Mohamed Ahmed Ibrahim grew up in Khorfakkan, a northern enclave of the Sharjah emirate. Whilst biographical information is not normally top of the pile when understanding an artist’s visual output, in this case, Ibrahim’s ongoing relationship with colour can be charted back to his early childhood.
He talks of growing up in the shadow of the Hajar mountains, as he describes a distinct awareness of being robbed of the colours of sunset because, from his family home, the sun would dip down behind the mountains in the mid-afternoon and leave the town cast in grey. In retrospect, Ibrahim talks openly of embracing as many colours as possible inside his investigation into sculpture as a direct response to this ‘deprivation’.
Anyone who witnessed Ibrahim’s survey show at Sharjah Art Foundation in 2018 will be familiar with his use of colour over the decades, which is apparent in his paintings, but mostly in his irregularly shaped sculptures made from papier-mâché. In his latest solo exhibition, The Space Between the Eyelid and the Eyeball at Lawrie Shabibi, Ibrahim has created several new sculptures that take on organic, almost animalistic forms. They are also playful and, in some cases, they contain Ibrahim’s trademark rocks wrapped in wire embedded within them.
“This work takes me back to my childhood,” Ibrahim says. “My solo show in Sharjah was a crossroads and after that, I started bringing back more and more colour, which is certainly rooted in my childhood. By integrating stone, I am creating a balance between dark and light.”
It is in his quest to achieve this balance that Ibrahim continues to place his relationship with the natural environment at the centre of his engagement with painting and sculpture. The sculptures, which occupy the central part of the gallery, are one of three bodies of work contained in this exhibition. They are a kind of homage to his intuitive relationship with the mountains of his childhood. The material itself is dyed with natural pigments and the shapes, whilst indefinable, find their roots in nature.
His monochromatic mark making, seen in some of the wall pieces as well as in the large installation room, is a nod to abstraction but it is also rhythmic: a kind of meditation on repetition. The lines appear to hold a temporal quality; they seem to signify a primitive symbol of time passing, and also speak of an underlying cadence across Ibrahim’s practice.
Indeed, when speaking about the shapes he produces, Ibrahim refers to accessing his subconscious. “I am just doing, just creating, I don’t ask myself why. It is not important for me to ask why, the only important thing is doing,” he says. “I must keep my hands busy and my mind busy with something else, so I don’t focus on what I am doing. This is how I make my work.”
This is where the significance of the title comes from, with the artist explaining that his inspiration comes when he clears his mind and enters a place where vision stops, or, as he poetically describes it: the space between the eyelid and eyeball.
Also appearing here are several pieces from Ibrahim’s Sitting Man series, which he began in 2005 and finished 10 years later. Another exploration into repetition, these paintings come in different sizes and colours but they depict the same man, sitting on a chair with his head cropped, shifting the focus to the bodily posture and clothing of the sitter. They also offer another dimension onto the artist’s ongoing use of vibrant and vivid colour.
The Sitting Man series is rarely the focal point of Ibrahim’s work, but the elevated platform it is given in this show is interesting. Upon closer inspection, the choice of this figure as a portrait also underlines an important aspect of comprehending Ibrahim as an artist. The man is always portrayed without his head, which, viewed metaphorically, also suggests a necessary removal of the intellectual faculty.
The key to Ibrahim’s work is that it asks for this stipulation: to truly see his work is not to try to understand it with your mind, it is to feel it with your emotions. The site-specific installation in the gallery’s small side room will elicit a guttural reaction—no matter if the viewer has seen many of Ibrahim’s exhibitions or if they are a first timer. It is intense, it is immersive, and it accesses a part of the subconscious.
It feels like a musical score, offering an insight into the inner workings of Ibrahim’s mind. It takes a viewer up and down, through loud crescendos and quiet dips, and it also offers a place to meditate. Perhaps, after visiting, we will all think differently about that infinitesimal space between the eyelid and the eyeball.
Mohamed Ahmed Ibrahim’s The Space Between the Eyelid and the Eyeball runs at Lawrie Shabibi from 5 March – 9 May 2019.
(Images courtesy the artist and Lawrie Shabibi, Dubai)