Remote studio dates is a series of conversations with artists, curators and researchers to document and explore coping mechanisms for isolation in the current health crisis. Each date focuses on one work, project, concept or dream, with digressions and slippages, without the need of ending somewhere but with the desire of opening something up.
Ibrahim and I met a year ago in Cuba where he had been invited to exhibit a large-scale textile piece named Does Anybody Leave Heaven? at the 13th Bienal de la Habana. We were introduced at one of the openings when I asked him: “Where is your work?” and he replied: “Where was it” – the artwork had been removed half way through the installation, because considered not compliant with the newly established Decreto 349, a law controlling the display of cultural production in Cuba. I then visited his studio in Cairo on a trip back from Sicily to Australia in August. Below is an extract from our recent chat on ideas of masculinity, contamination and invisible enemies.
29 March 2020. Cairo, 12 pm / Melbourne, 9pm.
I: Hey Miriam, how are you?
M: Ibrahim! I am okay. Good to see you. How are you doing?
I: All right. Thinking a lot. Being quiet. Since life is on hold or… rather, our external structures are constricted, the only way I can go about this is to go internal. That’s what I am doing right now… A lot of this internal work is related to my masculinity project. Do you remember it?
M: Of course.
I: The visual language I am creating for this project is merely an extension of the internal work I am doing. Well, my art in general is a reflection of a very personal journey… that is spiritual and theoretical and very personal at the same time. But do you want to look at some images first and tell me what you think?
M: Sure, let’s begin from there.
M: I can see a development since the last time we looked at some of these images in Cairo. I like the fact that the new photographs you have taken in the studio are in black and white, while the ones from your family album are in their original colour. Generally, black and white stands for ‘memory and the past’ and colour stands for ‘the present’. Here they are presented in reverse. Is this binary suggesting a difference between fiction and reality? Then the lightings and mannequin-look of the poses you have shot in the studio remind me of metaphysical paintings, like Giorgio De Chirico: classical statues located in empty squares with geometrical shapes and unsettling, very long shadows, like in a visionary world. I find this aspect of your practice fascinating; when I remember that you do not have a formal training in fine art or art history. And yet, your intuitions end up working very well in conversation with art historical references. I am also curious about the cutting, which is different from erasing. You cut elements from the original photograph and keep the silhouette. There is a sense of something missing, but the shape of the figure you have cut remains evident, through its void, or challenged, with the new replacement. As if you want to place a narrative over another one…
I: OK Miriam (laugh), one thing at a time. Yeah, I remember you once told me about metaphysical paintings in relation to the set of new photos. I am looking at them now. Makes sense, even though you are right, I was not thinking about it while making it. As for the cutting… yeah, the replacing is almost like de-constructing and re-constructing an image or rather re-contextualise it. That’s what I am doing. I usually tend to work by myself. Up to this point, all I had done in terms of working with others was delegating, like for the Havana Biennial’s project. Similarly, in the project I did for Art d’Egypt, I delegated for the making of the vitrine that contained the work, and for the stitching. But the sculptural piece, the chandelier you have seen in my studio, I did it alone.
It was almost a year since I last sat 12 hours just working and I did not have a budget to produce the photographs. I picked roughly 300 images out of 3000. I started dabbling in the earlier photographs, from a performance I did in my studio and in a photography studio in my neighbourhood, where young men photograph themselves. In the first set of images, which I exhibited at Sara Zanin Gallery in Italy, with the title Burn what needs to be burned, there was a lot of me hiding.
In this iteration, I utilised the elements in the photography studio such as a curtain, light boxes, the shadows projected onto the walls and props. That space is ground zero, an activated space where a young man goes to photograph himself with his friends. Everything is contaminated, speaking of corona-reality, right? There was this attempt, in the first iteration, to sterilise everything. Do you know that book called Tricksters make the world? … so yeah, plants and other living beings grow in filth, out of contamination and impurity. Burn what needs to be burned was really important to me. Though now I am looking at all the contaminated elements and no longer just at my body. I am taking all these objects and leaving them there to gain new meaning for the viewer to reconsider what these things possibly mean. If we look together at image n.10, I am using the linoleum floor, that looks like granite, to crop up into the leg so that you feel like there is a weight there… and this weird wooden prop that was in the studio, a support where people lean on… I cut that out and made it into a sort of mask, to hide behind.
Image 6 is myself hiding behind a curtain. The curtain is used to talk about performance… the idea of concealing something, on top of which half of my body is shadow. The body is there, but you cannot see it in its entirety and yet somehow it reveals itself. In the new iteration of the project, I am creating a visual language with what is already there, as opposed to sterilising the studio space.
M: Yes, in the first set of photographs your face is hidden and each image is mainly centred on the relevance of the posture rather than the expression, even though we can argue that the postures are forms of expression… like vulnerability or strength. The effort of moving very heavy objects reminds of what conventional masculine strength might be.
