This Emirati visual artist is representing UAE at the 59th Venice Biennale

In an interview, Mohamed Ahmed Ibrahim talks about his deep relationship with Khor Fakkan and the influences that have shaped his art

By Mariella Radaelli

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Published: Thu 21 Apr 2022, 9:32 PM

The Emirati visual artist Mohamed Ahmed Ibrahim, an influential member of the UAE’s now-historic avant-garde, is representing the United Arab Emirates at the 59th Venice Biennale that opens to the public on April 23 and runs until November 27.

The world’s most prestigious and longest-running survey of contemporary art dates back to 1895 when the mayor of Venice decided to give exhibition space to artists meeting at Caffè Florian on St Mark’s Square. The first nation to build a pavilion at the Venice Biennale was Belgium in 1907, followed by Great Britain, Germany and Hungary in 1909. One hundred years later, in 2009, the UAE became the first Gulf nation to present a national pavilion.

For decades, the international art fair in Venice has been a fundamental indicator of new developments in the contemporary art field. The celebrated arts extravaganza spreads from the Arsenale — a complex of former shipyards and armouries — and the Giardini, a meandering garden anchored by its Central Pavilion. Eighty National Pavilions can be found within the two venues and sometimes in palazzos farther afield. This year, five countries participate for the first time: Cameroon, Namibia, Nepal, Oman and Uganda.

Mohamed Ahmed Ibrahim has been picked to fill the UAE Pavilion in the Arsenale — Sale d’Armi. He was born in Khor Fakkan in 1962, nine years before the UAE was founded in 1971. A significant influence on the UAE’s art scene, he belongs to the group of experimental and conceptual artists formed in the early 1980s when he started his groundbreaking artistic career. His inspiring practice is bound to various mediums, ranging from painting to sculpture, from installation to land art.

I find enchantment in Mohamed’s work, a spontaneous art expressing a sense of wonder and admiration for the natural world and the creatures inhabiting the environment. That is also deducible from his new Venice Biennale art installation titled Between Sunrise and Sunset, curated by Maya Allison, Executive Director of New York University Abu Dhabi Art Gallery and also curator of the National Pavilion UAE 2022.

The show title references Mohamed’s hometown, Khor Fakkan, located on the east coast of the UAE between the Shumayliyah Mountains and the Arabian Sea. Rising to an altitude of 1,023 metres at Al Jebel al Hilqah, Khor Fakkan is a hidden paradise surrounded by mountains on three sides and the ocean on the fourth.The artist tells wknd. about his deep connection with Khor Fakkan and the influences that have shaped his art.

You said that the Venice exhibition demonstrates “the tension between Khor Fakkan’s colourful bright mornings, when the sun rises over the ocean, and the disappearance of colours in mid-afternoon when the sun drops behind the mountains that loom over my hometown.” You never see the sunset in Khor Fakkan. “Still, we can imagine it on the other side of the UAE,” you said. Can you further explain how Khor Fakkan affected your creativity?

My work arises directly from my environment, wherever I am. As Khor Fakkan is the home where I have lived my whole life, it’s a primary source for my work. There’s no doubt that Khor Fakkan was my main inspiration for this exhibition. However, my art derives from each environment I am in, wherever I might be in the world.

What does it mean to you to represent the UAE at the Venice Biennale?

My appointment is a great honour 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 to showcase, discuss and be part of meaningful global cultural discourse. I look forward to representing my country alongside curator Maya Allison and being part of this dialogue.

This year’s edition of the Venice Biennale takes us on an imaginary journey through metamorphoses of the body. You present colourful papier-mâché sculptures and new works of human-sized, abstract, and organic sculptural forms. Could you anticipate a message behind those pieces? Are they related to some of the Biennale’s main themes, such as ‘Bodies and Their Metamorphoses’ or ‘The Connection between Bodies and the Earth’?

Yes. I was glad to see the resonance between the themes of the 59th International Art Exhibition — La Biennale di Venezia, titled The Milk of Dreams — a name borrowed from a book by Surrealist artist Leonora Carrington. The new work I present is a cluster of biomorphic forms suggesting a transformation process. Because they are similar in size to human bodies and made from earthy materials, they share many points of thematic connection with the Biennale. There will be multiple sculptures that make a single work. The installation colours move from rich saturation to black and white, an effect that resonates with the exhibition’s title. It will mean something different to each person; the message is for the viewer to discover. I am interested in understanding other people’s interpretations of my work, so I like to leave my work open-ended. That said, often, my work derives from my connection to the local environment of Khor Fakkan and the local materials I have worked with for almost four decades. It evolves from what I see in the space between the pupil and the eyelid.

