Thursday,19 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1252, (25 June - 1 July 2015)
Thursday,19 July, 2018
Issue 1252, (25 June - 1 July 2015)

Ahram Weekly

To Reem with love

Rania Khallaf saw the visual tales artist Mohamed Abla devised for his granddaughter

To Reem with love
To Reem with love
Al-Ahram Weekly

A new exhibition by the renowned visual artist Mohammed Abla is always an invitation to be curious. Abla is one of Egypt’s few innovative artists, he is well-known for his daring ideas, and for shifting from one theme to another, from one technique to the next, making an unexpected move.

In general, Abla’s work can be seen as a visual autobiography, with each and every exhibition showing a link between his human and artistic experiences. His new exhibition, currently on show at the Mashrabiya Gallery in downtown Cairo, celebrates the gallery’s 25th anniversary. It also marks a new shift in Abla’s history. Interestingly entitled “Tales to Reem”, it is dedicated to his granddaughter, born only a few months ago.

“Tales to Reem” brings together an amazing collection of mono- and polychromatic cutouts, monochromatic prints and oil paintings. It is a perfect space for art lovers of all ages, including children.

Artworks made in different sizes are pasted on the walls like cinematic screens. With unique characters – birds, animals, children playing or dancing – the visitor is invited to imagine, make connections and create his own story.

Abla used the techniques of shadow puppetry in his paintings. With figures, some cut out of black paper, others printed on coloured paper, the paintings can be read at different levels.

Cutting out parts of magazines and pasting them on paper is an old tradition: Abla’s mother, he told me, used to use scissors to cut figures and motifs out of magazines, with which she would decorate kitchen cupboards.  

Born in 1953 in Belqas, Mansoura, Mohammed Abla graduated from the Faculty of Fine Arts in Alexandria. Starting in 1977, he spent seven years in Europe studying and practising art.

The Nile and nature in general are principal themes in Abla’s paintings and graphics. The people of the street, demonstrations and the dialectic relationship between police and citizenry are also recurrent topics.

That is why dealing with the world of children is a fairly new development in Abla’s career. In fact few contemporary artists in Egypt have dared plunge into that world.

“Through my career,” he says, “I have worked on the concept of art as an approach to play and vice versa. I have learned a lot of techniques, but all the time there was a parallel path through which I tried to deconstruct all that I had been taught, and specifically any seriousness about art schools or trends. I was keen on dealing with art as a fun and play.”

For Abla this exhibition is closely linked to his past exhibitions, which also used play as both a theme and an approach, such as: “Snake and Ladder”, “Future Fossils”, and “Revelations of a Tree”, which were held at different stages in his rich career.

The paintings reveal a huge dose of freedom and enjoyment on the part of the artist. With the scissors Abla started to adjust his characters, which he collected and put aside. A few days later, he started to put some of these items together to create a scene, or rather a painting. One painting led to another. “There were no specific stories in my mind while I was cutting out the figures,” he confesses.

The stories are like puzzles you can picture by putting different parts together.

It was, as he puts it, a self-generating technique. “I have done around 150 paintings, out of which only 30 are on show. And I still have more to present.”

This is clearly reflected in the viewer; seeing the paintings gives you the feeling of entering a mythic world or rather a jungle: cats, dancing girls, clowns, trees, weird creatures, flying horses are the heroes.  

Did the artist intend to approach and discover the world of children, however, or is this simply a reflection of his own  memories of childhood?

“Actually, I thought I wanted to tell Reem all about myself, since I have been a kid until now, albeit in a different way,” he says. “The exhibition can be read as symbols that are recurrent in my paintings and are an essential part of my own history as an artist. The idea of the artworks is based on recycling material and ideas: some cutouts are used in more than one painting but in different ways.”

“I would like to re-exhibit the show in a vast academic space. I want to deliver the message that the best way to educate kids is through play,” he stressed.

Was it Abla’s continual workshops with children that granted him such inspiration, however?

“I was first inspired by the birth of my granddaughter. However, I have worked closely with street children and held workshops with children in international schools. I know children today have very different vocabularies and their games and toys are totally different. But I believe that our messages and cultural legacy should pass from one generation to the next.

“And equally I realise that my little Reem, who lives with her parents in Switzerland, will find it hard when she grows up to understand my tales. But I feel it is my duty to pass them on,” he went on.

“I believe this exhibition marks a new phase in my career. First, it was meant to be simply tales to Reem, but afterwards, I felt that I was personally been involved or trapped in the magic of this storytelling technique.

“At a later stage, I caught myself telling myself tales about my childhood and adulthood, and meditating on my own memories, my mistakes and achievements. I think my next project will also be closely related to storytelling.

“I could never imagine that this experience would grant me this much enjoyment. I am now more convinced than ever that artists need to revive the culture of storytelling because our closed society really needs that to develop. People need to speak up,” he concluded.

The exhibition is open until 3 July

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