I: Exactly! If we look at the latest photographs I have worked on, from my family album… there is a picture of my father at the airport with my older brothers. Actually, there are two images of the same moment at the airport…. A lot of these images are stories that I am playing with and cutting and piecing them together. So yeah, in the second one, my mother is now with my brothers. Over them, there is an outline of myself. It is the original picture from the same scene, where my father is holding my brothers, but there is this clear gap between them. I was struck by the difference between how my brothers relate to my mother, with closeness, and then with my father, with gaps. I highlighted this with an image of me performing a “feminine gesture” highlighting tenderness, versus tension, aggressiveness.
Then there is this photograph of two men holding hands and that’s my father with a friend. This is a picture of my father when he first landed in the United States. He’s just fresh off the boat, no moustache, he has not yet established himself, and there is tenderness between him and men. By the time my older brother is born, he has gained some form of power and everything changes. That picture is very telling. Over in the background there is a silhouette of myself with the lighting that shows up in the right hand corner in the studio; elements that start to overlap with each other. These photographs reveal special moments between male figures within my family, with friends, just coming from Egypt. My father’s posture is much more intimate and then, as he gains power and gets exposed to Americaness and American masculinity, a shift takes place. Of course, this is one of the many ways one can look at it, it’s the narrative I am choosing and I am storytelling from there.
M: Are these the original pictures?
I: No, they are enlarged copies but made directly from the originals, not re-printed from the negatives. The reason why is the idea that I am looking at memory. You start to see elements such as thumbprints… the photographs are not really clear.
M: They age. Unlike with digital photography, the printed photograph becomes an object that you carry with you in life and it gets ruined and used. It is like a book versus a PDF file. Both can contain annotations and comments but in the former there is a more personal element that allows for further narratives that overlap… Jumping on a bit, would you say that this idea of intimacy has changed in contemporary Egypt?
I: Yes. My father comes from different contexts. He originally was a farmer. In rurual culture, intimacy is more evident between men. There is still very much intimacy between men here in Egypt today that would be read as homosexual overseas, without a doubt. But in comparison to the 1990s, when I was coming to Egypt during the summers, it has completely shifted. In Cairo men would hold pinkies, hands and lock harms. All of this has disappeared. The arm locking is still there… the kissing of the chicks is still a very common thing. The spatial elements are quite intimate. To a foreign eye, in the Western culture, these gestures would seem homoerotic. You can still find manifestations of physical closeness in rural areas. You can see it between Yemeni men who live in my neighbourhood and always hold hands and lock their pinkies. Today a lot has changed because of Hollywood and other elements such as claiming space, the idea of military presence… all these things are flowing. So, yes, you are right, the ageing of the photographs is linked to the idea of memory. Not everything is clear. I am rifling off of a memory bank that can be questionable. This is why I did not want to use the negatives… to avoid producing sharp images… but something old, used and emotionally charged. More recently, I started photographing young men from my neighbourhood as well. I have taken their photographs and might remove the faces to only show their postures… but I am not sure about it; something yet to be determined… I took 335 images of myself imitating my father and his postures in relation to other men, at work, with his immediate family. The last image – I present them as a narrative – is my father with my oldest brother as a baby, collaged with an image of him showering with my two oldest brothers. Look at how intimate that is. I don’t recall that happening by the time I come around or my younger brother is born. That behaviour was allocated to our living maid, who stayed with us for about 12 years.
There is a photograph of my father sitting amongst other men. It’s 1969 or 1970, when he had just landed in the United States. You can tell by his clothes… I don’t know what that turtleneck shirt is (laugh). It’s probably used, looks very sloppy. Then there is an image of him in Iraq, at the height of his career, standing in front of a statue as well as another image of him with military men and he’s posturing with them, doing the power shake. It can easily be perceived as an early date painting… some references to that, the singular powerful figure… he’s picking certain things and I am not sure if he’s even aware of it. In some of the images he’s looking away, not right into the camera.
M: I find interesting that this change of postures reflects not only the evolution of his career but, with him, a journey throughout different social classes. He starts from being a farmer and then, while going up the social scale, his posture changes; embracing and embodying an idea of power and how power is represented in the different countries where he lives. The unfolding of the diaspora is expressed through the postures of the body and by response to different social classes. Those layers seem to be very important…
I: Absolutely; the immigrant dream. The farm-boy, super intimate, sweet, no father figure and then his clothes change and he grows a moustache. He is really picking up power in the United States and changing his understanding of masculinity. I remember watching a film he loved with Dustin Hoffman and Angelina Jolie’s father… it’s called Midnight Cowboy.
