To describe Mohamed Abla, we have to start from his first trip to Europe in the 80s, through Spain, France, until he arrived to Germany where he settled down for two years. “It was in Germany where I found my freedom, where I learned what art is, painting and be free”. A speech that his father still would not understand, unlike her mother who encouraged him in secret. “Painting, unlike other arts, is a gift, it is something innate: you can become a writer, actor, director, philosopher … perhaps only a musician can manage the art and be able to master the notes as a gift, like colours and lines for a painter “. Mohamed Abla, when he talks, seems to draw on a blank sheet the line that man will have to follow for his future. It looks grumpy and introvert, but his calm voice of a man who comes from the Delta of the Nile makes him so simple and genuine, like his shirt stained with the juice of colours and Egyptian Koshary.
“What was your attraction for colours?”
“With painting you are born, but you have to be lucky to get a good teacher who encourages you. For me, painting was in the blood, but it was thanks to my teacher that I believed in it since I was a child. She supplied me with pencils, colours, sheets … and instead keeping me in class, she put me in a separated room to draw, but only because, thanks to my father, I already knew to read and write. For me drawing was the most natural thing in the world. I was attracted mostly by nature, its colours, and pour them into my paintings”
“You have studied in Alexandria but only Cairo is always present in you paintings, what is the relationship that binds you to Cairo?”
“Alexandria meant a unique fullness of colours, the city taught me to feel their intensity, but when I arrived in Cairo I realized how small Alexandria was, a village by comparison. I came to Cairo for a 3 years long military service; I was assigned to the barracks of the Muqattam, where I could see the whole capital”. The Muqattam today is one of the neighbourhoods that best represents the Egyptian social stratification: on one hand, the wealthy class on the top, on the other the zibelin, a clan of families who monopolizes the Cairo garbage. “Cairo became the only world, with its people and its nature, with its intellectual discourse, and its nonsense … I fell in love with it since the first day I was in the city”
“Why you have a strong link with the Central Europe? What is the special feeling for Germany and Austria and related with Cairo?”
“When I finished the Fine Arts University and the military service, I went to Europe, but in Germany I did my first exhibition. It was a coincidence: I went to a gallery and begin to talk about my work, the gallery manager was very interested and after viewing my pictures asked me to exhibit. It was a success, so I decided to stay, settled my first studio and doing many exhibitions in various galleries and museums. In Spain and France, and I focused on drawing sketches and portraits, while in Germany I had time to relax, to talk to people, to establish interpersonal relationships, to discuss about Europe, its tradition … it’s amazing how the Germans were able to rebuild a new country after having been completely destroyed by World War II. German history and culture has still a fascination on me. That experience was very significant, I met many artists and I went to many schools of painting and ateliers that gave me lots of ideas”
“How exactly the German experience affected your work?”
“It was not a direct influence to make me paint aspects of Germany, but was breathing and tasting its essence, its freedom in art, which eventually contaminate my style. Germany taught me to be free and to experiment, because many German artists have the courage to innovate. I can switch from one style to another, from one subject to another, and to merge many styles into the same framework”
“The water element seems to have a prominent place in you, what is the reason?”
“Over the past 15 years my studio was located on Korsaya, an island of the Nile; every day I had to cross the river by boat, this has influenced my work a lot and is one of my favourite subjects because I identify the Nile with Egypt and Cairo. I have done many exhibitions about the Nile, even inside: I swam in it and I collected the garbage on the bottom, later I made an exhibition with it: “Recycle, Future Fossils”. I think I have painted the sea only once in my life, for me water is the Nile”
“Another element which you have a particular relation, is people, masses, what is the connection with them?”
“It started when I came back from Germany; there I lived in a small town in the north: quiet and no crowded. When I decided to come back, the only place where I could live was Cairo, but I have to admit that it was shocking: millions of people, a constant confusion! I started to paint in 1985 this human multitude, at that time I was looking for myself, for my identity into the masses, was like trying to paint the space between me and those millions of people”
“Often in Egyptian painting, figurative might seem childish, or connected to the ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, figures are fixed and immutable. Why is this bond with that time by many Egyptians painters?”
