Emirati artist Mohammed Al Mazrouei's 'No' takes you to 'a world you do not understand'

An early figure in the Cultural Foundation, the celebrated painter and sculptor's works revolve around the female form

Animals and people are given equal respect in the work of Mohammed Al Mazrouei, which often draws on folk tales. Here, 'Untiled 103' from 2015. Photo: Aisha Alabbar Gallery
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Aisha Alabbar Gallery has opened the largest exhibition of Mohammed Al Mazrouei to date — a long-overdue examination of the important Egyptian-Emirati painter’s work.

Al Mazrouei's artworks revolve around one subject in particular: the female form, which he sculpts in serene, animalistic poses or paints in jagged, expressive brushstrokes. Lashes of colour — liberally applied later in his career — form faces and scenes. Animals appear too, as do figures from folk tales the Cairo-born artist heard as a child.

Across all these works, large, expressive eyes are the focal point. Still and carefully worked over, they are the constants amid the restlessness of his canvasses.

The works' almost primal level of angst — his exhibition is baldly titled “No” — can be traced back to the traumatic loss of his mother at a young age. Al Mazrouei explains that the event informs what he calls his “visual dictionary” of repeated symbols such as the X and his numerous depictions of the female form.

It also launched him on an examination of what being a woman means and led him, a voracious reader, to the writings of Carl Jung. He was inspired in particular by Jung's idea of archetypes, or the theory that a collective subconscious, shared across people irrespective of culture, produces constants of behaviour, attitudes and symbols.

Among these are the anima and animus, or the feminine side of a man and the masculine side of a woman, which are often suppressed and thus appear in uncontrolled ways, like a river seeking an alternate path. For Al Mazrouei, this is in the idea of femininity, full of desire and passion and alive to the potential of transformation.

“My work imagines unconstrained truths about life and its many mysteries as a means to pure expression,” he says. “Primitive or basic human instincts that are unconditioned by social systems channel every expression, while a conscious awareness of reality deforms, alluding to further mysteries.”

Figures from folk tales are also a nod to a more time-honoured method of approaching the bends in life’s path.

In an untitled acrylic and pastel work from 2015, a grey horned figure seems to hover behind a woman as she steps into — or out of — a skirt. A shadow of death or a portent of evil, his hand reaches down over two of the other women in the image, whose full bellies make them appear pregnant. Ambiguity is as much a tool here as the generalised feel of anxiety.

Elsewhere, dogs and farm birds are given the same treatment as men and women, in a quietly argued equivalence between human and animal: two images from a 2016 series of portraits, excerpted and displayed at Aisha Alabbar, memorialise a man alongside a long-faced, expressive dog.

“Folk tales and myths were popular where I grew up and sometimes I mirror that objectively as a way of explaining a mystery in dreams, spirits, animals, and creatures,” Al Mazrouei says. “The result remains a mystery, like creating a world you do not understand.”

Some of the dissolution of the later work appears overwrought and it is the earlier portraits, with a slower, calmer feel, that are the stunners. A superb portrait from 1987 (Untitled 117) shows a figure composed of blocks of colour, with dark orange, white and black denoting shadows on her body, and a forehead swept in bright blue.

The figure’s hair is indistinguishable from the background and a strange white cloud emanating from her mouth suggests either a puff of smoke or a breath. The painting is economically constructed in terms of its colours — a smudge of orange also appears over the figure’s shoulder, while black edges the side of her face and the canvas — and it is extraordinary to watch the colours do so much. The orange signals some kind of visual punch at first glance, while also rimming the shadowed eye, whose sketchy depiction suggests a destabilisation or loss of equanimity or even the after-effects of violence.

Al Mazrouei was born in Tanta, Egypt, in 1962 and became involved with the intellectual circles in the small university town. He moved to the UAE in 1986 and played a crucial role in the early days of the Cultural Foundation, where he worked in the Culture and Arts Department. Perhaps more importantly, he participated in the amorphous, social aspect of the foundation, in which ideas around painting, poetry, film and other art forms freely mixed. For example, Al Mazrouei wrote poetry and directed films alongside his painting practice.

He later returned to Cairo and has lived there since, but has recently re-emerged in the UAE as an elder statesman figure. The collective Bait 15 took up residence in his house in central Abu Dhabi and included in their inaugural show his first-ever video. In 2018, he and artist Hashel Al Lamki — who occupied Al Mazrouei’s studio as part of Bait 15 — collaborated on a series of works, shown in the Project Space of the NYU Abu Dhabi Art Gallery.

A rare example of a crossover between generations, Al Lamki and Al Mazrouei together painted an enormous, history-painting size canvas, Obsessions with Extermination, that shows an abattoir, the bloodied face of a snarling cat, and a (relatively) sterile kitchen — a jamboree of blood and gore, perpetrated by both humans and animals, that is anchored by five figures who awkwardly, almost guiltily face the viewer.

Al Mazrouei has recently signed with Aisha Alabbar Gallery, a relative newcomer in Dubai, and the gallery has taken over the hefty task of cataloguing his work. It is currently found in major UAE collections, such as that of the Department of Culture and Tourism — Abu Dhabi, the Barjeel Art Foundation and the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, but its significance and more broadly the role of the early Cultural Foundation is only beginning to be explored.

A small collection of catalogues and exhibition pamphlets at the gallery is making a start and the forthcoming catalogue raisonne will yield, one expects, even further insights into what was made and shown in the capital's first contemporary art scene.

Mohammed Al Mazrouei: No is at Aisha Alabbar Gallery until May 29, 2022. More information is available at www.aishaalabbar.art

Updated: March 29, 2022, 3:36 PM