In London, A Space Offering a Nuanced and Provocative Perspective on Arab Culture

Significant Egyptian modernist Hamed Abdalla’s first UK show at The Mosaic Rooms, ‘an Arab intelligence operation, hiding in plain sight’

For a decade now, The Mosaic Rooms has been fronting an Arab intelligence operation, hiding in plain sight at a busy intersection in London’s Earl’s Court. A primary aim of the organization is to counter the profoundly reductive view of the Middle East that currently dominates the press. Against the collapse of vast territories into a flat terrain of religious fanaticism and political violence, it constructs new topographies of critical understanding, traversing the rich, heterogeneous worlds of contemporary Arab culture (with borders recently extended to include Iran). A free space of inquiry dedicated to this civilizing mission, The Mosaic Rooms (a project of the A.M. Qattan Foundation) is privately funded, expressly non-partisan, and non-religious – and therefore possibly unique. Through a multifaceted programme of exhibitions, performances, films, panels, distinguished lectures and literary events (the Syrian poet Adonis and Egyptian writer Ahdaf Soueif, for example), it offers an expert guide to regions which, in the words of the Foundation’s Chair, Omar Al-Qattan, ‘have been so much at the centre of attention yet so absent in their substance and humanity’.

fig3.jpg

Hamed Abdalla, Conscience du Sol (Soil Consciousness) (detail), 1956, mixed media on isorel, 1.5 x 3.4 m. Courtesy: Hamed Abdalla Family Collection 

Currently on view is ‘ARABÉCÉDAIRE’, the first UK solo exhibition of the Egyptian modernist painter, Hamed Abdalla (1917–85). The introduction of a significant artist unfamiliar to British audiences exemplifies the commitment of The Mosaic Rooms, under the direction of Rachael Jarvis, to advance a more nuanced, as well as provocative, perspective on Arab culture. Constructing a cosmopolitan itinerary that combines art, inquiry and archives across borders and nations, the exhibition provides points of connection and cultural translation from East to West, but also questions the divide that continues to artificially separate domains of art history.

This is the first stage of an ambitious three-part programme titled ‘Cosmic Roads: Relocating Modernism’, launched in celebration of The Mosaic Rooms’s 10th anniversary and smartly curated by Morad Montazami. Featuring arts of Egypt, Iran and Morocco, this pairing of modernist with contemporary artists – the usual focus of the gallery’s exhibitions –  constitutes an expansion of The Mosaic Rooms’s already wide cultural remit and is an opportunity to rethink the roots of Orientalism in the post-colonial contexts that have so powerfully shaped the complexities of these regions.

fig5.jpg

Hamed Abdalla, ‘ARABÉCÉDAIRE’, 2018, installation view, The Mosaic Rooms, London. Courtesy: The Mosaic Rooms, London

Although not explicitly cited, Edward Said’s seminal book Orientalism (1978), resonates as a premise against which Abdalla proleptically militates. Born into a peasant family in upper Egypt, Abdalla, a self-taught artist, emerges in this exhibition (and the accompanying catalogue) as a remarkable amalgam of philosopher (referencing Immanuel Kant and Plato), cultural anthropologist, historian, activist and renegade. Adapting a vocabulary of Western modernism, his artworks actively stage the thoroughgoing entanglement of East and West, at times reversing the direction of appropriation by insisting on the primacy of Egyptian precedents. With his ‘Creative Word’ concept, he announced a new pictorial language of art – what he termed ‘Letterist Expressionism’ – founded upon calligraphy and Arabic, rather than its mere translation. 

The exhibition unfolds over three rooms as a geographic and imaginative journey, its varied content organized according to themes referenced by letters: L for Lovers; N for Nubia; R for Revolution; C for Caves; L for Letterism; K for Klee. Through maps which act as relays between places and personal archives of study, the wide-ranging artworks – from intimate drawings and lithographs to various-sized paintings – reflect the international character of Abdalla’s researches and artistic commitments, as well as their unexpected configurations, including visits to the subterranean caves of France and the Norman mosaics of Palermo.

fig7.jpg

Hamed Abdalla, Hob (Desire), 1963, combustion on silver paint, 83 x 67 cm. Photograph: the author

While a preoccupation with cubism, abstraction and colour is immediately visible in certain paintings, the work remains resolutely grounded in Egypt’s long past and turbulent present – extending from Pharaonic to Coptic and contemporary folk culture – to reflections on 20th-century political unrest. The result is a grassroots’ modernism shaped by an activism that renders it distinct from the work of more celebrated artists of the cultural elite, such as Fahrelnissa Zeid, who similarly looked to ancient and folk traditions in her reinvention of modernism in Turkey. Abdalla also experimented with a radical range of materials and artistic processes: in Hob (Desire) (1963), silver paint fired by a blowtorch bubbles to the surface in a Richard Serra-like image of graphic and material intensity, like scarred skin oozing oily black blood.

fig4.jpg

Hamed Abdalla, al-Tamazouq (Tear), 1973, acrylic on paper and canvas, 92 x 73 cm. Courtesy: Hamed Abdalla Family Collection

