As an artist working only with materials grown and gleaned from his native Khorfakkan, Mohammed Ahmed Ibrahim is by definition the most Emirati artist living and practicing in the UAE today. His coded works on paper mark time and memory through meditative repetition and the appearance and reappearance of India ink characters.
Turãb (meaning soil or earth in Arabic), his current show at Cuadro Art in Dubai, brings these creatures to life in realistically proportioned objects formed from mountain clay, dried grass cuttings, and glue. 14 sheep trail across the gallery’s industrial floor. It’s almost possible to visualize the pulse of an insect balanced on two knotted legs with a thick vein running across its spinal cord. Interestingly, Ibrahim is averse to thinking of these beings as sculptures—a term that would imply his work to be impressive in design yet lifeless.
The objects come in flocks or pairs, including Male Female II, which, when rolled on carpet, emits a soft cry as small mountain pebbles tumble inside. Stones mounted on pedestals allude to a graveyard and the inevitability that we all come from the earth’s umbilical cord and will one day return to an original source. There is a sense of primal Creation taking place before our eyes, albeit mysteriously in a gallery based within Dubai International Financial Centre, to an audience of business people in crisp white shirts, whose daily lives are as removed from touching the dirt of the land as possible.
Born in 1962, Mohammed Ahmed Ibrahim came of age as an artist in the UAE in an era in which the visual arts were not yet valued culturally or taught in university degree programs. In 1986 when he met the conceptual artist Hassan Sharif and became a founding member of the Emirates Fine Art Society, Ibrahim was pulled out of an isolated practice and carved out unshakable friendships and collaborations that have formed the foundation for the robust creative community that defines the UAE today:
DL: Because you are a land artist, it is only appropriate to begin our conversation with deference to the land itself. How does Khorfakkan call to you and why has it formed you into an artist?
MAI: Khorfakkan is surrounded on three sides by mountain and one side by sea. We cannot see the sunset, because the mountain is hiding it. We can only see the sunrise. This special lighting affects people’s moods. I grew up looking to the mountain and when I became an adult I noticed that it was still the same and hadn’t changed. During childhood, I had imagined the mountain as a living creature—he could grow up and get old.
DL: But the mountain hadn’t changed. Only you had changed.
MAI: I go camping alone for a week or ten days at a time on the mountain. I began to scratch away at it. The first thing I noticed was how the face of a rock exposed to the sun is a different colour from the bottom side that has been touching the ground. I began to turn stones upside down over a huge area.
DL: You changed the mountain that could not be changed. Was this in the 80’s?
MAI: Yes. One time I took Hassan Sharif with me and we spent a full day on the mountain. He saw what I did and he told me, “What you are doing is land art.”
DL: He named it for you.
HS: He named it. Then I started to learn more about land art through reading and discovered that Robert Smithson founded the movement in America. I fell in love. From that time onwards, I brought nature into all my work.
DL: How do you grow the materials for your objects in your garden?
MAI: I try not to bother the land by breaking branches or cutting grass. I only use what I can glean from the ground.
DL: Does that mean that you sometimes wait months for the right materials to fall?
MAI: I forage leaves from the louz (almond) tree and use their dye to colour my paper. After the growing season I gather grass cuttings or dried flowers and use them to make my objects. I have to watch for the grass to dry from green to brown. I go to the mountain to bring the clay down, and then work on a few objects at a time. I have to wait while the clay dries for up to a week in summer or an entire month in winter.
DL: You were an artist in the UAE in the 80’s when there were no galleries or museums and only a small community. Did people find it strange when you began exhibiting work?
MAI: There was no knowledge about art here when I began this work—no Internet, no media, and no books. When I graduated high school, I tried to study art outside the country since there was not yet any university here. Unfortunately, there were no scholarships. I studied psychology instead. In 1986 I took my paintings to Emirates Fine Art Society, where I met Hassan Sharif, who had just completed his studies in England. We became close and he loaned me his books. I read about art and we began to meet each other almost daily. We are still best friends to this day.
DL: I’ve heard you referred to as “Keith Haring in the desert.” Did the New York street art movement that was taking place concurrently influence you?
MAI: I only found out about these artists later and then I realized I was not alone—
There were other people who shared my feelings in America and Europe. This gave me the power to continue at a time when people in this region still had a very narrow idea about art. They only understood paintings of landscapes or calligraphy. Even abstract was strange to them. At my first exhibition in the 80’s, the curator separated my work from the other artists’ and hid my abstract oil paintings behind a curtain so dignitaries would not see it.
DL: That confusion continued well into the 90’s.
