on structures that can be deciphered as trees, chairs or whatever springs to the viewer’s mind.

Ibrahim treats the surfaces of these sculptures as multi-dimensional planes of canvas, painting each side with diligence and attention to color and pattern. It is Ibrahim’s use of intensely saturated shades of blue, green and pink clashing with neon greens and orange that suggest these items might be toys or childlike ephemera.

“Not only is it the memory of the colors of his first sight of the sunset,” says Shabibi, “but when walking along the barren Hajar Mountains there are instances of amazing groupings of random colorful flowers. He also talks about the chalk markings on the walls of houses that were used to record the number of water bottles delivered to the houses. These lines are stored in his subconscious and are the lines that we see in his earlier line drawings.”

Ibrahim’s museum-quality show proves that Middle Eastern artists produce work that is just as technically and aesthetically mature as contemporary artists abroad without falling into specific Orientalist tropes or themes. (See a related article, “What Art Can Teach Us About the Arab World.”)

“What is beautiful about his works,” says Shabibi, “is that they are about his environment in Khorfakkan, but they don’t directly depict the desert, the sea and the landscape as one would expect.  He has taken a completely different stance.  This is what we enjoy about his works, and it does make us smile when people are quite skeptical when they hear he is from the Emirates.

“The same can be said about a lot of our artists from the Middle East,” says Shabibi.  “We try and stay away from stereotypical aesthetics but we do still tell the story of the Middle East (diaspora, migration, displacement, craft) but with a different lens.”

Lawrie Shabibi Gallery is currently working on a fully illustrated monograph of Ibrahim’s work which has received funding support from Alserkal Art Foundation.

Mohamed Ahmed Ibrahim, The Space Between the Eyelid and the Eyeball, is showing at Lawrie Shabibi Gallery in Dubai until May 9, 2019.

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