Mohamed Abla: The Silk Road

 Mohamed Abla, The Lake, 2016, mixed media on canvas, 100 x 140 cm. Courtesy the artist and Tabari Artspace.

Mohamed Abla, The Lake, 2016, mixed media on canvas, 100 x 140 cm. Courtesy the artist and Tabari Artspace.

In Turkey, the ancient art of paper marbling is called ebru. This is a term derived from the Farsi word for cloud (ebr) because the technique of dropping oil paint into a basin of water and making patterns later to be transferred to paper has a kind of celestial beauty to it - akin to creating clouds on water.

Although it was first identified as ebru in 15th century Anatolia, a region where richly varied natural pigments and mineral dyes were taken from the land, the art can be dated back as far as the 12th century to Japan. It travelled to the West via the Silk Road where it was picked up by Ottoman calligraphers and artists who then used marbling to decorate books, imperial decrees, and official documents. Turkey remained the centre of marbling for many centuries.

The deep history as well the entrancing results of “cloud art” were what drew Mohamed Abla to it. One of Egypt’s most established contemporary artists, Abla has always been interested in many techniques but different forms of collage are where his practice is rooted. He is drawn to history, stories and the human condition – how we are all the products of generations before us.

For The Silk Road, his latest project that is currently on show at Tabari Art Space in Dubai, he spent 18 months researching, travelling to countries along the ancient trade route, learning the art of paper marbling and “reading hundreds of fairytales”. He drenched himself in new knowledge and then, let inspiration take over when producing the final products.

 Mohamed Abla, The Spiral, 2016, mixed media on canvas, 100 x 70 cm. Courtesy the artist and Tabari Artspace

Mohamed Abla, The Spiral, 2016, mixed media on canvas, 100 x 70 cm. Courtesy the artist and Tabari Artspace

All the pieces offer snippets of tales long past and illustrate fictional and fantastical characters. Princes and princesses appear, as do warriors and horsemen and several symbols are recurring throughout. In The Lake, a kind of mystical black bird stands at the shores as two men traverse the dreamlike scene. It could be hearkening back to a time of pastoral peace in Abla's Egyptian homeland or a snippet from an imagined fairytale. In The Spiral, one of my personal favourites, a light-footed figure dances in a porthole at the centre of the frame as colours swirl around.

Up close, the edges of the collage are imperceptible thanks to the extremely fine, silk paper Abla used to create them. As such, instead of showing their real medium, they recall mosaics made of precious stones that in places, have been rusted with the passing of time and in others, are gleaming bright and fresh.

“This feeling of time is very important for me,” Abla says as we walk through the gallery not long after installation. “I want you feel that each piece has a history, that it has travelled through centuries to get here.”

Actually, the feeling I get is that Abla is working from a place beyond time. These paintings tell stories and despite some having an almost story-board composition, there is no beginning and no end. They are the concentrated results of visual imagery over many centuries as well as being depictions of the artists own story.

 (R + L) Mohamed Abla, The Princess, 2016, mixed media on canvas, 70 x 100 cm. Courtesy the artist and Tabari Artspace

(R + L) Mohamed Abla, The Princess, 2016, mixed media on canvas, 70 x 100 cm. Courtesy the artist and Tabari Artspace

Several portraits appear as simple silhouettes and are similarly enchanting. The stories are told here by a hand gesture or head movement and brought to life by Abla’s choice of bright and vibrant colours.

In the gallery, the finishing touch to the exhibition should not go unmentioned. Upon the black tiled floor, Abla has placed several paper cutouts of characters, trees and shapes (and held them in place with a plastic film). This intentional change of the direction of the viewer's gaze as well as its inherently playful nature welcomes a visitor and gives an entry point to the rest of the show.

  • Mohamed Abla: The Silk Road. October 10 – November 24, 2017 at Tabari Artspace, DIFC, Dubai.