An exquisite retrospective of the work of Mohamed Abla, curated by the younger artist Hani Rashed, opened on 3 June and was on show for two months at the Zamalek branch of Dai Gallery. Of the drawings, paintings, prints and sculptures that filled three floors and a basement one aspect that has barely been noticed is the humour.
Born in 1953 in Bilqas, Mansoura and a 1972 graduate of Alexandria University’s Faculty of Fine Arts, Abla’s humour is part of his typically Egyptian character: intelligent, unassuming, compassionate. He just might be Egypt’s most popular artist, having managed to break through the bubble that separates most artists from “ordinary people”. Though not a cartoonist, this is partly explained by Abla using humour.
In The Ladder, a print from 1992, a dog climbs a ladder to touch a woman’s thigh. The title piece of the 1994 exhibition Snakes and Ladders is also quite funny. One painting, perhaps critiquing privatisation, features a salesman at the foot of the Pyramids with the phrase “Would you like to buy a pyramid?” inscribed on the surface. Another features three ridiculous patriarchs sitting outdoors in Talaat Harb Square, representing the religious authorities, while two monochromatic prints recall funny figures Abla encountered in India in 2006.
One month after the Dai exhibition closed, Abla flew to Germany to receive the Goethe Institute medal in the city of Weimar in the presence of Annalena Baerbock – he was selected out of 65 competitors – the German foreign minister, but what saddened Abla was that not a single representative of the Egyptian Embassy.
Seeing as the Goethe award is meant to celebrate versatile artists whose work, like Goethe’s, is of wide relevance, Abla is the perfect candidate indeed. During the event, which marked Goethe’s birthday, the official award statement declared that Abla sees himself as a mediator between Egypt and Europe, where he held his debut solo exhibition in 1979 at the Hohman Gallery in Walsrode, Germany, and continued to exhibit across Europe all through his career.
On his return to Cairo – where another Goethe Institute event took place on 22 September, presided over by German Ambassador to Egypt Frank Hartman – the celebrated artist was received at the airport by Nevine Elkilany, the new Minister of Culture. Hartman said Abla’s work reflects different aspects of life in Egypt and opens up paths to freedom, friendship, dialogue and mutual understanding among nations. For his part Abla said no one can give half their life to art: “It is a lifelong mission.”
To mark the occasion, a smaller exhibition of Abla’s work – curated by his daughter Nora – was held at the Goethe’s Dokky space. Entitled Sisyphus, the exhibition is named after an early sculpture made for a public space in Walsrode, Germany. The piece reflects on Abla’s own struggle as a resolute experimentalist and a tireless labourer.
The exhibition also features newspaper clippings from all over the world (including one from an Article by me in this newspaper) as well as photographic images of Abla at different points in his life and his various studios, one of which, a state-owned space in Islamic Cairo burned down – along with the bulk of his work at the time – in a tragic fire in the early 1990s. It also documents Abla’s struggle against the eviction of residents of the Qorsaya Nile island, where he established a studio and lived for many years.
There are also catalogues of major exhibitions, one based on a 1996 journey to Yemen with which he told me he continues to be fascinated hoping to return to Aden especially. One smaller oil on paper piece from that time depicts a man in traditional costume looking unfocused, perhaps due to chewing khat, which Abla thought was the main obstacle to the country’s development.
Abla’s subjects also include the 2011 Revolution in Tahrir Square, which he wholeheartedly supported, and the Nile, a whole, colourful exhibition on which was held at the Goethe Institute Cairo in 1998.
Abla established a Caricature Museum in Fayoum in 2009, showcasing his eclectic collection of 20th-century classics, and Sisyphus just may be the seed of another such private institution, this time featuring his own work.