Earlier this year, Mosaic Rooms in London presented ‘ARABÉCÉDAIRE,’ the first exhibition in the UK by the significant Egyptian modernist Hamed Abdalla.
Art Radar looks at the artist’s practice and the works in the show, constructed from Abdalla’s own extensive archive.
Hamed Abdalla (1917-1985) was an influential painter in Egyptian modernism. Self-taught, he had established himself as an artist by his early 20s and gained public recognition early in his career. He had his first solo exhibition in 1941, before going on to show widely throughout Egypt in the 1940s, including a solo show at the Museum of Modern Art Cairo (1949). His first trip to Paris saw him exhibit at the Gallery Bernheim-Jeune (1950), followed by a group show at Palais Du Louvre and a show at Egyptian Institute, London (1951). From the mid 1950s, he was exhibiting throughout Europe, the United States and Asia, including a group show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (1956).
Frustrated by the political climate of his native country, Abdalla left Egypt to continue his career in Copenhagen in 1956, but was committed to the pan-Arab movement. He exhibited widely in the Middle East and North Africa. Solo shows included National Museum of Damascus (1967) and Gallery One, Beirut (1968), while collective exhibitions included an exhibition for Palestine, UNESCO, Paris (1982) and Contemporary Arab Art, Museum of Modern Art, Tunis (1984).
In Copenhagen, he crossed paths with artists associated with the CoBrA movement before he moved to France. Linking the origins of his abstract works to Islamic traditions and calligraphy, Abdalla explored the concept of the ‘creative word’ or ‘talisman’ – the combination of a written word, a body shape and an abstract form – upon the canvas. In his work he reflected on the political change of the time, alongside his research into the visual ideas.
The exhibition at the Mosaic Rooms, entitled “ARABÉCÉDAIRE”, explored Abdalla’s extensive archives and library, looking at him both as an artist and as a researcher, and marked the first exhibition in the United Kingdom of this significant artist. It was the first in a special programme of exhibitions celebrating the tenth anniversary of the Mosaic Rooms – an exhibition and research centre in London that is dedicated to visual culture from the Middle East. The show formed the first of a three-part series curated by Morad Montazemi, an art historian and research curator at Tate Modern. Montazemi’s programme was entitiled “Cosmic Roads: Relocating Modernism” and presented exhibitions of important modernist artists from three countries: Egypt, Iran and Morocco. The programme also featured an alternating strand of group shows of contemporary art from these three countries organised in partnership with regional institutions and curators.
Hamed Abdalla’s exhibition title, “ARABÉCÉDAIRE”, is rooted in the French word ‘abécédaire’ meaning a visual alphabet primer, used by children when learning to read. Abdalla’s work centred on his development of what he called the “creative word” – written words that were expressed in paint, blending abstraction and human forms. The exhibition looked at six words that were significant to the artist: Lovers, Revolution, Nubia, Caves, Lettrism and Klee. It used them to examine the development of his visual language and political ideas through previously unseen material and archives.
This exhibition explored Abdalla’s transnational journeys, with connections extending to the European CoBrA group and the non-aligned movements (the global movement of states who remained independent from the super powers of the time). Through mapping and displays curated from Abdalla’s own extensive archival records, the show presented Abdalla as a kind of visual archaeologist of “Arabness”.
Of Hamed Abdalla’s significance to a widened understanding of Arab modernism, Montazami comments:
I consider Hamed Abdalla the epitome of Arab cosmopolitanism. He went beyond the ‘East and West’ abstract categories, to set up a new language of what he called ‘Letterist Expressionism’ and ‘Talismanic modernism.’ In Abdalla’s paintings and archives we see a whole underground art history take on a life of its own.
Below, Art Radar looks at the significance of the six words that anchored the show.
L for Lovers
Abdalla made numerous paintings of Lovers and of the word ‘desire’ (‘Hob’ in Arabic) throughout his life. These were created against the backdrop of his two great loves. He met Egyptian artist Tahia Halim in 1942 and they married in 1945. During their time together, Egypt experienced the violent ruptures of the Nasserian revolution in 1952, and the Suez Canal crisis in 1956. Through Abdalla’s exhibition in Paris and a joint exhibition in London in 1951, the couple symbolised the dreams of emancipation carried by the Egyptian modernists.
Abdalla later met Kirsten Blach, the Danish mother of his children in 1956, when she was working as a nurse in Paris. They led a cosmopolitan life as part of the neo avant-garde groups of the time from African, American and Arab worlds.
