Electric yellow paint spreads across the floors of Lawrie Shabibi gallery in Dubai’s Alserkal Avenue, alongside contrasting peach pink walls, setting the tone for Mohamed Ahmed Ibrahim’s solo show Embryonic Coat.
The Khor Fakkan-born artist, 60, is one of the UAE’s pioneering art figures, having been part of the Five, a group of conceptual artists — including Hassan Sharif, Hussain Sharif, Mohammed Kazem and Abdullah Al Saadi — who have been working alongside each other since the 1980s.
It’s a particularly glittering time for Ibrahim’s seasoned career; Embryonic Coat is running concurrently with his installation for the National Pavilion UAE at the 59th Venice Biennale. Titled Between Sunrise and Sunset, the work consists of a room-size papier mache sculpture constructed from 128 abstract and organic elements.
Emirati artist Mohamed Ahmed Ibrahim’s installation of 128 sculptures, ‘Between Sunrise and Sunset’, has opened at the Venice Biennale’s National Pavilion UAE. All photos: Ismail Noor / National Pavilion UAE
Embryonic Coat is Ibrahim’s third solo exhibition at Lawrie Shabibi and is emblematic of the signature style, mediums and artistic “voice” he has developed over decades. It’s difficult not to recognise his work — his papier mache playgrounds filled with tree or cacti-like sculptures in bold, childlike hues, then translated on to painted canvases that begin to resemble abstract symbols or giant colouring books of runes. Ibrahim’s shows portray a singular artistic language, both between his works and then between those and his audiences. His is a focused and distinct constructed visual world.
Similar to the protective encasing or membrane formed around a seed or embryo, as outlined by the title Embryonic Coat, this show itself is a capsule of Ibrahim’s oeuvre, how it has progressed and evolved from birth to present.
But the title has more literal roots, too: while working on his Venice Biennale installation, which was massive in scale, Ibrahim spent more time in and around his home studio and its attached garden, which houses old trees, flower beds and potted plants. These organically became new points of inspiration for his art, manifesting in his painting series My Garden’s Details, where those potted plants morph into a central motif for the show. This pattern is repeated and rendered in Ibrahim’s visual language and transmuted over and over into new symbols in vivid hues, such as in the Symbols paintings and murals, or the vertical lines in his Lines works. The natural is essentially made abstract, decoded through Ibrahim’s perspective and then coded back into his work as something fresh and new, offering a heightened and more fun, quirky view of the everyday.
Ibrahim’s 3D work, the well-known papier mache sculptures, are wrought through that same process while building and expanding on the theme of Embryonic Coat. These recent works are the result of weeks of experimenting with a variety of quotidian materials, such as leaves, grass, tea, coffee and tobacco. He would mix these to produce more complex natural and neutral shades, using coloured or black and white paper. Similar to the Venice commission — although that displays a single work — the floor space at Lawrie Shabibi is adorned, like flower beds or elegant gardens, with Ibrahim’s different sculptures. Some look like playground apparatus or toys, others more directly interact with his potted plant motifs on the walls, while elsewhere, the audience might see flowers, robots, combs, trees or animals.
You could say there is a sense of repetitiveness across Ibrahim’s body of work. But this critique would suggest a lesser effort in approaching and engaging with the artist’s visual language. Part of Embryonic Coat and Ibrahim’s artistic exuberance is sifting through the regimented order inherent to his repetition and letting the differences take control of our interpretations.
Ibrahim has one language in which he introduces thousands of tiny new phrases with each work or each reproduction of a symbol or motif, with merely a slight change in colour or form or brushstroke or bending. However similar the works look on the surface, there are idiosyncrasies and specificities peppered in everywhere, some more immediately apparent than others.
It’s like breaking the top of a creme brulee with a spoon to reveal whole new textures of flavour underneath.
To interact with the work of Ibrahim is to practice a more refined sense of attention, to lean in, to engage with the smallest of differences and see a new picture or idea emerge, and Embryonic Coat embodies this. As a viewer, it can feel refreshing when we are so sensitised to homogeneity, to sameness, to mass-produced products and markets. Our numbed approach to objects and images is thoroughly challenged in Ibrahim’s vibrant artscape.
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