Tuesday,17 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1278, (14 - 20 January 2016)
Tuesday,17 July, 2018
Issue 1278, (14 - 20 January 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Elusive dreams

Rania Khallaf quizzes sculptor Amgad Al-Tohami on his latest exhibition

Elusive dreams
Elusive dreams
Al-Ahram Weekly

“A Way Back” is the title of Amgad Al-Tohami’s third solo exhibition (15 December-4 January), but it holds the key to his entire corpus. As you enter the Ubuntu Gallery in Zamalek, where the exhibition is held, the small hall facing you is vacant except for a small sculpture of a smiling, sleeping face laid calmly on a pillow. On the opposite wall, there is a short statement:

“He gradually regained his awareness, trying to stand on his feet. Looking around, he found nothing but wreckage. He sat down, trying to remember what happened. There are only mute screams, continuous flashes of light, everything flying in circles, without wings, complete freedom, and a yearning to walk away searching for a way back.”

Then you walk into the narrow corridor and it is also vacantly white, but the three consecutive, interrelated open halls, each lead to the next, resemble different stages of a dream.

The first hall contains amazing sculptures. Rise is a humanoid bird figure that, from another angle, looks like a creeper: two leaves and a stem. Swarm is a series of three sculptures in which the human bird is replicated three times, the figures huddled together with their heads down, gently wrapped in leaves. In the corner an interesting piece evokes lovers in an embrace that hide their features. They are wrapped together, again like a pair of fragile leafs, a position that infuses the space with warmth.

Here as elsewhere, gender cannot be traced here. This is a dreamy world where women and men look much the same. The piece at the centre of the hall resembles a thick half cylinder. Humanoid bird figures emerge from one end to disappear into the other. The cyclical motion haunting. For “the swarms”, Al-Tohami eventually explained, “Each element is sculpted separately and then I make different compositions out of them.”

Al-Tohami graduated from the Faculty of Art Education, Helwan University in 1992, earning his PhD in object art and its application in daily life. He now teaches there. These 26 sculptures, all in bronze albeit showing different degrees of brown and green, represent various stages of his career.

The earthy colours belie the dreaminess, also implying that something is stopping the creatures from flying away. “This mysterious journey, our way back but also our way forward, has been my main theme since I started my career. I have always been preoccupied with the idea of returning: the way back to my roots, and to different things. This mystery of body and soul has always been a big question.”

Another piece, Confusion, resembles a human being with thick thighs and a round body, and very tiny head dangling over. The composition is unique, generating no end of questions.

“I usually spend time thinking of our afterlife journey. I imagine people flying with no earth gravity, like birds without wings or creepers in paradise. Therefore, no logic governs the scene. It is complete freedom,” Al-Tohami commented.

Though Al-Tohami is more concerned with teaching and making sculptures than exhibiting, he has participated in group exhibitions since 1992. His first solo exhibition, “White Heads between Light and Shadow”, was held at the faculty’s gallery in 2013. The exhibits were all in white gypsum evoking the white sheets of birth and death. Al-Tohami’s second exhibition, “The Circles”, was held at the Saad Zaghloul Gallery in February 2015. It featured fibreglass pieces tackling the confusion and mystery of contemporary life.

The artist’s fascination with heads continues into the present exhibition. “The head is the main human organ,” he says. “It is mysterious, and it controls the rest of the body. I am constantly in a state of argument with myself. Sometimes, I get very tired of these arguments and need peace, but in vain.”

The Thinker, Al-Tohami’s take on Rodin’s 1902 masterpiece, reflects this tension. It portrays the head of a man, with faint details. The eyes look down, as if drowning in a lake of questions. Unlike Rodin’s thinker, Al-Tohami’s has only a head, with no figure: “the laboratory for the interaction of thoughts, philosophies and emotions”, as he puts it.

Though an academic, Al-Tohami says, “I am completely against the single style, or what people call the fingerprint of an artist. I am totally with experimentation whether in the mass or the material. I’ve made sculptures out of wood, iron, gypsum and bronze, but I really love clay more than anything else.”

In the second hall, the visitor encounters different patterns of the head. A featureless head, cut into slices as if it was a piece of a ripe fruit, is called Flashes. It reflects the idea that insight matters more than sight. The Corridor connects two heads together, as held fast in some kind of tube.

The exhibits are strewn around rather than organised schematically, but The Circle of Time — placed in the third and last hall — is intended as such. The piece reveals a man tied to a ribbon and in a position to jump or detach himself, which obviously resembles life. The effect is precisely what Al-Tohami intends. It is as if the dream is over now and you have to get ready for the new day. However, the dream still lingers in your mind. By then you are wondering if your head is still on your body or if has flown away to join its analogues.

It was cleaver of Ahmed Al-Dabaa, the owner of Ubuntu, to end one year and start another with an intellectual exhibition that poses more questions than it suggests answers. And just like a dream experience, your journey inside the exhibition will take longer or shorter than you thought. Amgad Al-Tohami distorts time.

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