N for Nubia
Egypt, and particularly the villages and landscapes of the Nubian region (Southern Egypt towards Sudan) are the inspirational source of Abdalla’s aesthetics. Travelling in the area as a young man, Abdalla depicted it through the fellah or peasant figure, the Nubian popular houses and by drawing on the visual vernacular of the mural tradition. These Nubian influences represented a feeling of belonging, and become a fusion of fantasy and reality in later years for the artist when he was living outside of Egypt.
Later in his career, when exhibiting his work in the Baroque city of Palermo in Siciliy, Abdalla (re)discovered the Nubian figures of his youthful travels, seeing resemblances in the details of the Palatine Chapel’s ceiling and the Arab-Norman style. For Abdalla this was a striking experience in his quest for transcultural and trans-Arab signs, images that would reach across cultures.
R for Revolution
Abdalla’s work is resonant with the political struggles that took place in his lifetime. He participated actively in what was then referred to as the Third World (the non-aligned countries who were not allied to NATO countries or the Soviet Union). His art sought a “third space”, a space that would give a new voice to the hopeless and the oppressed, far beyond Egypt, connecting the post-colonial nations seeking independence and freedom.
Abdalla was engaged in the Palestinian liberation struggle, which was also the cause informing all pan-Arab artistic networks of that time. He created a series of paintings of resonant and moving words, mixing revolutionary ideals with erotic representations. Words such as ‘Revolution’, ‘Uprising’, ‘Martyrs’, ‘Slavery’ and ‘Hope’ are resonant with the political struggles of the time, but are also metaphors for the question ‘how does one become Arab?’. In the artist’s view, this was achieved through language itself.
For example, Abdalla has represented the word ‘Revolution’ (Thowra in Arabic) as bold and dynamic, implying the energy of revolutionary spirit as it fills the canvas. The painting shown in the exhibition was made in 1968 – a year of protest and civil disobedience internationally, most famously in France.
C for Caves
Abdalla’s long term interest in prehistoric caves and what he called their “subterranean worlds” attests to his abiding feeling for natural history. For him, the cave represented a source of complex physical phenomena and spontaneous beauty, which provoked his own pictorial experiments in attempting to capture them. His representations of caves involved multiple materials, substances and textures, shifted form crumpled paper to torn and cracked surfaces. Abdalla’s identification with prehistoric caves in Southern France and the rocks of Nubia during his youth was often used to catalyse his visual experimentation. The cave was also symbolically significant to his practice – as a place of temporary refuge for the person in exile.
L for Lettrism
As a young man Abdalla trained as a calligrapher before becoming a visual artist. The use of words in his art was a more radical and wide-ranging concern. He explored the roots and functions of writing in all its forms: esoteric, militant and even children’s writing.
Abdalla also theorised about the eroticism of the letter. In his paintings sexual positions and the written form of the word become interchangeable and emancipated. He went beyond the discussions of his day around the aesthetics of the ‘Hurufiyyah’, a movement based around the re-appropriation of the Arabic letter in modernist art. He also maintained a dialogue with European Lettrist groups (Lettrism was a French avant-garde art movement which began in the 1940s with an initial focus on the use of letters and symbols, dealing with phonetic poetry). Abdalla’s personal conception of ‘Arab Lettrism’ was deeply experimental, neither intended to be decorative nor commercial. His own research culminated in his invention of the “creative world”, where he merged word and image, the figurative and the abstract, the secular and the sacred.
K for Klee
Abdalla’s archives also reveal his visual dialogues with western artists, documenting his research and classification of established ways of looking at ‘oriental’ arts, using the western gaze as a type of filter to approach other art forms. He explored Japanese art through the art of Van Gogh and re-approached Egyptian art through the work of Kandinsky.
Paul Klee played the leading role in this imaginary dialogue. Abdalla reclaimed Klee’s work for its Egyptian influences, and used the Egyptian elements that had been appropriated by the Bauhaus artist, turning them into trans-cultural images. Using Klee’s painting Drummer (1940), Abdalla then subjected it to other indigenous American and African cultural influences. The work Soil Consciousness from 1956 remains one of Abdalla’s masterpieces as a site for visual debate between European modernism and contested local and folk aesthetics.
Engaging with notions of art history and a varied artistic vocabulary, through these kinds of works Abdalla re-appropriated the codes of early twentieth century Primitivism in order to reclaim them for a grassroots, non-elitist and truly international form of modernism.
“ARABÉCÉDAIRE” by Hamed Abdalla was on view from 13 April to 23 June 2018 at Mosaic Rooms, 226 Cromwell Road, London SW5 0SW, United Kingdom.