Mohammed Ahmed Ibrahim's artworks suggest a wild, Dr Seussian world: flocks of sheep with spindly legs and bulbous feet; rectangular figures with yellow eyes and black whiskers; colourful tabletops that have sprouted heads and seem about to skitter around.
They are, as the Emirati artist said at the opening of his retrospective at the Sharjah Art Foundation, "forms that didn't exist before". Ibrahim was part of the UAE's first generation of contemporary artists from the 1990s and 2000s, an avant-garde that included Hassan Sharif, Abdullah Al Saadi, Hussein Sharif, and Mohammed Kazem. "It was something new for people," Ibrahim recalls of that period. "It was not making pictures but letting the forms create themselves."
The exhibition, curated by Hoor Al Qasimi at the Sharjah Art Foundation, shows work stretching from that period to the present. It is chiefly inspired by the natural landscape of his native Khor Fakkan, from his choice of material – coal, clay, or made in the mountains themselves – to the forms they take, which appear folkloric, primordial or surrealistic.
Khor Fakkan as the basis for Ibrahim's joyfully coloured works might appear surprising. In the east of Sharjah, like elsewhere in the Emirates, two colours predominate – the tawny sand of the mountains and the blue of the sea.
Ibrahim’s work enlivens the landscape, pulling out secrets from beneath its stones.
“Because we are poor in colour,” he says, “I create it. In the end, I am a colourful man, with an eye like a kid’s.”
Inspired by nature
Ibrahim goes into the mountains on weeklong camping trips on his own
– in search of inspiration and to make work directly in the land.
Two years ago, he turned an expanse of stones over, noting how the colour of the rock exposed to the sun differed from the side in the ground. He made a two-metre-square painting in the ground solely through the colours that were already there. This piece's life as an artwork is likewise significant – it exists only as a story, without documentation or co-ordinates by which to find it.
“I bring the story to the people,” he says. “I will tell it to you, and you will tell it to your friend in your own way, and your friend will tell it in his own way. The story is what happens in nature. It is always changing. Nothing stays the same.”
A recent suite of paintings on the wall of his gallery in the Sharjah Art Foundation space are made of black and white stripes. But in the seams of the stripes, bright colours are just visible – "peeping out", as he describes it.
Ibrahim made the paintings by covering canvases with layers of bright colours, and then, at the end, painting over these colours in black and white. "The colours are kind of a secret thing," he says. "They only happened to me and the canvas." Looking at the bold paintings, Khor Fakkan indeed comes to mind, with its story of sheltered colours hidden in the ground.
It was Ibrahim's works in the mountains that Sharif first responded to in the 1990s, when he visited Ibrahim in the Khor Fakkan. He told him the work he was doing was not a step towards art, but art itself.
This was part of Sharif's broadened understanding of what could constitute art – which was not accepted at the time – as well as a specific reference to the Land artists of the 1960s and 1970s, when artists sought to move out of the gallery space, working not with representations of landscapes, but with the land itself.
However, if those earlier artworks maintained the monumental scale of mountains and rivers, Ibrahim's suggests a quirky humility – forms made by a man within nature, rather than working against it. "Inspiration always comes from things that nature creates," he wrote in 2007. "And the artist can only care about and be in harmony with the spirit of the site by empathising with a branch of a tree, a stone or anything else."
Ibrahim's focus on nature also means a lament for the way the world treats it today. The mountains behind him, he says, are being literally carted away to use for construction in Dubai.
Part of the landscape
In 2015, he swapped a two-square-metre piece of land from Oman with one from Jumeirah in Dubai, questioning the artificial application of value given to rocks and earth. Other sculptures repurpose plastic water bottles as material, pointing to – and perhaps reclaiming – the contamination of the environment.
In some ways, his work is literally part of the landscape. In 1999, in what is now a famous episode in his creative life, the lease on his Sharjah studio was not renewed and he was asked to leave. He loaded his sculptures and paintings into a lorry, and found he had nowhere to store them. He drove east to the mountains, and burnt it all. "I had paint stripper for cleaning brushes and a lighter because I am a smoker, and I just lit it," he says. "It was a very bad period for me."
The story holds that he then went to Sharif’s house, and stayed there, as if recovering, for two days. The conflagration did not mark a break in his style. Indeed, what’s apparent from this exhibition is its consistency and the breadth of work he creates.
The show has also given him the opportunity to create two new site-specific works in the Foundation's Bait Makrani and Bait Al Hurma courtyards. In the latter, he covered the walls with forms made of thick lines and circles. "These forms are everywhere," he says. "If you look at a car, there are two circles and a line. As an artist, you focus more on these shapes."
He likens the effect to when you press your eyelid on your eyes, and see an impression made of the after-effects of light. "It's an image that appears between your eye and your eyelid," he says. And as in Surrealism's famous "automatic writing," where artists would attempt to draw directly from their subconscious, Ibrahim says of his mural-making: "I do these things and at the same time I was thinking of something else. My hand is working to do the symbol and my mind is working somewhere else – so in the end it becomes like a meditation."
Black and white, the palette of these interventions, are also crucial emblems of his investigation of opposites: "man, woman; yes, no; right, wrong," he says. I ask him what, in his life-long study of opposites, the opposite of him would be.
"Me, if I ever stop doing art," he says with a smile.
Mohammed Ahmed Ibrahim: Elements is at the Sharjah Art Foundation until June 16