The Work of Ibrahim Ahmed by Heba Elkayal

Ibrahim Ahmed was stunned when the curator of an international biennial asked him to censor his work. He had just flown five thousand miles from Cairo to Cuba to participate in the 2019 edition of the Havana Biennial to install a large textile work titled Does Anybody Leave Heaven where he was confronted with an ultimatum: either modify his artwork should he still wish to participate in the biennial, or withdraw his participation altogether.

Heba Elkayal is an independent curator and art advisor working in the fine arts industry in the Middle East and the United States. Her articles have appeared in Al Fanar Media (website, London), Harper’s Bazaar Arabia (print, Dubai) and Canvas magazine (print, Dubai), and she was the lifestyle editor for Daily News Egypt from 2008 to 2012. She was previously an Instructor in Christie’s Online Education Program. Elkayal earned her Master’s Degree in Modern Art History & Curatorial Studies from Columbia University in the City of New York.

Ibrahim Ahmed was stunned when the curator of an international biennial asked him to censor his work. He had just flown five thousand miles from Cairo to Cuba to participate in the 2019 edition of the Havana Biennial to install a large textile work titled Does Anybody Leave Heaven where he was confronted with an ultimatum: either modify his artwork should he still wish to participate in the biennial, or withdraw his participation altogether.

Ahmed is an Egyptian-American artist whose life thus far has been one shaped by the implications and the swells of Egyptian history and politics. Born in Kuwait in 1984 and raised first in Bahrain and then the United States, Ahmed’s father sought a career abroad in the early 1980s (as did many other Egyptians) owing to a stagnating economy that offered few opportunities for young, ambitious professionals in Egypt. Experiencing a life abroad as an expatriate, and then as an immigrant in the United States from the age of thirteen, Ahmed’s artwork has come to feature a narrative that is experientially situated but extends beyond the personal.

His work questions the societal constructs of gender and colonized identities, and he challenges how they might define or encumber the ‘authentic’ self. These disparate themes are all interwoven into his paintings, sculpture and mixed media works to explore a complex fabric of struggles largely shared by Egyptians of his age, providing profound commentary on the Arab world.

Primarily conceived as a single tapestry, Does Anybody Leave Heaven is a textile assemblage composed from fragments of fabrics and items, such as bags and scarves, sourced from Egyptian street markets and printed with the American flag. It measures 11 by 4 meters and is hung from scaffolding from a height of nine meters so that the tapestry hangs visibly like a flag with a sizable portion of it resting on the ground.

The work was deemed incendiary for display in Cuba by the curators of the biennial during the installation of the artwork. The curator argued that the artwork’s criticism of the effects of global American imperialism was too provocative a statement considering the current political circumstances in Cuba, especially in light of the country’s attempt to maintain friendly relations with the U.S.

The curator suggested that Ibrahim modify the way the work would be displayed by flipping it over so that the details of the American flags wouldn’t be clear to viewers, prompting Ibrahim to decide against exhibiting his artwork. During his remaining days in Cuba, Ibrahim grappled with the socio-cultural influence that the United States has on both the country and its people, noticing the prevalence of clothing items with images or prints of the American flags casually worn by Cubans.

When friends and neighbors find out that Ibrahim moved back from the United States to Egypt, he is often asked: “Howa hadd yiseeb el ganna?”– “Does anybody leave heaven?” Directly transliterated from Arabic, the question is rhetorical and underlines a sense of confusion and perplexity as to why anybody would return to Egypt. Thus, the work is a critique on the convoluted fetishism prevalent amongst disenfranchised Egyptian youth who dream about what they perceive to be the ultimate freedom available in the United States while unknowingly suffering the effects of American domination– both political and cultural– which have plagued Egyptians since the 1970s.

This assorted method of domination began when President Anwar Sadat embraced the United States as a political ally in the 1970s, allowing the United States to influence Egypt’s economy through his introduction of open-market policies and the re-establishment of trade relations between the two countries. For many young Egyptians, the opportunity to live in the United States is a dream built upon fiction more so than reality; their understanding of the United States has been formed from watching American TV, listening to American music, and adopting imagery of American culture into their everyday lives– including the flag. This irony is not lost on Ahmed, and was reinforced during his visit to Cuba.

Does Anybody Leave Heaven is thus a critique of the subtle ways in which people yield to the influence of American soft power, but the work’s message does not warrant its censorship. This argument is made through Ahmed’s critique of the fallacy inherent in the notion of the American Dream, and of supposed freedoms gained by living in the United States, or being an American citizen, without considering the real implications and dangers of being a person of colour or an immigrant in America ¬¬.

Ironically, through the initial act of censorship in Cuba against the work, the piece now embodies an additional layer of significance. Since the beginning, Ahmed’s work has interrogated rigid frameworks of thought: whether those are societally imposed ideas of what it means to be masculine, or institutional politics that decree what art is deemed worthy of exhibition and support. That fact that his work presented in Havana was censored symptomizes the innumerable episodes of censorship or oppression by cultural practitioners, academics, and the art canon against artists who do not adhere to conventional roles or sanctioned standards in the realm of contemporary art. That the work would be censored in Havana– a country which arguably has had its artists repeatedly marginalized and marked as the “other” by institutions until recently– compounds the irony to a crushing limit.

Self-taught as an artist, Ahmed’s practice can be primarily identified by his process of perpetual experimentation. Like the multitude of ideas and questions imbued in his work, Ahmed’s process is catalyzed by a question which he then attempts to answer and reflect on through various lenses, by working with the materials and resources he finds in his neighborhood.