It tells the story of a southern man who lives his fantasy dream as a cowboy and goes to New York and becomes a gigolo. There is a strong representation of manliness. He showed us this film while we were living in Bahrain and we would not stop hearing about how much he loved America and hamburgers. We had barbecues every Friday and cooked steaks so he did not let that go and instilled it in us. It’s a very private look at his shift of character and how this reflects in his posture, as he gains power in a very capitalist sense. Even the way he handles my mother, by the time he is in the 80s and 90s… it’s super dry. It’s all there. It’s more than just about masculinity, it’s looking at humanity, and trauma. There is a system that capitalises on all of it and rewards you at the expenses of so much. So yes, this project is becoming very layered… like my bricks work.
M: It’s a fantastic progress, I appreciate that now you are starting to look beyond the family and at contemporary Egypt as well. The project is no longer just about you imposing your figure over your father’s but also about developing a social commentary, which goes wider on society. A superficial reader could interpret the work as being merely centred on your relationship with your father, something unresolved, and of course there is quite a lot of that, which you are trying to unpack on a more personal and spiritual level, but it becomes interesting when, through his journey, you look at the world and at different systems such as American society and contemporary Egypt. And these layers are… life? Because life is about how we look internally at ourselves and, then, about how we relate to all the different worlds we live in.
I: Yes, a part of the project is about what my father has instilled in us and my relationship with him. The reality is that the relationship we have is a tumultuous one and I can’t figure out where to go if I don’t look at my past. “A man who does not know his history is a tree with no roots”, right? So you are not able to plant yourself in the ground and grow; this reflection is inevitable in order for me to unpack, to unlearn and to grow from an otherwise toxic way of living. Gaining power at the expense of others and practicing power over others is a common pattern. The only way I can challenge this pattern is to understand the histories that are hidden so that I can break away from them. So yeah, I look at the relationship of my father to other masculine bodies – which gets contaminated when he arrives in the United States and then comes back and we are born – and I look at contemporary Egypt, which has shifted through the exposure to American films, but also through the lasting legacy of the British and their colonial project… and the impact of this project on the reconfiguration of the masculine body. I recall two other images, one of my father taking us to a military museum and one of him photographing an American military aircraft that came to Bahrain. Looking at the world through his lens and what he’s photographing and why… he’s always by his car, and his children and wife. There is something that does not feel genuine but, rather, constructed.
M: There is a body of literature on how the colonial project has unfolded, beyond the act of military occupation, through the space that colonised peoples have unconsciously provided for it to grow on a conceptual level. Colonised bodies that wanted to become like the colonisers… because the very fact of being exploited can convince you of being lesser… However, this approach almost fully deprives one party, the colonised one, from having agency, or at least depicts it as a recipient with no capacity to react. I am now thinking about the Indian academic and author Ashish Nandy… he makes a point on the importance of counterpoising the colonial legacy without violence, but by taking public and firm stands, collectively, and remembering that contamination per se should not be demonised…
I: Maybe it’s more about the idea of hybridisation. Hybridisation means there are two elements that are equal and decide to come together as opposed to a colonial legacy. Contamination feels like you are powerless and not on equal footing. … I am thinking again about the Coronavirus, which has shaken our understanding of space and forced us to reconstruct and reconsider a lot of things… and it is not our choice or our volition. We are struggling.
M: Indeed. The loss of control and agency is making us freak out… This is a nice, circular closure; we started this conversation with you saying ‘I am now working on letting go’, and the real struggle with this crisis is that we have realised we have no control over it. We just have to be resilient in our own mind and let go on not having the power to manage our life as we used to…
I: Yes, we are being forced to really sit with this feeling. Essentially, Europe and the West are now contending with an invisible coloniser. Bittersweet. Coronavirus as the invisible coloniser. Which is almost the same thing as to say that colonial legacies are an invisible enemy.
Born in Kuwait (1984), Ibrahim Ahmed spent his childhood between Bahrain and Egypt before moving to the US at the age of thirteen. In 2014, he relocated to Cairo, where he currently lives and works in the informal neighbourhood of Ard El Lewa. Ahmed’s manipulations of material, especially textile, are informed by research into the histories and movements of people and objects. His works in mixed media, sculpture, and installation engage with subjects related to colonisation, structures of power, cultural interactions, and fluid identity, generating discussion around ideas of the self and notions of authenticity within the parameters of the nation-state. Ahmed has shown his work in solo exhibitions at Primary, Nottingham (2019) Sara Zanin Gallery, Rome (2018); Gallery Nosco, Marseille (2018); Volta Art Fair, New York (2016); Townhouse Gallery, Cairo (2016); artellewa art space, Cairo (2014); and Solo(s) Project House, Newark (2010). His work has also been included in numerous group exhibitions, including at the Sharjah Art Museum, Dakar Biennial, Havana Biennial, Biennale Internationale de Casablanca, No Longer Empty, New York, Swab Barcelona, and the Dubai Design District. Ibrahim Ahmed is represented by Sara Zanin Gallery in Rome, Italy and and Tintera Gallery in Cairo, Egypt.
Featured Image: Ibrahim Ahmed, Does Anybody Leave Heaven? (2019).