Ahmed Morsi at the opening of the exhibition at Sharjah Art Museum last month. Image Credit: Shajah Art Foundation

A major retrospective of Egyptian artist Ahmed Morsi at the Sharjah Art Museum traces his diverse output between the 1940s up to the present day. ‘Ahmed Morsi: A Dialogic Imagination’ brings together the artist’s work from his early days in his native Alexandria, his sojourns in Baghdad and Cairo and his current practice in New York City where he has been living since 1974.

Morsi’s works are displayed in a combination of linear and thematic presentations that allow visitors to appreciate the depth of the artist’s history, the evolution of his style and the diversity of his subject matter.

Included in the exhibition, organised by the Sharjah Art Foundation, are his large-scale Surrealist paintings and drawings, his experiments with the print medium, his theatre stage designs and his artist’s books — a medium he has pioneered in the context of Egypt.

A large corpus of archival material, comprising books he authored, books and other material about his work by critics and rare photographs, is also on show to highlight his contributions to poetry and art criticism.

Alexandria School

Morsi’s journeys in life mark him as the ultimate cosmopolitan and avant-garde artist par excellence. To appreciate Morsi’s work, one has to return to his early beginnings in Alexandria where he was born in 1930.

It is in Alexandria that he honed his early talent in poetry, publishing his first work at the age of 19. It is also in Alexandria that he began to explore painting, and unlike other artists at that time who trained in art academies, he did not study formally. Morsi studied literature and foreign languages, graduating from the University of Alexandria, Faculty of Arts in 1954 with a major in English literature.

With respect to his painting, Morsi apprenticed with several talented Alexandrian art teachers and painters, who had a lifetime influence on him and his work. He studied art and painting in the studio of Mario Becci, the son of the Italian master painter Antonio Becci, under whom well-known Alexandria painters such as Seif and Adham Wanly had undertaken artistic training.

It was also in Alexandria that Morsi began to associate with the community of well-known literati, poets and artists, who later became a force known in Egyptian literary and art history scholarship as the ‘Alexandria School’.

He moved to Baghdad in 1955 where he taught English. This was a time of a cultural renaissance in Iraq when Baghdad was a centre for the literati, the artists and the intellectuals. It was in Baghdad that he developed a friendship and a working relationship and creatrive cooperation with several Iraqi writers and painters, among them Abdul Wahab Al Bayati, Fuad Al Takarli and Ardash Kakavian. It was also in Baghdad where the artist developed his talent for art criticism and was invited to cover major exhibitions in the city for local papers.

Returning to Egypt, he moved to Cairo in 1957. In these years, Morsi was the first Egyptian to work alongside Egypt’s acclaimed playwrights — Alfred Farag, Abdel Rahman Al Sharkawi — designing stage sets and costumes for The National Theatre and the original, Khedieval, Cairo Opera House — art forms that had until then previously been reserved only to Italian designers. He also partnered with Abdul Hadi Al Algazzar and co-designed stage sets for an American play at the Cairo Opera House.

Though his writings remained prolific, subsequent to 1967, Morsi took a decision to stop writing poetry and only returned to it in 2001 at the request of his childhood friend Edwar Al Kharrat to write a piece commemorating Al Kharrat’s 75th birthday. His poetry could not be contained any longer and subsequent works culminated in the publication of several new Diwans.

“My last collection of poetry, ‘The Season of Emigration to the Other Time’, published after ‘The Complete Poetic Works’, which was more than a thousand pages long, closed the last curtain on my poetic world for good.

“As for my other world, that of the visual arts, although I will be turning 87 years of age this year, a week after the opening of this exhibition, which is also my first retrospective outside Egypt, I still try to discover my own secrets,” says Morsi.

The exhibition is co-curated by Sharjah Art Foundation president and director Hoor Al Qasimi and Dr Salah M. Hassan, Goldwin Smith Professor and Director, Institute for Comparative Modernities, Cornell University.

“This retrospective brings together for the first time, the work of Morsi from his early days in his native Alexandria, through Baghdad, and Cairo, and his current base in New York city where he has been living since the early 1970s,” Dr Hassan told the Weekend Review.

Explaining the title of the exhibition, he elaborates: “Morsi is a multi-talented artist who seamlessly moves between different genres, and modes of expressions and whose career spans more than five decades. Enriched by experiences of living through three continents, Morsi’s oeuvre is an embodiment of a polyphony, where ‘poetry becomes painting, and painting becomes poetry,’ as the prominent Egyptian art critic Samir Gharib had once said. A unifying force that further complicates his work and defies any singular reading, is the Surrealist ‘spirit’ that permeates his ouevre across different media. Hence the Bakhtinian idea of ‘dialogic imagination’ invoked in the title of this retrospective to express the intertextuality and multiplicity of voices through which Morsi expresses his creative talent, and endless experimentation in different media.”

“With such an invocation, the artist and his work become an embodiment of the ‘novel’, in which genres converge in a dialogic and intertextual manner that makes it difficult to separate Ahmed Morsi the poet from Ahmed Morsi the painter or Ahmed Morsi the art critic. The title also expresses the multiplicity of Morsi’s talent.”

