Mohamed Abla: The experimenter

Rania Khallaf , Thursday 29 Apr 2021

Celebrated painter Mohamed Abla told Ahram Weekly all about his new sculpture exhibition


Of the end-of-season experiments creeping into exhibition spaces, painter Mohamed Abla’s 65 bronze sculptures at the Access Art Gallery in Downtown are among the most poignant. As I walked in I was thrilled to meet these differently sized, variously abstracted creatures, many of them structured in such a way as to allow space in and around their form.

Abla is always experimenting. Each new exhibition is different. His last, “Affinity” at Safarkhan Gallery (22 February-16 March) was a collection of landscapes and still lifes produced over a period of six months and focused on plants, notably cacti, a great departure for an artist known for his human figures. He always manages to communicate something positive. In this case, he explained, “I guess it was the outcome of long hours of meditation during the pandemic. Stationary for the most part at my studio in the village of Tunis in Fayoum, I had an incredible time watching the growth of plants and studying the multitude of species of cactus.


“I’d never had a passion for cacti. I actually used to dislike them. It just so happened that I accidentally found a couple of potted cacti beside my window, and I spontaneously merged them into one of my paintings. Then I realized that there was a difference between them, so I headed to a greenhouse in Abu Rawwash where I found a vast area allocated to different types of cactus, many of them colourful and flowering. It was then that I started to keep different types of this rich and unique plant in my studio, contemplating and painting it.

“Concurrently, I did some sculptures inspired by cacti. Strangely enough, while painting this collection, I started to remember different types of cactus that I’d encountered on my travels. In Mexico, for example, these plants can be huge in size and they can be wildly exuberant. Nature has this unique ability to surprise the artist no matter how fertile their imagination. Actually I believe art should not be dealt with as a series of projects. For me, art is a sort of a visual diary, a daily documentation of incidents, feelings and experiences. The pandemic was a very fruitful experience, travelling on a weekly basis from Fayoum to Cairo, which permitted me to indulge my desire to meditate on the surrounding place, and on abstract values such as the meaning of life, death and tolerance.”


Born in 1953 in Belqas, near Mansoura, Abla, an internationally celebrated and prolific artist, graduated from the Faculty of Fine Arts in Alexandria in 1977, travelling to Europe in 1978. He spent seven years there, studying sculpture in Zurich and graphics in Vienna and moving all around the continent, developing an openness to the broadest range of genres and schools of modern art. His journey with sculpture started in the 1990s in Germany, where he worked with iron and stone for several years until 1995. He made no sculptures again until 2016. He exhibited a small collection at Misr Gallery under the title “Frameless” in 2018, having invented his own technique and style.


“I paint my figures in certain materials, including acrylics and pastes, using an impasto technique, and when this material is left out to dry, the painting becomes a three-dimensional object, then comes the stage of bronze casting.” He sounded like a child describing the game in which he delights. Circular Story 1 and 2 are two 52 cm x by 52 cm circular pieces made up of animal figures which cast magical shadows when lit from the inside. They were made using beach balls. “Yes, I love to invent new techniques. I love to surprise myself. I enjoy experimenting and I have been toying with even newer ideas lately. I love to see my figures in sculpture simply because, compared to paintings, sculptures have power; they control the space; they hold attention.”


A series of eleven small sculptures collectively called On the Rocks feature human figures standing on stones while two pieces, each a kind of hollowed out sphere reminiscent of skull with a man jumping over the hole, are called Earth. There are also two funny, vividly coloured roosters in red and green, and a penniless man with a hollow head and triangular holes in his chest who has his arms up in the air, The Keeper. On closer inspection these incredibly light sculptures can be seen as a kind of three-dimensional painting, and they work as much through by casting their shadows on the walls as anything.


Figures often appear together but each is isolated, divested of community. They recall the 2002 painting in which Abla started creating figures in this way, like helpless figures flying by or swimming in an ocean. “It was a few years after my studio in Old Cairo burned down in an accident. It was a very sad incident. I lost around 500 paintings. This new style was influenced by the Nile surrounding my new studio in Geziret El Dahab in Giza. The void could also be seen as the Nile waters, with peasants bathing or washing their things on its banks. But it worked well enough in the end. I am easily bored. I hate to see an artist spending his whole life doing the same thing over and over. How boring is that!”

Years of Sculpture is on show at Access Art Gallery until 13 May.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 29 April, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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