You work with local materials — rock, copper wire, Earth, clay, leaves, wood, stone, etc. Nature from Khor Fakkan helps you trust yourself more, you said. Can you explain this concept?

It goes back to my learning to be honest with myself as I create my work. The materials of my environment are part of that. Honesty leads to trust.

Does your oeuvre evolve through defined conceptual units that strive for harmony?

The harmony is already there in the materials. From the materials, my concepts emerge as units that express that harmony. There is no lost harmony.

When you create, do you make a world of symbiosis where man is not at the top of the pyramid?

The artwork may have forms that reflect nature or other references from my surroundings. I create my symbols, shapes, and structures, so that people themselves can interpret them.

Your mother country is an ultra-modern society. Through your art, how do you express the dichotomy of nature and a hypermodern world?

This duality exists everywhere — in Venice, we also have the traditional and the modern. Where I live has always been open to the world, as a port town with traders passing through for centuries.

What are your inspirations?

I take inspiration from whatever is in front of me, from who is around me, and what I find when I close my eyes. The trust in my process has come about as a result of many things. It includes my fellow artists and several texts, ranging from historical, philosophical texts of our region to contemporary art theory and history and interactions that have made up my education. They all continue to inspire me.

What techniques do you use the most in painting and sculpting?

When I am painting, I follow my own ritual: I just dip my brush in the colour, make a point on the canvas and start with the shape. I mostly use acrylic because it’s more controllable than oil paint. I stopped painting with oil in 2019, but I’ve recently felt nostalgic for it. Oil paint consumes a long time. For example, if you add one colour, you have to wait for three or four days or sometimes two weeks for it to dry before you can work again.

When it comes to sculpting, I experiment with the material first, which can take some time, ranging from 10 minutes to one month. I experiment with coffee, tea or tobacco and with grass or leaves. Then I use the material prepared to make the objects. I start without a predetermined plan. I start with a dry object using cardboard or a box and add material onto the structure. I watch as the dry structure becomes wet and starts to move. It feels like life is coming to this dry structure, and it starts taking its shape. I do not interfere during the process; I sometimes add more or take some parts away until I and the object are satisfied.

Are you a self-taught artist? You have also been a policeman and a banker, but those jobs didn’t match your personality, you declared.

My education took an unusual form, it’s true, but I would not say self-taught. I learned from various teachers about technique and art history in Russia, Syria, the Netherlands, and the UAE, and through collective learning with my community here. There was no decision to be an artist. It’s not like studying to be a doctor. Making art becomes part of your personality. You cannot separate it from daily life. It’s not like you are an artist in your studio, and when you step out, you are not. You are always an artist. It is more that I recognised I was an artist, not that I decided to be one. You have to be very honest with yourself to draw and make art. Still, up until now, I am not sure that I am an artist. Society gives you this name and this position. I am asking myself, “Am I an artist?”, I am an artist because human culture framed it this way.

Were your feelings about becoming an artist deep and unshakable since the beginning? Or was it a difficult path towards attaining that kind of awareness?

I spent most of my school years in Kuwait, where art classes were part of the school curriculum. I became skilled at drawing and painting, which, in turn, became part of my social identity, as classmates and teachers asked me to draw maps and illustrations. I had been a talented draughtsman but looking back on this pre-college period, I felt that in the end, you find you are not an artist and what you’re doing is not art. Simple like that. I did not understand what art could mean for me until later. A few years into college, the longing for art stirred me to read literature and write poetry. And finally in college, my study of psychology led me forward.

On the occasion of the Venice Biennale, a major monograph on the artist, Mohamed Ahmed Ibrahim: Between Sunrise and Sunset / Works 1986-2022, will be available for purchase. The book is co-edited by Maya Allison and Cristiana de Marchi.

The National Pavilion UAE is an independent non-profit organisation commissioned by the Salama Bint Hamdan Al Nahyan Foundation and supported by the UAE Ministry of Culture and Youth.

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