Six decades of work

Dr Hassan highlights some of the works at the exhibition which are of special significance and deserve a closer look.

“Over six decades, Morsi’s career as a painter has been prolific as well as diverse in its style and visual language. Yet, over these years his paintings have remained unified by a thread of an evolving visual vocabulary that remains deeply Surrealist and experimental in form. The Surrealist thread is observed in Morsi’s figurative language, use of colour and representation of depth and space, all part of the overall style that has dominated his paintings. From the mid-1940s to the 1950s, Morsi’s work showed great affinity with the Surrealist style of members of ‘The Contemporary Art Group’ such as Abdul Hadi Al Gazzar and Hamed Nada, with whom he was closely associated. Founded in 1946, the group was known for Surrealist ideas of the collective unconscious from within Egyptian culture and society as represented by a range of recurring imagery, such as flat and dreamlike landscapes and recurring motifs of roosters, birds, fish and cats as well as figures of women and men, as individuals or in groups. Street scenes typical of Egyptian cityscapes are also present in those works.”

“Morsi’s oil paintings Man and Son (1954) and Al Moulid (1956) from his Alexandria and Baghdad years are a case in point with their peasant-like figures with magical and religious symbols, flattened empty backgrounds and, most importantly, their muted colour schemes.

“Another example of this style is his painting Fallah [Peasant] (1954). Other repetitive motifs in his paintings which give Morsi’s works their mythical dimension are swords, snakes, cats and birds, reminiscent of Al Gazzar’s works and, in some cases, an homage as well. Such themes and a similar style continued to appear in Morsi’s work throughout the 1970s as represented by his Woman’s Head (1972), which echoes Al Gazzar’s masterpiece Green Man (1951), also known as Al Majnun Al Akhdar.”

Dr Hassan also highlights Morsi’s contrasting use of colour that adds a special character to his representation of women figures, and which tend to be brighter than his masculine figures.

“Figures such as men and horses are dominated by a darker, muted palette. An example of Morsi’s use of contrast is his Portrait of the Artist’s Wife (1964), in which the brightness of the wife’s striped dress contrasts with the dark background and brings the figure to the fore. To the right of the seated figure, a table appears to be suspended in an empty space, with sea shells on its surface and what appear to be figs in an open vase, adding to the impact of the overall surreal setting. In contrast, in The Flute Player 1 (1969), the figure is hardly distinguishable from the background except by its silhouette; the background and figure share similar shades of colour. Several of Morsi’s paintings are also identified by their inclusion of musical elements such as lutes and guitars as well as large clocks, in which, reminiscent of European Surrealist paintings, time is suspended. Examples of the different ways such elements are incorporated in his works are Cello Players (2009), Subway Station (2001) and Clock 1 (1996), in which objects are used as props to enhance the symbolic and Surrealist impact of the overall work.”

Most interesting are his self-portraits, which not only show his self-image and perception of self but also reflect the evolution of his style over the years.

As described by Al Kharrat in an insightful essay, painting for Morsi is “a process of reconstructing reality after deconstructing it to basic elements, and reshaping them from the perspective of the artist with an objective of unveiling the hidden truth behind such reality.”

Dr Hassan also points out that the formal composition of Morsi’s paintings which “depends on certain components represented by wide open spaces broken by circles and triangles and divided by horizontal and vertical lines. His colour scheme is dominated by a combination of muted colours overlaid by darker shades of blue, green and gray and broken with sudden strokes of brighter colours such as red and yellow.”

Morsi’s visual language tends “to be theatrical in its representation of human and animal figures and their mask-like faces, which in some cases are distorted and flattened into angular elements in which figuration turns into abstractions.” Over the years, Dr Hassan notes that Morsi’s style of painting has evolved, distinguishable now by its large-scale and its representations of human and animal figures suspended in open architectural elements on flattened backgrounds that are surreal in their scheme of colours and spatial organisation.

The symbols that comes up in his work enable the artist to convey a timelessness and essential sanctity of ife itself. His images of animal and human figures do not offer any finality but attempt to go beyond to another truth.

When dealing with time, a major preoccupation in his work, obviously the artist seems to be focusing on relationships and transitions in the human condition.

In 1974, Morsi moved to New York City, where he continues to paint, write and critique from his Manhattan home.

In 1976, like many artists residing in the NYC area, he took up the art of lithography at The New School and added yet another dimension to his creative tools and in the last 20 years, he embraced photography — the last art form to be included in Morsi’s extensive palette.

This retrospective concludes with a special video screening based on a recently edited set of interviews conducted with Morsi at his home in Manhattan. The video further contextualises the richness and multiplicity of his creative expression in the visual and literary arenas. It also represents an attempt to look at the exhibited artworks through the lens of the artist himself and gain his critical insights into his own work.

N.P. Krishna Kumar is a freelance writer based in Dubai.

Organised by Sharjah Art Foundation at the Sharjah Art Museum, Ahmed Morsi: A Dialogic Imagination will run until June 3, 2017.