On ViewInstitute For Contemporary Art At Virginia Commonwealth University
July 23–November 7, 2021
Fragments constitute Ibrahim Ahmed’s art: pieces of colorful textiles, words from disparate languages, and memories of remote places. Ahmed’s own identity is tessellated by years of migration: born in Kuwait to Egyptian parents, he moved to New Jersey at age 13. When he moved back to Giza in 2014 to open his studio, locals questioned his Arabic—he resembled them, but also sounded foreign. He has frequently been asked about his decision to leave America and settle in Egypt, when the youth there strives to move in the opposite direction.
Ahmed’s response opens his first museum exhibition, It Will Always Come Back to You, at the Institute for Contemporary Art in Richmond. Does Anybody Leave Heaven? (2019) is a colossal fabric work that drapes over a metal scaffolding and expands downward with reds, whites, and blues washing over the floor towards the window. The artist sewed the tapestry with American flag-printed merchandise that he collected from street markets in Egypt. These T-shirts and backpacks adorned with the familiar geometry of stars and stripes are byproducts of the country’s complex relationship with the US. Altogether, they are hallucinatory and patchy, a towering mosaic of unmade promises and displaced dreams.
Formations of textures, patterns, and stories continue inside the exhibition. Nobody Knows Anything About Them (2019) is a hanging chandelier without the function of radiating light. Instead, the ornate structure is built of discarded personal objects Ahmed collected from rooftops in a factory building in Cairo’s historic quarter. Wooden furniture legs in various shades of brown and red with elegant carvings build a ghostly skeleton of an otherwise lavish decorative object. Amid the neighborhood’s tourist-friendly historic charm—with decadent mosques and inviting spice shops—the artist discovered overlooked masses of stuff that working class locals store on their rooftops. The architecture of his unlit chandelier seems collapsible, as if it could shatter in the blink of an eye—an ode to the fragility of lives that hold onto their debris against the unknown.
The thin line between resilience and fragility is extended in five pieces from Ahmed’s “Ard El Lewa” series (2015/2016) installed across the walls. Fabric from histories that once crossed paths on the Silk Road are collaged and stiffened with colorful acrylic wall paint. The hardened textiles have weathered surfaces that recall crumbling building facades or aged skin, while their hollowed patterns—which once beautified the garments—now appear like decorative curves on metal gates. At once architectural and map-like, the collages manage to deconstruct and defy borders and geographies. The artist’s color palette is joyous, with powdery pastel shades of green, pink, and blue, in addition to an occasional prominent ruby, all tarred with white paint.
Outside the museum, a voyage seems to commence. Only Dreamers Leave (2016) is comprised of 30 sails sewn from Egyptian textiles, all decorated with elaborate motifs that refer to the country’s prosperous past and the present conflict between the struggling majority and a splinter group of the wealthy. Installed above the ICA’s decorative pool in its backyard, the ensemble of sails signal departure or arrival depending on the viewer’s own imagination. In either fantasy, the sails’ flapping in the wind also evokes the many flags raised in the southern American city they are now installed in, as well as the statues taken down or still surrounded by protest. There is no place to sail off to, yet nowhere is truly a final destination.