Breakfast with Mada: Ali Abdel Mohsen on cardboard

Each week, Mada Masr convenes over breakfast and invites a friend whose work has stirred a curiosity among team members, often because of a tendency to push boundaries. This week we’re discussing Ali Abdel Mohsen’s current exhibition at Mashrabia Gallery, “This is a Dream Come True.”

Mada Masr: How different is “This is a Dream Come True” from your exhibition last year, “Razor-Sharp Teeth?”

Ali Abdel Mohsen: I always wanted to make films, so I look at it like that — making a sequel to the last show. “Razor-Sharp” was looking at the overall structure of things, and this one looks at the details. But I don’t know if that came across…?

MM: I think it did. There were a lot of strange new details. One looked like a bit like an Indian miniature, with all the little guys wearing turbans. Then there were little domestic moments as well, which is quite new. Like the one where the guy is packing the suitcase — that detail by itself doesn’t look apocalyptic or sci-fi as the works overall do.

AM: This is why I had it towards the very end of the sequence, because it didn’t quite fit — the drawing in it was pretty simple. What I was trying to do was recreate the look of drawings in the governmental textbooks we grew up with. That kind of flatness, and colors where you can’t tell if they are faded or that’s how they’re meant to be.

MM: There’s also something apocalyptic in the guy packing a suitcase.

AM: The whole notion of “Where’s he going? Is it by choice?” Or “Why are these kids in the background naked?”

MM: There’s something kitsch about it.

AM: Yeah — the trip as a journey of personal exploration, or quest.

MM: You said that while you had an idea for the works, you ended up changing it as you went — so what were the ideas that were left out? Why didn’t the original idea work anymore?

AM: The first idea I started working on after the last show was transportation. Drawings of a microbus exploding, taxis imploding, streets on top of streets, people falling out of vehicles. I thought it was fun, and I enjoyed doing it, but it didn’t feel honest. In the beginning, when I had the idea, it would have worked. But by the time I started working on the actual exhibition, I was feeling like something else.

MM: How did you create the pieces?

AM: It’s pen and acrylic and watercolors mostly. But I had a really hard time working with the acrylic paint this time. I’m not like artists who know the materials, their chemical reactions. I have no clue what I’m doing, so the paint I was using was not working with the ink, it was just a nightmare trying to get anything down on it. With the watercolors, I purposely use really cheap ones because I like when the color fades and how the colors mix.

MM: Why did you hang them with black bulldog clips?

AM: I wanted to just nail them to the wall.

MM: Yeah, that could have been more in keeping with the feel of the works.

AM: It’s just that it ruins them.

MM: But it just adds holes, which isn’t really ruining them.

AM: That’s my opinion too.

MM: Did you have this conversation with the gallery?

AM: Yes, but I’m not important enough yet when it comes to this stuff. I still lose the arguments of “I’ve been doing this longer than you have, so listen to me.”

MM: What about the cardboard?

AM: Well, with this stuff if you put it on canvas it’s going to look a bit quaint — the cardboard’s a big part of this. It works in this city. It feels like Cairo’s made of cardboard — the colors, how temporary everything is. Even with buildings, there’s nothing consistent about them. A building has existed for 50 years and I can just go and add two more floors that don’t match. It’s all recycled, improvised.

MM: Isn’t a lot of the show about breaking down shapes? So does the fact that they are boxes and being kind of torn up have any link? I know you’ve used boxes before.

AM: This time, the shapes and angles and the fact they fold on to each other is a part of the pieces, some more so than others. It made me think about how to split things up and not just in terms of a story board or of events, but geometrically.

MM: In the text for the show, there’s reference to the spirituality of shapes and Islam — also did you have Buckminster Fuller in mind?

AM: Everyone’s been asking me about this guy! I do want people to look at the stuff and question structures. Different structures we have and operate on. Shapes are the most basic structures. There is also this idea of — I have a hard time putting this into words — where things come from. What bothered me about the blurb was that it made it seem as though the shapes in my work were coming from a spiritual place. It’s more linking things back to the idea of the origin, the idea of a structure. Especially with what’s going on now — everything being rebuilt, reassessed — you have to reexamine the basic elements of things.

MM: Can you tell us a bit about your creation process?

AM: Usually what comes first is the feeling of what I want to do, then I actually start working, and then the visual comes together. I start all of them at the same time and finish them all at the same time. Not doing them one by one definitely affects the work. I was still finishing pieces as they were picking them up for the show.

MM: So the process is you being surrounded by unfinished pieces?

AM: Yes.

