A bright spot in an otherwise darkened Egypt

Mohamed Abla's show of new works in Cairo is on amid a moment of prolonged political agony in the country


Over the past year, the Egyptian artist Mohamed Abla has made more than 60 mixed-media works that are fairy tales for adults from the hive mind of Eastern mythology. From afar, they are Pop art in pastels, but upon closer inspection his works synthesise collage and calligraphy, abstraction and tradition, the natural and the supernatural. None of these works—which are on view at his show, titled On the Silk Road, at the Ofok Gallery in Cairo, the ministry of culture’s premier contemporary exhibition space—are titled, so it is up to the viewer to put together these stories with his or her imagination.

Some of the compositions look like broken mosaic tiles; others like quilts or Modern-day miniatures and still others like primitive maps or wall carvings. Throughout, Abla depicts folktales from North Africa, the Levant, Central Asia and the Indian subcontinent. The mélange of images in his works—royals and musicians, flora and fauna, ships and horses—appear in psychedelic settings. In one picture, a horseman faces off with a bird; in another, women’s bodies blend into a tiled background. The canvases are busy. In several of them, illegible calligraphy fades into the sunset, blurring the lines between Arabic and Devanagari script. Somehow, perhaps by the force of inspiration, it all holds together.

Although Abla has exhibited throughout Europe and the Middle East, he is best known locally—and not only as an artist. In 2014, he served on the 50-member committee that drafted Egypt’s current constitution. He has also attended occasional roundtable meetings that President Abdul-Fattah El-Sisi holds with intellectuals.

As a painter, he is versatile. For On the Silk Road, he has employed a new working method, which he describes in the catalogue as “painting on water.” First, he smothers oil paint and water in a wide washbasin, in which he paints images. He then presses a large sheet of paper into the mixture, which generates a print. Cutting out shapes from those dyed papers, he patches together scenes, stories and faces. Each colorful piece of the collage contains the energy of a tie-dye effect.

The style is a natural extension of two recent shows. In a 2015 exhibition at the Mashrabiya Gallery in Cairo, titled Tales for Reem (it was dedicated to his baby granddaughter, Reem), Abla’s cutouts were simple silhouettes of bedtime stories. Later that year, he presented My Journey to India at the Maulana Azad Centre for Indian Culture in Cairo, in which he showed a series of sketchbook paintings of street characters, vendors and famous sites from his voyages.

Ahead of the 2017 Beijing Biennial, which takes the Silk Road as its theme, connections within the Global South seem to be more relevant than ever for regional curatorial practices. Yet despite the broad region evoked in the title of Abla's exhibition, he also tells a local story about Egypt. When I recently met him at his downtown Cairo studio, we sat around his modest collection of works by Egyptian Modernists like Abdel-Hadi Al-Gazzar and Inji Aflatoun.

Egypt seems to be at the center of Alba's painting. His earlier works, like those included in his 2007 series Daily News, seemed to anticipate the downtown street art movement that gripped the Egyptian capital during the 2011 uprising and its aftermath. But the graffiti in downtown Cairo has since faded and it has become difficult for Egyptian artists. The novelist and art critic Ahmed Naji is serving a two-year prison sentence for “violating public modesty.” Egyptian authorities are monitoring independent spaces like the internationally renowned Townhouse Gallery, which authorities closed late last December and which has only reopened this fall in its auxiliary space across the street. In this environment, some Egyptian artists have opted to work abroad.

Yet the ministry of culture’s programming hums along, including the recent high-profile show When Arts Become Liberty: The Egyptian Surrealists, co-organised with the Sharjah Art Foundation. Meanwhile, Egypt’s official curators have recently restored the Nile-side Aisha Fahmy Palace on the affluent island of Zamalek. Exhibitions are due to open at this ostentatious relic of the monarchy in February.

Leaving Abla’s crowded opening, I walked past smokers and Nescafé drinkers in the courtyard. I looked at the plaque on the wall commemorating 1997, when then-President Hosni Mubarak inaugurated Ofok Gallery. The boxy modernist gallery is an annex to the Mohamed Mahmoud Khalil Museum, which holds treasures by Degas, Gauguin, Manet, Monet, Pissaro, Renoir, Rodin and van Gogh. In August 2010 robbers snatched van Gogh’s Poppy Flowers (1887) from the museum. The painting has never been recovered, and the museum has never reopened. Six months after the burglary, Mubarak was toppled. The ousted president’s name remains on the bronze plaque.

Jonathan Guyer is a fellow of the Institute of Current World Affairs and contributing editor of the Cairo Review of Global Affairs

Mohamed Abla, On the Silk Road, Ofok Gallery, Mohamed Mahmoud Khalil Museum, Cairo, until 28 December