Emirati artist Mohammed Ahmed Ibrahim spices up Madinat Zayed market with giant mural

The artist was inspired by the market's fruit and vegetables for his colourful work

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Proudly bucking the city's newer glass and steel aesthetic, Madinat Zayed market is old-school Abu Dhabi. It features concrete pillars that branch out to provide shade to the street and offers within an array of goods, from gold sold by weight to fruit and vegetables. It's the unpretentious kind of place that many Abu Dhabi old-timers wax lyrical about. Now, instead of being on the list for demolition, it's been given a facelift. 

Mohammed Ahmed Ibrahim, one of the UAE's greatest artists, has covered the exterior of the market with a mural, in bright yellows, reds and greens, with his famous totemic forms in which lines and circles come together to create insect-like beings, or representations of lichens, growing across the building. The commission is part of the For Abu Dhabi initiative by the Department of Municipal Affairs and Transport, which provides about Dh8 billion in grants for improvements such as park and waterfront restorations, public art commissions and other improvements in Abu Dhabi, Al Ain and Al Dhafra. The initiative is part of the Ghadan 21 programme that aims to increase investment and tourism in Abu Dhabi by 2021.

For the artwork, Grocery, Ibrahim says he wanted to bring the "inside out". He says he was inspired by the colours of the fruit and vegetables sold in the market. "People just pick a tomato, but they don't see the red," he says. "They only see a tomato. With this I tried to show them the red of the tomato, the green of the cucumber."

The mural is saturated with those colours: tomato-red, cucumber-­green, pepper-­yellow. He painted the work with the help of assistants, standing on cherry-picker platforms. To reach the building, at times he had to tie his paintbrushes on to long sticks, though he says he didn't like the loss of control over what he calls his "canvas".

The long archways on either side of the doors frame Ibrahim's insect-like forms, with legs running the length of them, or three prongs of antennae reaching upwards. Calling the forms insect-like is probably wrong-headed in this regard – not only for the implication about the cleanliness of the market, but because the forms are more properly described as part of the abstract lexicon that Ibrahim has been developing since the 1990s. That was a time when he was part of a group of artists in Sharjah and later Dubai who challenged traditional notions of art in the Emirates.

Ibrahim was born in Khor Fakkan in 1962. He and his friend, Abdullah Al Saadi, constituted the Khor Fakkan contingent of the group and the pair's work was marked by a connection to the natural land. Ibrahim first saw the motifs of circle and line when walking in the Hajar Mountains, growing up. He came across the ancient art forms that remain on the mountainside, such as renderings of men riding horses, and was affected by them even then. He has since developed them into a core part of his artistic work, seeing them as almost primal forms, like geometric wire frames that are everywhere in the world if we simply look for it. "Because I am an artist I am looking in a different way," he says.

It's almost a game. Instead of looking at what things are, focus instead on the shape they take. A clock, a doorknob, a button in a lift are all circles. Windows, doors, computer screens are rectangles. "When we close our eyes, the vision is still there," he says. "I can even see the line between the two eyes." 

credit @tostfilms
Mohammed Ahmed Ibrahim uses a cherry picker to create ‘Grocery’. Courtesy @tostfilms

Ibrahim's colour palette often belies his connection to the earth. Instead of the sandy hues of the desert and mountains, primary, almost lurid colours dominate. Here, reds and greens; elsewhere, pinks, bright blues and lots of black and white. They are colours drawn from the imagination – not so much a reflection of the built environment as a conception of a new natural world. "My goal is to do a whole city like this," he says of the Madinat Zayed commission. "I want to do a whole city, but this is a good start."

Grocery is now on view and joins other new public art commissions in Abu Dhabi, such as French-Tunisian street artist eL Seed's mural,down the road from Madinat Zayed at the Abu Dhabi Municipality Building, Brazilian artist Eduardo Kobra's mural in Al Bateen – the work is also part of the For Abu Dhabi initiative – and another series of public artworks by Ibrahim in the park on Reem Island. He is moving closer, we hope, to a citywide takeover.