Following the sun: Mohamed Ahmed Ibrahim at the Venice Biennale

Image courtesy of National Pavilion UAE, photo by John Varghese

Details of the much anticipated work by Mohamed Ahmed Ibrahim commissioned by the National Pavilion UAE for exhibition at the upcoming Venice Biennale (23 April – 27 November) have been announced. It’s an installation titled Between Sunrise and Sunset that comprises human-sized abstract and organic sculptural forms.

The work draws from Ibrahim’s deep connection to Khor Fakkan and the Al Hajar mountains, as does most of his practice; he was born there and still lives and works in Khor Fakkan.

Mohamed Ahmed Ibrahim (right) is a member of the UAE’s pivotal generation of contemporary artists that emerged in the late 1980s, a scene that included Hassan Sharif, Abdullah Al Saadi, Hussein Sharif, and Mohammed Kazem. This group effectively provided the foundation for the avant-garde ecosystem that defines the UAE’s principal contribution to modern art today.

The 59th Biennale di Venezia is curated by New York based curator and artistic director Cecilia Alemani under the theme The Milk of Dreams; the name comes from a somewhat obscure book by surrealist artist Leonora Carrington in which she wrote and illustrated mysterious mind-bending visions of hybrid, mutant creatures. Carrington’s stories describe a magical world where life is constantly re-envisioned through the prism of the imagination, and where everyone can be transformed into someone or something else. “It is a world set free, brimming with possibilities,” said Alemani in her curatorial statement for the Biennale, “but it is also the allegory of a century that imposed intolerable pressure on the individual.

“This exhibition is grounded in many conversations with artists which took place over the past months. The questions that kept emerging seem to capture this moment in history when the very survival of the species is threatened, but also to sum up doubts that pervade the sciences, arts, and myths of our time. How is the definition of the human changing? What constitutes life, and what differentiates animals, plants, humans and non-humans? What are our responsibilities towards the planet, other people, and the different organisms we live with? And what would life look like without us?”

This edition of the Biennale Arte focuses on three themes in particular: the representation of bodies and their metamorphoses, the relationship between individuals and technologies, and the connection between bodies and the earth.

Ibrahim himself says “Between Sunrise and Sunset highlights the connection I have with the nature of Khor Fakkan – my hometown and the place I continue to live in. The exhibition demonstrates the tension between Khor Fakkan’s colourful bright mornings, when the sun rises over the ocean, and the disappearance of colours in mid-afternoon, when the sun drops behind the mountains that loom over my hometown …” (In Khor Fakkan you don’t get to see all of the sunset, which sinks into the gulf on the western coast of the country.)

The commission marks the National Pavilion UAE’s move towards an artist-led approach, whereby Ibrahim nominated Maya Allison, Executive Director of The NYUAD Art Gallery (right), to curate his exhibit. They clearly have a connection; this will be their fifth collaboration. “Over the years, I have closely observed Ibrahim’s work process and its intense and intimate relationship with each environment he encounters,” she said. “Even after almost four decades of art-making, the artist continues to evolve and deepen his practice, with a stubbornly persistent exuberance, nourished by his connection to his work and his artist community.

“For many years he worked against the odds of location and access, and I’m gratified to see the exposure and recognition of this artist by the wider art world. This is a watershed moment for the work of the institutions that are supporting this project.”

The accompanying book will be Allison’s third on the artist, though by far the most substantial. Co-edited with artist/curator Cristiana de Marchi, Mohamed Ahmed Ibrahim: Between Sunrise and Sunset / Works: 1986-2022 is described as the first comprehensive book on the artist. As well as cataloguing much of his oeuvre it will include commissioned essays that explore Ibrahim’s practice from multiple viewpoints.

Ibrahim is part of the country’s contemporary art tradition and a key member of its longest-standing avant-garde art community, so the book should be a serious contribution to the UAE role in the art world today. As Allison puts it: “Serious and important art has been made in the UAE for much longer than international art audiences may realise, and I look forward to contributing again to the development of the historical record.”

The Biennale open to the public at the Arsenale on 23 April.

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