MAI: In 1999 I felt disappointed because Sharjah took back my studio where I’d been teaching art lessons and holding exhibitions. At that time, all my work, which was inside this building, was loaded into two pickup trucks. The drivers asked me where to take the canvases and I didn’t have a place, so I had them take my work to the mountain, where I burnt it.
DL: Did you experience regret afterwards?
MAI: Perhaps it was a scream to society for not respecting my work. After the paintings were gone, I began new artwork right away. The emotion had passed. I filmed the fire, and the video was exhibited in the Abu Dhabi platform at the Venice Biennale in 2009.
DL: Your work speaks in codes and characters that have an archaeological quality. There is something primal and intuitive about them that everyone can grasp and yet also something secretive about them that perhaps, only you, their scribe, can understand. Are you willing to break the code?
MAI: I don’t fully understand them either. I work in the narrow space between the eyeball and the eyelid. When you close your eyes, your vision does not stop—you see circles and other shapes depending upon the light. It’s a kind of meditation for me. I don’t think about the shapes, the start, or the finish. I use a fountain pen with Indian ink because it dries to give you a surface you can run your finger over.
DL: Do these characters have emotions?
MAI: I work with them for hours and hours. I can read the story in it; I can hear the music in it. The creatures are full of emotions, sometimes shouting, other times silent.
DL: Repetition in nature is something you are quite attracted to either in the lines you often draw on paper or in the 3-d objects you form of clay. This was evident in Primordial(your 2014 show at Cuadro) and is also at the core of Turãb.
MAI: At first, there appears to be repetition, but if you look more closely you will notice that there is actually none. For example, if you draw two lines, they will never be fully identical. Also, each line was drawn at a different time and occupies a different space. In our daily lives we live in a routine, yet inside this structure there are constant variations.
DL: You sometimes build installations on the mountain then leave them to nature.
MAI: Originally I added colour to rocks on the mountain with water-based paint. Eventually I stopped that because it didn’t make sense to add artificial beauty to the place when there was already so much there naturally. I began to make art purely from the land’s materials. I made mounds with rocks, and what I titled ‘Khorfakkan Circles’.
DL: What is a Khorfakkan Circle’?
MAI: I measure a circle with my feet, outline it with rocks, then clean inside. The largest circle is 6 metres in diameter.
DL: Do people notice the circles, and do they recognize your hand in changing the mountain in these places?
MAI: I have a funny story about that. Once when I was camping near the village of Al Bideyeh, I wrapped a huge mound of rocks in yellow, plastic rope and then I Ieft them there. The villagers did not catch any fish for two days. In our tradition when this happens we say in Arabic, “The sea has been captured”. Someone found the yellow rope and thought that it was a sign that someone had set a magic spell against the fishermen. Their mutawa’a burnt the ropes one by one. Five days of work, burnt!
DL: Do you fear that your land will be changed by the country’s growth in the coming years?
MAI: At the moment, the nature of Khorfakkan has already been disturbed. The mountains are vanishing because they are dug up and taken to Dubai and used to create cement blocks for buildings. They have been turned into concrete mountains elsewhere.
DL: Would you say that your largest installation to date, ‘Stones Wrapped in Copper Wire,’ is symbolic of your attempt to capture the memory of a space before it is changed forever in this way?
MAI: That is part of my thinking. We need to devote more attention to our environment. This development is not only harming the mountain but also disturbing the animals, insects, plants and other nature.
DL: I heard that you want your larger works to stay in the UAE or the region, rather than being acquired by a museum abroad. So you wouldn’t be willing to send the mountain to Paris permanently?
MAI: Everything has to be saved for our next generation. This work belongs to them. They are open-minded, know about art, and can decide what to do with it. I don’t want to waste our country’s heritage.
DL: Sheep follow one another in a line like schoolchildren. You’ve created a flock of 14 of them here. Is this continuing with your love for repetition?
MAI: Sheep have a boss whom they follow blindly.
DL: While they were drying in your studio, did you feel that 28 eyes were on you?
MAI: Yes. I spoke with them and sometimes I sang to them. I worked on the creatures two or three at a time and then waited for the clay and materials to dry. I created the entire show in one year.
DL: Do you feel that each of your creatures has a soul?
MAI: Each has a spirit. There is a moment at which it receives a breath.
Good Ideas: Turãb, Mohammed Ahmed Ibrahim’s solo show opened at Cuadro Art in Dubai on 16 March and will run through 9 April, 2015.
Credits: This conversation appears in Vol XVI of Contemporary Practices: Visual Arts from The Middle East. Images appear courtesy of Mohammed Ahmed Ibrahim and Cuadro Art.