These experiments in what the artist called the ‘Creative Word’, in which figure and calligraphy are bound together in highly emotive, gestural forms – triumphant, imploring, doubled over, abject – are among the most moving of the works on view. While figure and abstraction might be invoked to describe this operation, it is the union of icon and logos – the incarnation of the word, in its biblical sense – that gives insight into what is distinctive about Abdallah’s practice. A comparative view with the exhibition of one of modernism’s foremost exemplars – ‘Picasso 1932 – Love, Fame, Tragedy’ currently on view at Tate Modern – illuminates a further difference, beyond sculpture as primary referent in that show. Both exhibitions thematize sensual love, but Abdalla is more expansive than Picasso in investigating its many modes. From marital partnership (in the first room) to carnal coupling (in the last, basement), where a video loops images of fornication throughout the ages, the totality of Abdalla’s investigations reflect the erotic basis of knowledge (in the ancient Greek sense) as a form of cosmic striving. It is this bridging of worlds, through the universality of the erotic, that negates the orientalizing othering of the Middle East and a Eurocentric narrative of modernism. What further territory needs to be staked in this alternative cosmos is the inclusion of women as more than erotic muse (the catalyzing role of Abdallah’s artist-wife is a start), but creators in their own right. The forthcoming dialogue with works by artists Mona Hatoum and Susan Hefuna of Townhouse Cairo – the contemporary exhibition paired with this show, which opens in July – promises just such a possibility.

Hamed Abdalla, ‘ARABÉCÉDAIRE’ runs at The Mosaic Rooms, London until 23 June. It is the first in a three-part series of exhibitions, ‘Cosmic Roads: Relocating Modernism’ presenting modernist artists from Egypt, Iran and Morocco.

Dr. Anna Marazuela Kim is an art and architectural historian and cultural theorist based in London, UK.

Most Read

Nods to the game in World Cup celebrations show how dance has gone viral – but unwittingly instrumentalized for...
‘You can’t reason with him but you can ridicule him’ – lightweight as it is, Trump Baby is a win for art as a...
Anderson and partner Juman Malouf are sorting through the treasures of the celebrated Kunsthistorisches Museum for...
From Capote to Basquiat, the pop artist’s glittering ‘visual diary’ of the last years of his life is seen for the first...
‘When I opened Monika Sprüth Galerie, only very few German gallerists represented women artists’
Can a ragtag cluster of artists, curators and critics really push back against our ‘bare’ art world?
In further news: German government buys Giambologna at the eleventh hour; LACMA’s new expansion delayed
Gucci and Frieze present film number two in the Second Summer of Love series, focusing on the history of acid house
Judges described the gallery’s GBP£20 million redevelopment by Jamie Fobert Architects as ‘deeply intelligent’ and a ‘...
Is the lack of social mobility in the arts due to a self-congratulatory conviction that the sector represents the...
The controversial intellectual suggests art would be better done at home – she should be careful what she wishes for
Previously unheard music on Both Directions At Once includes blues as imposing as the saxophonist would ever record
In further news: Macron reconsiders artist residencies; British Council accused of censorship; V&A to host largest...
In our devotion to computation and its predictive capabilities are we rushing blindly towards our own demise?
Arts subjects are increasingly marginalized in the UK curriculum – but the controversial intellectual suggests art is...
An exhibition of performances at Foksal Gallery Foundation, Warsaw, unfolds the rituals of sexual encounters
An art historian explains what the Carters’s takeover of the Paris museum says about art, race and power
Artist Andrea Fraser’s 2016 in Museums, Money and Politics lifts the lid on US museum board members and...
The Ruhrtriennale arts festival disinvited the Scottish hip-hop trio for their pro-Palestinian politics, then u-turned
The Baltimore’s director on why correcting the art historical canon is not only right but urgent for museums to remain...
Serpentine swimmers complain about Christo’s floating pyramid; and Hermitage’s psychic cat is a World Cup oracle: the...
The largest mural in Europe by the artist has been hidden for 30 years in an old storage depot – until now
Alumni Martin Boyce, Karla Black, Duncan Campbell and Ciara Phillips on the past and future of Charles Rennie...
In further news: po-mo architecture in the UK gets heritage status; Kassel to buy Olu Oguibe’s monument to refugees
The frieze columnist's first novel is an homage to, and embodiment of, the late, great Kathy Acker
60 years after the celebrated Brutalist architect fell foul of local authorities, a Berlin Unité d’Habitation apartment...
The British artist and Turner Prize winner is taking on the gun advocacy group at a time of renewed debate around arms...
The central thrust of the exhibition positions Sicily as the fulcrum of geopolitical conflicts over migration, trade,...
The Carters’s museum takeover powers through art history’s greatest hits – with a serious message about how the canon...
The 20-metre-high Mastaba finally realizes the artist and his late wife Jeanne-Claude’s design
‘What is being exhibited at Manifesta, above all, is Palermo itself’
With the 12th edition of the itinerant European biennial opening in Palermo, what do local artists, curators and...
In the age of Brexit, why Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s pledge to return the ‘stolen’ Parthenon marbles has never been...
The curators seem set to ask, ‘how civilized is the world’s current state of affairs?’
US true crime series Unsolved takes two formative pop cultural events to explore their concealed human stories and...

On View

Latest Magazines

frieze magazine

April 2018

frieze magazine

May 2018

frieze magazine

June - August 2018