Renowned artist Mohamed Abla exhibits almost a decade-worth of controversial socio-political artworks at the Al-Bab Gallery in the Museum of Egyptian Modern Art
Mohamed Abla’s vibrant collection of paintings ‘Road to Tahrir’ was unveiled on April 8. Blending snapshots of Cairo’s streets with policemen and feisty newspaper headlines, the contemporary Egyptian artist reveals prophecies of change and revolution through the large canvases hanging on the walls of Al-Bab Gallery.
Abla started painting the displayed works in 2004, to coincide with the Kefaya (Enough) movement demonstrations that played a significant role in building opposition to the unpopular regime of Mubarak, especially his attempts to groom his son, Gamal, to succeed him as president.
The artist has been engaged in activism throughout the years, expressing his frustrations with the Mubarak regime through protests and art.
By rendering easily identifiable icons and recreating the word on the street through art, Abla bridges the gap between art and society, and blurs lines between art and politics. Using his original artistic rhetoric and repertoire, Abla has been staging protests through art, in a way that can be easily understood by ordinary citizens.
The artist was frustrated however, as he had not been able to exhibit such controversial pieces in Egypt, whether in private or public spaces. More than a year after the revolution, which significantly lifted restrictions on art, Abla showcases this collection for the first time. Despite the fact that they revolve around a different era, the canvases on display reverberate concerns of today’s Egypt as well.
In one painting, the artist places a vindictive looking policeman next to an almost nude citizen, in a juxtaposition of power and the people, with one of the Qasr Al-Nil lions leading to Tahrir Square in the background. In many pieces, Abla also places religious icons, placing preachers next to officers.
Many of the canvases feature bold headlines from newspapers as if ripped from opposition newspapers. This reflects on the changing media landscape at the onset of the 21st century, when independent Egyptian press started pushing previously red lines and expressing the woes of society. This pseudo margin of freedom in media was not reflected in the political arena though, which remained significantly stifled throughout the Mubarak era.
Artists still suffered strict censorship and feared governmental retaliation to controversial themes. And so, Abla’s works did not hang on Egyptian gallery walls.
Hany Rashed, a contemporary artist and a long-time protégé of Abla, remembers Abla’s yearning to showcase his outspoken artwork. “He would ask me, when? When will people see those pieces?” Rashed remembers his teacher’s frustrations.
Abla says he painted society’s screams, and hoped that someday, they would be heard. The artist’s body of work explores a wide array of Egyptian problems; he tackles congestion through densely populating his canvas with unidentifiable crowds, he mimics newspaper headlines to address corruption and police brutality, and abundantly illustrates policemen – their expressions serious and unapproachable.
“The revolution of the poor is coming,” reads one canvas.
Abla’s canvases overflow with colour and raw emotion, the text he chooses communicating direct messages such as “The poor do not eat meat!” Amid a catalogue of contemporary afflictions including poverty and illiteracy, Abla paints a question, “Explosion or stability?” And in a way, he already knew the answer to that. “I wasn’t surprised when the revolution arrived,” Abla says.
“He had already set up a revolution in his work,” reminisces Rashed. Young artist Rashed thinks it is a positive step that Al-Bab Gallery agreed to showcase this collection. “It is important for us as artists to express ourselves, and to have the space to do that.”
Rashed believes that this collection holds a very clear message; “artists are clairvoyant, they can predict revolutions.”
Abla echoes this view, “Art will always hold prophecy and art will always hold hope.”
One piece titled ‘Who shall rule Egypt after Mubarak?’ is of course a question on the minds of Egyptians today. The painting features a number of headlines including “How much is a human being worth?” “Labour strikes,” and finally, “Who shall rule Egypt after Mubarak?”
The painting’s chaotic composition mirrors the uncertainty that pervaded the streets before the revolution. And, such uncertainty holds true today.
Road to Tahrir runs until April 24th, at Al-Bab Selim Gallery, Museum of Egyptian Modern Art
Cairo Opera House Grounds, Zamalek
Open daily from 10:00-14:00 and 17:00-21:00
The gallery is closed Monday and Friday