An Alternative Alexandria: Ahmed Morsi's ode to his home city
“I wished I could meet you one day in
But that Alexandria is no more,
Vanished in the dust of history…”
Ahmed Morsi. A Prelude to Meeting Niffari, 1997.
Ahmed Morsi’s poetry fills a weighty 1000-page tome that sits upon his daughter’s coffee table in her Cairo home, where his brightly painted canvases fill almost every wall.
“He only ever uses the language of poetry to explore one subject,” Sherine Morsi explained, as I asked her to talk me through the contents of the poems. “It is an investigation. He is looking for his lost Alexandria.”
Morsi was born in 1930 in that same coastal port city which remains permeated with the smell of the sea, thanks to its outwardly facing shores. He refers to “his” Alexandria as a “lost Atlantis”, while his daughter describes his innate nostalgia for the city’s beginnings as a meeting point of minds and civilisations founded by Alexander the Great. “My father’s Alexandria was no different,” said Sherine. “It was an ideal place, where Greeks, Italians, Lebanese, French, English, Egyptian Jews and many others lived, bringing their influences to the city.”
Morsi’s paintings could be described as visual poems. He has worked prolifically all his life and still practices today at the age of 87. Despite his talent and important practice, however, his work has been side-lined from the canon of Egyptian art.
Morsi took a non-political stance throughout the 1950s and 1960s, when other artists were being paid by the government to promote the new regime. A move to New York in the 1970s, when his wife took a job at the United Nations, led to him becoming all but forgotten. It wasn’t until the private gallery scene opened up in Cairo in the late 2000s that he began to receive recognition and, after a 2012 exhibition in Gallery Misr in the city’s Zamalek district, Doha’s Sheikh Hassan bin Mohamed bin Ali Al Thani visited, bought the entire show, and gave Morsi his own room at Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art. “All it took was someone to give him walls and for the work to be seen,” said Sherine. “Now I believe there is so much more we can do with my father’s work.”
Morsi quickly gained prominence. Sheikha Hoor Al Qasimi, the president and director of Sharjah Art Foundation, hosted a large retrospective in Sharjah Art Museum in March 2017. Morsi was also part of the Surrealist show that began in Cairo and later travelled to Seoul.
In October 2017, Gypsum Gallery in Cairo opened a large solo show dedicated to the work Morsi produced during his time in New York and with Alexandria at its heart.
In Artist in Alexandria (1989), a red and yellow figure is seen departing the city towards a waiting boat, but his face, a self-portrait, is looking back. From the central character’s mind, a winged female figure, faceless but for a single eye, is flying up and away. This creature, painted in the rich blue that populates so many of Morsi’s works, is an embodiment of the city itself. The city he loved and the city he left is a place he can never return to and so, in his poems and in his art, Morsi laments that loss and creates dreamlike landscapes in which overriding symbols remain.
The single eye is present in several pieces in the Gypsum show, which was titled You Closed Your Eyes in Order to See the Unseen. A spiritual man with a keen interest in Sufism, it is probable that Morsi was familiar with the belief of the inner eye or third eye, known to be the eye of the heart, and so is using it as a way of transporting the viewer to the Alexandria of his imagination.
His work also has a timelessness about it, with the colours and forms he chooses not of this world. It is as if he is offering his audience a window into another dimension, most likely that of the subconscious sphere.
The earless horse also appears in several works, as do figures in green, blue, yellow and red. There is a deep sense of mythology attached to his practice and one that he rarely attempts to explain. The key to understanding Morsi’s work is simply to stand in front of it and allow his world to envelop you.
- A version of this article appeared in print in Selections, Letters From The Past #43 pages 56-59.