“Ours is not an abstract culture, but is bound to human nature, it is men who make the culture, and not vice versa, and the Egyptian culture is made by men. There are countries which have water, fertile land, breathtaking scenery … but do not have culture. The Egyptian culture is made by people. The human body moves in a unique way, especially the Egyptians’ one, in fact the Egyptians do not speak only with words but with their body. For instance, when I was in Tahrir during the revolution, I watched obsessively as people move, creating compositions, in an elegant movements, like waves, like a homogeneous mass moving towards a single point, or joined in circles, or walking in lines, or praying lined … people were creating paintings using their body”
“Egypt has a male-dominated society, centered on a strong role of man, but the woman in his paintings is always present, what is the real position she holds?”
“If you look at Egyptian society from outside, you might think is man centered, officially because he counts most, however, the woman plays an even deeper role that you cannot see from outside. There is a parallel life, secret, subterranean and more intimate which is more under the influence of women. In my paintings you can see the same thing: the woman is there, but never appears on the front lines, or as a dominant player. Perhaps the revolution will change this perspective, because the woman has played an important role in it. During the revolution, the square was full of young women expressing their points of view, communicating with others, assuming an important and fundamental role”
“Your painting is also very conceptual, but you seem not being entangled in it, which is the secret?”
“The artist plays a significant part within society, helping to build it. Over the past 15 years I have focused on certain subjects that awoke something in the audience. In my works I talk about democracy, identity, cities from different perspectives … it is a duty for the artist to be involved, to help the society to recognize itself and what happens inside itself. I decided to be a committed artist, responding to society’s questions and mutations.
I focus my work on an idea, and then draw up a plan before putting the brush on canvas; I get informed of all the possible aspects, I do research in libraries and on internet, I talk with people, take photos and record video”
“In Nostalgia, you throw a retro look to the early of last century, a far away Egypt, as a matter of fact in a painting you portrayed a priest, an imam and a soldier sitting together. It seems so contemporary if you look within the context of the current revolution; in somehow, have you felt a precursor?”
“I did two exhibitions on this concept regarding the period before the revolution of 1952, when the Egyptians felt confident. The society was then moving towards new goals, the middle class was growing and building itself in order to express its culture. A major problem in Egypt today is properly the lack of a middle class: either very rich or very poor; this absence is dangerous, because if it does not exist, there is not democracy; the exhibition was focused on this matter.
Many of the topics I mentioned in my paintings came out during the revolution: the lack of democracy, the constant presence of the army, religious associations, the disappearance of the middle class … all issues that were beginning to be clear and felt by the population. In my exhibition Street Talks, I was denouncing corruption, poverty, the need to change the president … it was held in Dubai, Bahrain, Germany and many other places, but obviously I was not allowed to show in Egypt, even private galleries refused.
These complaints were very present. However, I believe now we have to think about art in Egypt in a different way, without being dependent on the West so much. We must focus on the Egyptian contemporary art, thinking independently, without an obsessive search for what may please or not abroad, and with the need to ask real and concrete questions about our society”
“We can say that the revolution was started by young people of middle class?”
“Only partially, it has been supported by everyone: poor, young, old, women … With access to the internet, young Egyptians found the freedom of expression which the regime prevented; they had their virtual reality where they could obtain what society inhibited. When the government cut Internet January 28th, has made a big mistake: all persons went to the streets to see what was happening. On 25thI was in the street with people, not all were young, all social classes were represented. Of course, we needed someone who started the revolt, but they needed support, and the whole society has provided it.
Personally I made a smaller scale revolution in 2006 on the island where I worked. Builders wanted to throw out people who have lived there since generations, in order to build hotels for tourists. We had a great protest and demonstrations in the street, blocking the bulldozers and went to court where we won the case. They came with guns and antiriot police to scare us, but they could not throw us out. That was my first successful revolution”
“Do you think that the Egyptians had to make another revolution to kill the 1952 one and to find their identity?”
“We know that was not a real revolution, it was begun by the army and kept under its control. When the military began to open to the society, the revolution had been betrayed. The army has ruled until the awake of today. Now we’ll see how it turns out, because the military wants to stay in power, they want to show their muscles while civil society struggle with great difficulty … I am convinced that we will need a third revolution because at this stage nobody is satisfied, there are too many people who want to interfere: national and international actors who want to steal the revolution”
“You often omit the people facial features, what does it mean?”
