Exhibition at Cairo’s Gypsum looks into the world of Ahmed Morsi

Soha Elsirgany , Sunday 3 Dec 2017

The exhibition presents a selection of paintings, drawings, photographs and prints from Morsi's 70-year career

Artwork by Ahmed Morsi at Gypsum (Photo: Soha Elsirgany)

At Gypsum, "You Closed Your Eyes in Order to See the Unseen" showcases a collection of paintings, Lino prints and drawings, by prolific artist Ahmed Morsi, as it ran throughout November.

The New-York based Egyptian artist, poet and critic has a career spanning 70 years, with works in the show dating from the late 1950s till the early 2000s.

The exhibition at Gypsum is not a retrospective linearly tracing Morsi’s extensive career, but is more of a panoramic selection that offers an opportunity for a thoughtful immersion into the artist’s work.

Stepping into the gallery, the immersion is physical as you are met with walls painted in a dark-bluish grey straight off the artist’s desaturated palette.

Some of the paintings’ borders melt into this background, and it serves to plunge the viewer into the dusky, silent and mysterious world of Ahmed Morsi.

The works are all untitled, as the artist leaves them open to interpretation, but for convenience are given working titles by the gallery that are matter-of-fact descriptions, contrasting the surrealism of their subject matter and in some strange way — because they are unpretentious — reinforcing it.

The show’s centrepiece is easily the 360 x 235cm diptych on canvas completed in 1995.

It depicts a surreal seaside scene, which despite its many elements can’t quite be described as busy because of how inert Morsi makes it seem.

Several large amorphous figures in the foreground are close to a large tub containing a massive fish. In the background is a pair of feet walking with no body, a figure carrying a fish equals its size, and a figure holds another one horizontally, mid-air as if in a playful motion.

Dominated with blues, gray-ish purple, with a flash of a brick red that is colder than it is warm, the painting manages to evoke sorrow and tension, while remaining detached, and even relaxed.

In the exhibition’s catalogue, an article by renowned artist and writer Adel El-Siwi describes this eloquently: “I feel as though I am witnessing scenes from deferred lives, unquenched thirst, non-committed whims, obsessions from unknown sources and secrets which will never be disclosed.”

Artists on artists

The catalogue contains four articles in both Arabic and English on Morsi’s work written by the late Egyptian novelist and art critic Edwar El-Kharrat, Spanish poet Alfonso Armada, notable critic Samir Gharib, and El-Siwi.

When it comes to artists like Ahmed Morsi with an oeuvre spanning many years, it is tempting to either look at the exhibition through a nostalgic lens or to get pre-occupied with comparisons, seeking what changed over time in his technique, colours or subject matter.

An example is a 2012 piece with headless mannequins as the subject, placed in the same barren landscapes as his older works. The yellows and greens are brighter here, but are they only brighter in his latest works?

In his article, El-Kharrat, who has been familiar with Morsi’s work over the years, notes how his early works were also brighter coloured, and how in fact the more muted tones came later as the artist matured.

He describes the later colours as “giving up their abstract clarity. The blue is not purely blue as it was in the past. Nor is the green as blooming as it was. Now the internal gradation and waves of colour prevail in musical freedom.”

Although he works with acrylic paints, his tones evoke the surfaces of oil paintings.

El-Kharrat gives a reading of Morsi’s work with this emphasis on his use of colour, area, the relationships between elements, and how the artist’s poeticism can be reflected through these.

“It is this visual controversy itself that bears the dramatic content, and not the other way round,” he writes.

While the large painting is a classic that speaks for Morsi’s style, smaller works in the same display room offer telling details and insights into the artist’s world.

Some of those include a small drawing of a creature by the sea, having one eye as its head, and a body comprised of cones in a cubistic arrangement.

There is also a set of printed digital photographs taken in the artist’s Manhattan studio, where we see the real life versions of the mannequins and the horse skull he frequently features in his paintings.

It’s notable how the photographs are very "warm," as if through seen through an orange filter, in contrast to his blue-toned paintings.

Artwork by Ahmed Morsi at Gypsum (Photo: Soha Elsirgany)

On horses and time

While much of Morsi’s work was informed by a different era, it remains resonant with timeless themes of belonging, memory, spaces, and the way he depicts time, or rather the absence of it.

Time is an important, and interesting, aspect of Morsi’s work. He invites it into his scenes with figures that have clocks as heads.

The sight of the clock is almost ominous, evoking nervousness and an impulsiveness for "keeping" the time. However, it quickly dissolves to a realisation that in this artist’s realm, time is lost. Like his paintings are recording life before time, or after time ceased to matter.

In one of the gallery’s inner rooms sits the Cavafy Suite artist book, a display of the artist’s Arabic translation for C P Cavafy’s texts, and a series of prints in response to the text.

The collection tells of places, their influence on the original writer and in turn on the artist, feelings of exile and belonging, and a cycle of existential questions and exhausted answers.

Horses, skulls, cages and candles are some recurrent motifs in this project.

We try to make sense of it by matching these symbols to their assigned meanings. A horse as a symbol for fertility – according to El-Kharrat – skulls evoke death, cages bring up imprisonment, and candles might point to hope.

While these are perfectly valid interpretations, Morsi’s pieces evoke a certain nonchalance that begs to escape the confines of universal symbolism, making them far from cliché.

In the same room with the Cavafy Suite there is a painting of "The Artist in Alexandria."

A green figure, with orange tinted feet, runs out of the frame towards the left, leaving the right side empty, with a dark violet vastness.

The square shaped head is facing backwards, a last glance at what it’s running away from. Soaring above him like a guardian angel is a woman painted blue, her head is a single eye.

She diagonally separates between the two background elements: a white mosque and a red sail boat.

The painting was done a year before the artist book, and a thematic connection between the two is suggested when they are placed in the same room: Of a soul torn between land and sea, staying and escaping.

A final painting glows at the end of Gypsum’s corridor, ending the exhibition on a high note.

Described as “Flute player on horse in green background,” a golden yellow figure sits above a horse’s head.

The horse is at eye level, leaving us with a connection to the gentle, powerful creature, that possibly stands in for the artist himself.

Artwork by Ahmed Morsi at Gypsum (Photo: Soha Elsirgany)

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