DUBAI: Two large, brightly colored textile-based sculptures hang like gigantic carpets. The only thing distinguishing them from what could be a meticulously woven rug is that various textiles are sewn together and supported by structures, like sails. These artworks by Cairo-based Ibrahim Ahmed are some of the main features in his first solo US museum show “It Will Always Come Back to You” at the Institute for Contemporary Art at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU). The show features a thematic selection of Ahmed’s work from 2013 to 2020, produced using a variety of media, including primarily textile-based sculpture, painting and photo collage exploring issues related to migration, colonialism and the Global South — regions outside of Europe and North America that have historically been politically and culturally marginalized.
Two works of art are the most expansive in the show: “Only Dreamers Leave” (2016) and “Does Anybody Leave Heaven” (2019). Embroidered onto the conglomeration of diverse textiles are gold patterns that refer to baroque and arabesque iron gates, symbols of wealth and power in Egypt. Staged in opposite areas of the exhibition, the works are in dialogue with each other while also relaying Ahmed’s missive for the exhibition: to explore the myths surrounding migration to the Global North and contemporary representations of the nation-state.
The artist himself is a product of such migration. Born in Kuwait in 1984 and of Egyptian heritage, Ahmed spent his childhood between Bahrain and Egypt, before moving to the US with his family at the age of 13. In 2014, he moved back to Cairo, where he currently lives and works in the informal working-class neighborhood of Ard El Lewa.
The first work visitors see is the multimedia “Does Anybody Leave Heaven,” located in the foyer of the museum and comprising a textile-based piece, video, sound and a series of photographs. It was inspired by Ahmed’s return from the US to Egypt in 2014. The work, in the form of an assemblage tapestry (32x10 feet), is made with textile found in Egyptian streets, such as bags, clothing and other items, which have then been printed onto the “flag” in addition to other miscellaneous elements from the US.
In the Ard El Lewa neighborhood, Ahmed lives among Egyptians who have not been able to travel outside of Egypt. “When I tell them I chose to leave the US, they always ask me: ‘Does anybody leave heaven?’” he told Arab News. “The piece looks at the US as an empire and a cultural soft power, which is reflected in the objects accumulated over a period of time in Egypt that have US flags on them.”
Displayed outside the museum is the artist’s 2016 installation “Only Dreamers Leave,” an installation made of 30 sails, first displayed in Dakar, Senegal in 2018 during the Biennale of Contemporary African Art. Incorporated into the sails are 30 flags representing countries — the 28 EU members in addition to Canada and the US. Through this work, Ahmed demonstrates how the fantasies and dreams the countries evoke lure migrants away from their communal homes to other nations. The sails are made from porous and heavy materials associated with domestic and manual labor —jobs that migrants usually obtain as soon as they arrive in their new land.
The exhibition also includes a specially commissioned work for VCU titled “Nobody Knows Anything About Them” (2019). The largest of the chandelier series to date, it is also constructed from found materials. A common practice in Cairo, says Ahmed, is to store unused materials on rooftops, a habit driven by the uncertainty of the future. “People have a tendency to conserve things that would otherwise have been discarded,” he explained.
In another room, works from Ahmed’s masculinity project can be found. These include “Some Parts Seem Forgotten” (2020) and “Quickly But Carefully Cross To The Other Side” (2020), works that move from the physicality of the artist’s body to incorporate social and historical frames of reference, largely through the use of archival family photos that span 50 years. The images, the majority of which were taken by Ahmed’s father, show cars, national monuments, military parades, and museums. The photographs date from the Nasser era and map the artist’s father’s trajectory from farm boy in the Nile Delta to banker in the US, Kuwait, Bahrain, and other locations throughout the north and south of Egypt that his many business trips took him to.
“These works, like the title, aim to show how these macro-politics exist because we are all carrying these legacies with us,” he tells Arab News. “My practice has been to look at myself closely to manifest the discourses that I come across through my art. I am looking at this idea of falsified borders, past and present, and how they negate the idea of division because, in the end, everything in the world is very much interconnected.”
“Ibrahim Ahmed: It Will Always Come Back to You” runs until Nov. 28, 2021.