“I was not taken by surprise,” says prominent contemporary artist Mohamed Abla, reflecting on the revolution. “I saw it coming, and painted the clues I could see for years.”
Providing warmth and colour
Bathing in the sunlight coming through the windows of his downtown apartment, Mohamed Abla reminisces about the Egyptian uprising, in which he was involved in more ways than one. He supplied the protesters with meals and blankets. Apart from providing warmth and colour, Abla was determined to give his fellow Egyptians hope.
Mohamed Abla is one of the few Egyptian artists that employs art to combat pressing social and environmental issues. His paintings continue to mirror prevailing Egyptian emotions, and provide snapshots of the deepest corners and concerns in society.
Abla was extremely keen on walking among the protesters in Tahrir square, as an Egyptian, a dreamer and an artist. “I needed to live the experience,” the artist says with a reminiscent smile. “I was determined to visually document as much as possible, for we were witnessing history unfold.”
Abla, who lives mere minutes away from Tahrir Square, frequented the 'Liberation' site daily, bearing both survival and art supplies.
The circling emotions of the protestors
Snapping his camera left and right, Abla captured the circling emotions of the protesters. “I saw dreams materialising in front of my eyes,” he said serenely..
He set up an art workshop for the children in Tahrir Square, the “Revolution-Born Artist’ luring boys and girls with bright colours and the tempting fluidity of paint. “I used the workshop as bait; I pulled parents aside and talked to them about the events, and pushed them to hold on,” he says.
Egyptian youth are creative
Through the dense crowds and fervent emotions, Abla could see that art was all around. “Tahrir Square proved that the Egyptian youth are extremely creative,” he says. “The experience really highlighted the importance of art.”
For the artist, the revolution stirred up countless ideas, every angle providing ample, potential subject matter. “The faces, chants and clothes of this creative revolution truly inspired me.”
Art based on truth
Art, more often than not, is based on truth. Whether artists chose to paint reality as it is, or twist the compositions, change the colours, and jumble the features to make a point, their paintings are often journal entries, derived from the world around them.
But what if, the world as you know it is in a state of constant flux, and life has a new face to it?
“Everything is changing, and everywhere I look, the world is painting new pictures for us,” says Abla. “It’s challenging, but exciting.”
His beloved Cairo
Abla has dedicated countless canvases, and a big chunk of his career, to painting his beloved Cairo. He paints the city at night, the Nile mirroring its dazzling lights. He paints the crowds on the street, as dots, each lost among other dots. A recent exhibition of paintings of comically-stacked buildings shows that the artist expected their eventual collapse.
“Walking through Tahrir, I felt like I was walking through my own paintings.”
Change was coming
The artist, who constantly keeps an eye on the city, and captures not only its infrastructure and crowds but also its emotional undercurrents, sensed that change was coming, yet he was still pleasantly surprised. On 25 January, the expressionism that belonged to his artwork was overcome by the palpable expression within Tahrir Square.
Abla feels hopeful about the state of Egyptian art post-revolution. The cultural scene had been extremely underprivileged during the past few decades, according to Abla. “Art was basically controlled by the government. It was not allowed to expose social issues or used to raise crucial issues,” he maintains.
Freedom can pervade the arts
Now, freedom has a chance to pervade the arts and culture and that will re-instate Egypt’s glory in the field. Abla believes that the syndicate of arts should abandon its silent, ineffective role and invest in developing the arts nationwide, through enriching curricula, supporting local galleries, and providing opportunities for promising artists.
“This is only the beginning for the country, and we should start building the future.”
The spirit of icons
Even though the Egyptian youth were a catalyst for the revolution, Abla believes that the energy had been circulating throughout the country for decades. Legendary artists and writers have contributed to this uprising; the spirits of icons such as El Sheikh Imam and Fouad Hadad were present in Tahrir Square, their words circulating throughout the crowds.
“This revolution combined people from all walks of life,” says the artist. “And despite some current concerns, we should all be hopeful.”
Photos by Sherif Sonbol