London, Asharq Al-Awsat – The Middle Eastern art market is growing thanks to the increasing global interest in Middle Eastern art. This week, ARTSPACE, a Dubai-based art gallery, has opened its second branch in London’s wealthy Chelsea village. At their inaugural exhibition, ARTSPACE London has chosen to present a solo exhibition of Egyptian artist Mohamed Abla’s work. Abla is the prolific Egyptian artist who has gained fame for his unique style of blending European influences into traditional Egyptian ways of painting.
The exhibition, entitled “My Family, My People” subtly places scenes of happy families set in 1940’s and 1950’s Egypt alongside images of the uncertainty that people in Egypt are living today following the 2011 uprisings in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. The many red dots which can be found next to the paintings following ARTSPACE’s opening night indicate that Abla has already sold many of his artworks.
Abla, a Swiss-educated, Cairo-based artist, makes a strong connection between the personal, public and political; exhibiting a grand view of Egyptian society prior to and during the revolution. He informed Asharq Al-Awsat “exhibiting these artworks in London now represents a very good opportunity. This is a possibility for new audiences to see the works and provoke discussion.”
The wall-to-wall windows of the anteroom of this newly opened gallery allows for a clear view of the contemporary political artworks on show. Images from Tahrir Square depict scenes personally witnessed by Abla when he joined the protesters calling for change in Cairo’s Tahrir Square in January 2011, during which time he slept in tents and lived alongside Egypt’s revolutionary youth. Although some of Abla’s artworks depict real moments, they are all heavily brushed with the energy and mood of the time. This includes a collection of oil on photography, layering different images of protesters working together, entitled “Cleaning the Square”. Other pieces, such as “The Flag”, depict different generations of one family together at Tahrir Square.
Walking through the art gallery, the second room, serving as a background to the chaos and upheaval depicted in Abla’s work, is where family portraits are displayed. Utilizing acrylic on canvas, Abla depicts various mothers and daughters, fathers with children, and parents, in different frames sitting happily together. Abla began this collection, depictions of a time when things were more hopeful, in 2004. The styles of the time can be seen in the subjects’ dress: men wearing the fez, women adorned with classically braided hairstyles. The families are posed in front of a layered background of vintage ornamental flower prints.
Abla informed Asharq Al-Awsat that “it is kind of ironic, when we talk about the past and say that the 1940s and 1950s were better” adding “it is important to put these older images next to contemporary images. We can’t view the present without thinking about the past; we have to learn from our past. In the 40s and 50s, democracy and the parliament were just beginning [in Egypt]. Egyptian industry was on the rise: film, textile, and other industries…but then came the Nasser Revolution, and things stopped and changed.”
Abla’s interest and concern with political change in Egypt preceded the events of 2011, and there are two pre-revolution political works included in this exhibition which take a critical tone towards the former regime and almost predict the Egyptian revolution. Speaking about these two artworks, Abla revealed that “galleries would refuse to display them because they didn’t want any trouble [with the government].”
However Abla reflects that not much has changed in Egyptian society following the 2011 revolution, informing Asharq Al-Awsat that “presently, I am not allowed to exhibit pieces that feature the army or religious figures, like Salafists. We may have no government now, but certain things have not changed. Before I was not allowed to criticize Mubarak, whilst now it is the army that we can’t criticize.”
There has been one concrete change following the Egyptian revolution, and that is international interest in art from the Arab world, particularly artists who have been censored or whose work is considered critical of ruling regimes, as these artworks depict the spirit and thought processes behind the politics.
As for why ARTSPACE has opened a new gallery in London, ARTSPACE Founder and Director Maliha Al Tabari, informed Asharq Al-Awsat that “opening a second gallery in London allows us to take part in and encourage the expansion of Middle Eastern art around the world,” adding “this is a movement we saw begin to gain momentum in Dubai 10 years ago.”
Egyptian artist Mohamed Abla agrees that there is more global interest in Arab art today, saying “it is different, not just following the Arab Spring but since before that. Thanks to globalization, Arabs are becoming a bigger part of the international economy…they are also becoming more interest in Art, viewing this as an investment.”
He added “this is also due to the new generation who have gone to study in Europe; they learned about the importance of art, and came back to share this new knowledge, along with everything else they learnt.”
Abla has been the recipient of many prestigious art awards in Egypt and abroad, and is one of the most established figures in the Arab art world. He won the 1997 Grand Prize at the Alexandria Biennale whilst his works have been procured by prestigious institutions, including the British Museum.
Mohamed Abla’s works will be on show at ARTSPACE London until 9 June, 2012.