MM: That sounds fun… The shapes give a very modern sort of feel. You mix them with very traditional hand drawing that looks ornamental — in the middle you see something that looks like Illustrator CS6. That makes you think a lot about history and about time, and things that happened in the past against things happening now, and it becomes this weird axis point where things are happening. I think it was very successful to mix these geometrical shapes and drawings.

AM: Thanks, I really appreciate that. I wanted the lines to look like something that didn’t belong, like an alien invasion. But one of my biggest difficulties was that I didn’t want to use any rulers for the lines. But when you’re working with geometric patterns with no precision, they end up looking shit.

MM: So how did you deal with that?

AM: I focused less on the patterns and things looking nice. I’d spent a lot of time on this one of row of minarets, and it was very detailed — I put a lot of thought into the order of the triangles and the squares. But I didn’t like the way it looked.

MM: So you discarded the piece?

AM: It was the first time I ever had a piece and didn’t use it.

MM: Maybe it’s because your technique doesn’t allow for a lot of manipulation — if you draw something and don’t like it, the cardboard doesn’t allow to paint over it.

AM: I work with the pen directly, so I have to get used to the idea that if I mess something up, I have try to work with it as opposed to giving up or trying to fix it.

MM: So when you make a mistake, you don’t think to find a way to paint over it?

AM: No, when that happens, its always like, it fits now because it’s there. It’s like watching a movie that takes a sudden strange turn, you just go with it. Many times, I don’t really know what’s going on around me — I’ll stop sleeping, I’ll eat only occasionally. Towards the end of the show, I kind of turn into an asshole.

MM: We must have instinctively known, because none of us have tried talking to you the last few weeks.

AM: I stopped coming by the office because I’d turn from being the awkward guy who barely ever talks to screaming things like “fuck that!”

MM: That would actually be quite exciting… What was the process with the blurb presenting the exhibition?

AM: I’d have a hard time telling you now because it was in the middle of it all — they’d call and say we’re going to meet up on Saturday and then they’d call in a half hour and say, “Ali, it’s Saturday.” I know we talked for multiple hours on multiple occasions, so they only took small parts. The person who wrote it said she had difficulties making sense of anything I was saying. The concern was, “we need to find something compact that we can make a message out of, and we want to make this guy look smart.” It didn’t work.

MM: You said the PR company responsible approached you?

AM: Yes.

MM: Why didn’t you write something?

AM: I’ve written before, for the first solo show I ever had at Darb 1718, “Voice in the Clouds.” [May 2010] And I thought it was great because it was basically telling people to stop reading. It was made-up stuff. It said I make sandwiches, went into detail about that. It had nothing to do with the art. I hate walking into a gallery and reading this stuff because it’s usually so pretentious and totally unrelated. And in my case, this time, it was both. I feel lucky that I’m still in the beginning and can risk mistakes like that and not have them shape the work too much. I’ve been trying to talk to the people who wrote it, but at the end of the day, I don’t want to be too confrontational. I took it down at the show, but they put it up again.

MM: So the gallery didn’t write the text?

AM: No it was totally independent — I imagine Mashrabia would have pushed me to write something. And this is the problem, when I used to write jokey stuff, people would say either “Oh this is great and refreshing” or “You’re not taking this seriously, so people wont take you seriously.”

MM: The bio in Arabic was quite different from the English. The Arabic one said you’re wolf hunter, but the English was far more serious, saying you’re journalist and so on.

AM: Yeah, I wrote the Arabic one. I want to point out that I got this job [as a journalist] with “wolf hunter” on my CV.

MM: So they ignored you?

AM: I get ignored a lot when it comes to my suggestions on marketing. It was the same with the poster, but that was partly my fault for sending a pixelated image of an incomplete work.

MM: The poster made it look like a more conventional painting show.

AM: The layout helps with that — it looks very early ’90s.

MM: What was beautiful about your Maspero exhibition [at Darb1718 in July 2011], was that the arrangement was very Ali — what was written, what was not — it felt like you had much more control about how the artwork was displayed. Why is that?

AM: Well, I was the curator. I appreciate you saying that because I didn’t want to be the curator. I had told Darb 1718 that they should do a show about Maspero, and they said it was a great idea but I had to organize it if I wanted it to happen. I don’t think the show was what it could have been — but what I’m proudest about is the poster.

MM: In the blurb for “This is a Dream Come True” there’s an emphasis on a revolving, collective creation-destruction cycle, which is very emblematic of a revolutionary process or condition. Was this something you were conscious of while creating the works?