“The face expresses everything, describes the character of a person. When you omit the features is to denounce the lack of freedom, because they do not even have the freedom to express themselves and show their feelings. The exhibition “Scenes of everyday Cairo” was a silent demonstration to say that we disagree, we do not participate with the regime. Prior to January 25th we could show the regime abuses and injustices only in underground way, with metaphors”
“Oasis of Fayyum, in the village Tunes on the shores of Lake Qarun, you have opened a center of painting, a sculpture studio, a museum and a library, which was the need?”
“Over the past 30 years the various ministers of culture have built everything in Cairo according to rich’s needs, regardless of the rest of the country. So I decided that if I had enough money, I’d build a cultural centre, but not in the capital. Fayyum is 80 km away from Cairo, a reasonable distance. There was nothing there, no artistic activity. Open an art school in Tunes, meant to help not only the cultural development of the area. I wanted a place where people were coming exclusively for that place.
In Fayyum I try to do something that I always believed: art is a way to gather people, Egyptians and foreign. Each year in February we hold a workshop, in which everyone can participate for free, you can register on Facebook. For six weeks people from around the world live side by side: cooking and eating together, sleeping under the same roof, discussing ideas and point of views. After this experience, people go back home richer. For me it is important not only that we speak, but realize ideas. The success of the centre is in front of everyone, although I prefer not to advertise it too much because it must remain an intimate and non-commercial place, I’d rather prefer people to come who are really interested in the project.
The centre has installed a caricature museum. Egypt has one of the oldest schools in the world along with the English one. This art was disappearing, so I began collecting caricatures, now we have more than 500, one is dated 1927!”
“Then you were happy when last January the caricaturist magazine Tuk Tuk came out?”
“Very. I know Mohamed Shennawy and the other guys who made it. The caricatures are important because they are able to extrapolate the social and anthropological imaginary of the society which eludes the superficial and frenetic eye of modern life”
“Can we say: no art, no culture and thereby no democracy?”
“If there is no democracy, there is no freedom, therefore nor art. The revolution can bring democracy to support the art, as long as the independent art can initiate a revolutionary process as happened in Egypt”
“How your painting changed over the years?”
“I am an artist who believes in people and time. It is an axiom that it cannot be stopped, so to show the passage of time, you must be able to trap it in the pictures. How to recognize it? Art is an expression of the time. I feel part of this time and, consequently, my style changes according to my age seasons. Experience is an important component, as in the street: people experiment and improvise in their movements without realizing it!”
“What was your involvement in the revolution? And how your work will change accordingly?”
“I participated in the revolution from the first until the last day. I was with thousands of people on the bridge Qasr El Nil trying to reach Tahrir, breathing tear gas and struggling against the police to be able to occupy the square. Furthermore, it was crucial to support young people who were in Tahrir, comfort them from anxiety feeling, answer their questions about what was going on, give them courage. I collected money, food, drinks, blankets, bandages … from the community outside and bring everything to those who in the square. During that process, I painted very little, but I took many pictures, I have used and manipulated them with my painting. I participated in the revolution with my body and my heart; I have hosted thousands of young people in my studio, and, being the president of Cairo Atelier Gallery, I opened it 24 hours a day to make people rest, to protect foreign journalists and local one who had to hide from the regime persecution. In the square we kept reading about the revolution, trying to give answers to the boys lost faces”
“We can say that the older people like you and Al Aswany played the role of protectors or the fathers of the revolution, especially at a psychological level?”
“I met Al Aswany many times in the square. Hundreds of youth ran to him to ask questions about what would happen next, the future, on democracy, the military … yes, it was important to have people like him, like me and other intellectuals who supported psychologically the young people who were in Tahrir. However, it was a constant interchange: I encouraged others, but often I felt to be afraid for my own life, being surrounded by so many persons, gave me a sense of security.
Many youth have studied for years and years at university, but those 18 days the streets have taught them more than all the studies can do. It was a unique experience. I must say that the first few days, after the resignation of Mubarak, have been difficult to do without the pathos of that moment and that place. It is a sort of depression, but it was worth, I’d never want to return back. Now the Egyptian society is permeated by ideas and artistic and cultural ferment”
Mohamed Abla has already translated the experience of the square into painting. He did not disrespect the revolution, because he lived it, every day, and sometimes the only way to eradicate the emptiness feeling left after such intense involvement, is to talk about it, or communicate those emotions through canvas and colours that he loves so much, as his Cairo and its revolutionary people.