He moved to Ard El Lewa upon his arrival in Cairo. The working-class neighborhood sits on the outskirts of the city and is also home to Eritrean, Ethiopian, Sudanese, and Syrian refugees. Calling upon the help of his neighbors to execute his work, Ahmed engages with various members of his community, and his studio has an open-door policy for children and adults alike in the neighborhood to come in and help Ahmed in his practice or just to share a cup of tea and conversation.

His choice to live and practice in this neighborhood speaks to the degree of his commitment to creating solid connections with the marginalized individuals and communities addressed in his work. Citing his own family’s working-class origins, and his personal history of grappling with questions of home and identity, Ahmed embodies his philosophy and politics, which then penetrate his work, something we see evidenced in South South (2016).

South South straddles sculpture and mixed media. Each piece is shaped to represent the humble red brick, the main building material for the many working-class neighborhoods that ring the city of Cairo such as Ard El Lewa. Exposed and unpainted, there is an immediate association of these neighborhoods and their red brick origins in the minds of Cairo’s urban elites with the notion of something that is primitive and poor. Arguing against that, Ahmed’s bricks are made by the layering of textiles in a glue-based bath, causing tens of layers of textiles to fuse into one another, and cutting them into the exact size and shape of local red bricks.

The effect is startling: patterns and colors emerge in complex stratifications, signifying the rich origins and local histories of the inhabitants of his neighborhood who participate in the creative process of these pieces by bringing him fabrics from their own homes or countries of origin. Many of his neighbors have traveled from the global south, including migrant workers from India and the Philippines. Unbeknownst to most Cairenes, Ard El Lewa is home to a rich diverse community of individuals, and Ahmed highlights this by asking viewers to question what they know of these neighborhoods by reconsidering the significance of these red bricks.

Ahmed experimented with painting, gathering scraps of fabric which he assembled together and painted on. These paintings, entitled Ard El Lewa, are hung like tapestries and their confluence of fabric styles and chaotic colors mirror their origins. Interesting to note is Ahmed’s fluid experimentation with forms; he allows them to morph and take various shapes, juxtaposed with an intense focus on a single question or matter that is important to him. Prior to that, he used fabrics to create maps for the series There is No Clash (2014/2015), questioning how human migrations might be mapped in a way akin to trade commodities such as fabric, and take on multiple identities across geo-spatial temporalities. Like an Indian silk fabric that can be purchased in a market in Egypt, cultural identity becomes fluid, and tracing things to a geographical origin, be it a piece of fabric or a person, seems like a redundant and outdated paradigm by which to categorize the complexity of a human being’s personal history and their corporeal and emotional sense of belonging.

Relying on his community to help produce many of his artworks, Ahmed’s 2016 series Only Dreamers Leave, like his more recent tapestry, is a large installation piece that required Ahmed to outsource some elements of production to craftsmen. Working with a local tailor to construct large sails, he commissioned the tailor to also embroider large patterns in gold-colored thread to recreate images of old palace gates in Egypt. These large, elaborate, wrought-iron doors represent a class of people who were never forced to consider leaving home to seek safe haven elsewhere, as well as timely commentary on the refugee crisis and those who are coerced into traversing seas and oceans by boat. The work’s joyful colors and gold pattern that run across the sails by no means romanticize the crisis, but they certainly call to mind the spark that a fleeting sense of hope can elicit.

The desire to fully locate a sense of his own self is unequivocally present in his series Burn What Needs To Be Burned (2016/2018), possibly the most personal of his works. Using sculpture, collage, and photography, Ahmed deconstructs his relationship to the notion of masculinity, formed by his experience as a migrant, and the supposed “correct” ideals he was taught to ascribe to by both his father and masculinist culture.

To unravel the complexity inherent in such a problem, Ahmed worked with the very material and tropes that defined male identity and youth culture as he was growing up. Cars, and their connotation of virility and strength, played a large role in Ahmed’s familial life and the way in which he connected with his father and brothers. By taking car parts and welding them into masks, and then posing with these masks, he presents a metaphor of how men are taught to hide their vulnerabilities through such objects to present a forceful image of masculinity and strength. By utilizing “muscle cars”, he subverts these fetishistic relations.

The masks are also incorporated into the collages which become intensely vulnerable and empowering sites for Ahmed. Working with a local photographer, he posed for portraits in the images of body-builders while wearing these masks: almost naked and muscles flexed to the utmost degree. These assisted self-portraits aren’t meant to be a humorous poke at the genre of fitness photography, but rather, an elaboration on idealized notions of physical perfection which have been enforced on young boys as the ultimate aspiration. It is interesting to consider how this can also be read as a historical nod to the genre of Renaissance-era sculptures and paintings and their idealization of the male form, but Ahmed’s work is primarily an exercise of introspection in trying to redefine supposed truths as well as antiquated and monolithic structures of thought.

The one thread that runs through the entirety of Ahmed’s practice is an insistence on offering proposals for paradigm shifts, both large and small. It is in the best interest of the art world for its curators, institutions, biennials and patrons to encourage such proposals– not only will such efforts facilitate further inclusion of artists and artworks from the Global South into the greater canon of contemporary art, but it will also help to confront the deeply-entrenched effects of Western neo-colonialism in the arts.

Ahmed’s practice has the ability to create both visual and intellectual impact, and regardless of whether he will be “allowed” to show his work or not, Ahmed will undoubtedly continue to subvert institutional allowances and expectations to produce work that is honest and truthful about experiential realities and personal histories.

Find out more about Ibrahim Ahmed’s exhibtion, Does Anybody Leave Heaven? showing at Primary and commissioned by NAE.

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