Egyptian artists are busy bees at new Dubai exhibition The Hive

The Hive at Gallery Ward in Dubai is the latest show to give voice to the new wave of contemporary Egyptian artists. Anna Seaman meets the artist Ahmed Kassim, whose exhibition focuses on the purpose of our existence.

In Gravity, Ahmed Kassim depicts bees and birds to be about the same size as the astronauts. Courtesy Gallery Ward
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The higher your perspective, the less you can make out the differences between us. From space, mankind on Earth could resemble bees in a hive, crawling around, working on their own tasks mindless of the larger world around them and focusing only on the honey.

This is one of the messages that the artist Ahmed Kassim is trying to get across in his current exhibition in Dubai.

“There is not a big difference between our life and the life of bees,” he says. “It’s the same idea. We work to eat and we circle around the same hives or ideas and I wonder whether we question what we are doing.”

In Gravity, one of the largest paintings, birds and bees find their way through the mountainous landscape that is also populated with astronauts and space ships. The result is an altered sense of perception that forces the viewer to question the size of the insects and, therefore, what they represent.

In another piece, Bear Attack, the bees form more ordered lines under the watchful eyes of large bears, whose coats are made up of the flags of the United Kingdom, United States and Turkey.

“The bear can be a friend or a foe,” explains Kassim. “Sometimes they are cuddly and cute and other times they are dangerous – just like people in real life.”

Kassim is part of a young generation of Egyptian artists making their mark on the regional contemporary-art scene.

It is part of the ethos of Gallery Ward to provide a platform for these artists, especially since the 2011 political unrest in Egypt.

Ehab El Labban, a prominent curator and artist, who has twice curated the Cairo Biennial and is also the co-owner of the Dubai gallery, says that Kassim has a “special” talent.

“I came up with the concept of the beehive for an exhibition some years ago,” he explains, “but I was looking for the right artist to take it on. I started working with Ahmed about a year and a half ago and I knew he was the right person for the job.”

Although some canvases are relatively simple and just portray the motion of bees amid the dripping honey, others are rich narratives that reveal a fictional world that Kassim has created.

He chose to include astronauts to force the viewer to remember that life is not all about working and collecting money or honey, it is also about finding a balance between the physical and spiritual worlds.

“At certain points, there is a need to open one’s mind to the different perspectives of this work that we share with other beings and to see that we are all connected,” says El Labban. “By focusing on a beehive, we can see that point of view more easily.”

But other than the spiritual readings, there are also obvious political references such as the bears dressed as superpowers who are not sure if they are friends or foes. In two other paintings, Invasion and Human Attack, where the beekeepers are depicted as chemical-weapons inspectors smoking out their prey.

“Here the bees are wearing gas masks, just like the protesters did in Tahrir Square,” says Kassim. “I sometimes question whether some people really wanted the revolution or if they would rather just go back to thinking about their work.”

El Labban continues his train of thought to explain that the show looks at the revolution from a broader level of the cycle of life.

“He analyses resistance and defence as well as victory and defeat, body and soul and, finally, the ultimate dichotomy – good and evil.”

Of all the paintings in the show, the one that attempts to summarise all the themes is fittingly called The Hive. In it, Kassim has simply wrapped a swarm of bees in a balloon-like bubble of honey.

“Life is like this, we make it very complicated, but in the end it can pop like a balloon, in one second it can be over,” he says. “If you lose your life without thinking about why God created you or what you are living for, you will lose ­everything.”

• The Hive runs until March 7 at Gallery Ward. For more information, visit