AM: Yes, that was definitely a major point. It’s there on all levels — that’s what a revolution is, the definition of it. And on the smaller level, for the past couple years there’s been so much construction because there’s no regulation, people can just go build wherever they want. That’s been a very imposing aesthetic of the past couple years, so I wanted to put it in it.

MM: What were you trying to say with the drawing that looked like Rabea [al-Adaweya, where a sit-in in support of ousted President Mohamed Morsi was violently dispersed on August 14]?

AM: I wanted to put everything that happened in Rabea into that painting.

MM: Do you think anyone would buy it?

AM: I don’t know actually — I doubt someone would want this hanging in their house, above their breakfast table every day. It’s very heavy in content. One time, someone bought one of my paintings and I asked him why. He said he was buying it as a gift for his friend who just got married…

MM: But colors were quite soothing, which I actually found disturbing. Something about the being far away and seeing this nice warm, orange glow and stepping closer and closer to realize … we’re all ants.

AM: I tried to do that on purpose. A lot of buildings here look like they’re barely holding themselves together, yet are so brightly colored. I wanted that kind of look.

MM: You have to frame them in order to preserve them, right?

AM: They might fade in the sun, but I think that’s part of it, the deterioration. I want them to look like something you found on the street, dug out of a cave, or pulled out of a dumpster. It has this whole history to it, and it’s about this entire history that you’ve caught the very end of.

MM: The show was seemingly more influenced by politics than your last one.

AM: I think it was more political last time. But I don’t know how to answer that really because I don’t think about it too much. There are times when I realize I’m drawing something and it’s too specific, and I don’t want it to be. I’m talking about the power struggle which is inherent in the idea of politics. But I still want to make it somewhat relevant to what I’m personally going through. We’re going through a political fallout. You could also say the religious stuff is more blatant that last time, but it’s not there because of a personal, spiritual source, but because I want to look at that structure. Overall extremism is the main idea. Political extremism is what we are going through now.

MM: Why’s everyone so hairy?

AM: I guess it’s the exaggerated masculinity.

MM: Do you feel this technique of over-lined figures piled on top of each other could be perceived as easy?

AM: I like layers. I do a lot of music stuff and I like piling the layers on until you feel like you can’t take it anymore. I guess I’ve kind of always been drawing people in this way, hairy and ugly, with issues.

MM: What about the name of the show, “This is a Dream Come True”? Are you being sarcastic?

AM: Well, for some people it could be a dream come true — the world ending. But yeah, it’s also a bit sarcastic. It’s heavy on the idea that there’s all these structures and stuff, and where to do they come from, where does the idea for anything come from? We’re living in a time which is purely shaped by what you want from the future — what you aspire for things to be like. When you’re building, its not so much about the present moment, as it is about the future and potential. Also there’s the sarcasm of, “this is what we wanted, so this is a dream come true.”

MM: How to you calculate the prices?

AM: I have no say in it really. It’s the gallery owner who sets prices, you have to trust her. For me, while I want this work to be sustainable, the second it’s is done I want nothing to do with it.

MM: To what extent is your art a subversion of your journalism? And can the question be asked the other way around?

AM: I don’t think it can be asked the other way around, in my case. The journalism doesn’t feed off of the art. Writing comes from daily experiences, and especially for someone who hates leaving the house like me, it’s work. I go to work and then come back home and do art. It’s only subversion in that I’m allowed to express certain things supposed professionalism keeps me from in journalism. If I interview a bunch of people and think they’re idiots, obviously can’t write that, but I can go paint it.

MM: When you’re writing an article, you have to say what’s happening and make sure the reader understands what’s going on. With art, it’s more about opening up rather than defining.

AM: Yeah exactly. Coincidentally Mada asked me to write something about the Rabea hand symbol that we’re seeing everywhere while I was working on an artwork with a big hand in it — and I kept thinking, I can draw this and imply certain things. As an artist I can operate as myself and not worry about the hat I’m wearing and what it means. Especially for someone for whom being a journalist is a total coincidence. 

MM: It did seem there was a certain synergy in the sense of, let’s say, this cycle of destruction and hope, the kind of things that you’ve been writing about for the past two years. And your writing’s quite visual. Even if it’s a politics piece, there’s lot of color in it — you create a scene with many visual layers.

AM: I think that’s because since I was six years old I wanted to be a film director. I don’t want that anymore, but that’s still how things work in my brain. I can’t make films so I just treat everything else as such. Making films is so difficult now with all the technology, it’s not how it was when I was growing up.

MM: Oh yes, we all know how you feel about computers.

AM: Hence the cardboard. And I’ve changed. I don’t necessarily want to make action films anymore. Although they would have been really depressing action films. The guy would have been killed in the end every time. 


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