Updates from A.i.R Dubai 2015

Land shift and Fresh and Salt - Mohammed Ahmed Ibrahim

A land art intervention and sculpture by Emirati artist Mohammed Ahmed Ibrahim, Land shift was an exchange of a piece of land from Oman with another from Dubai. These exchanged surfaces conflated borders, value and property. Fresh and Salt comprised a sculpture made of salt water stones from the coast of the UAE and fresh water stones from the Caspian sea, wrapped with copper wire.


Lara Khaldi: When did you start working with land art?

Mohammed Ahmed Ibrahim: Around the beginning or middle of the eighties before I participated in art exhibitions. I used to go on a trip every week or ten days alone to stay outdoors. To begin with, there were stones that had been lying around the place for hundreds of years, and when I would turn them over I would find that the undersides were a light colour and the surfaces exposed to the sun were dark, so I started turning them over. I worked over a large area turning over stones and through this I gave them a new dimension. Perhaps I was the only person to touch and move these stones. It then occurred to me to build something with the stones such as a row of stones on top of each other. Once, around 1989, Hassan Al-Sharif and I went on a day trip, and that’s when he told me that I was doing Land Art. I did not have any information about land art, because here information about art is scarce, there is a shortage of translations on expressionism and paintings.

Later we obtained a book about the top American artists in this field, highlighted among them was Robert Smithson and his work titled Shining Field as well as Walter de Maria.

This is how I was introduced to land art, through American artists and I started to take interest in it. I love to work with nature. From that, the idea of land art was born in my work. I began to produce many works. There are many works I produced that were not documented; they became stories that I can talk about.

LK: You did not document your work?

MA: No, I did not document it, I relied on only speaking about it. There are some works that I photographed and documented that I would show in exhibitions, because some works are very big and cannot be transported into galleries. There are other works that could be displayed in galleries such as the stone building; I built it at the Sharjah Biennial. It might still be there.

LK: But why did you begin working in land art if you did not know what it was? I mean you began turning over stones but why did you do it? Were you doing it before you started painting?

MA: Yes, I was already painting by then. If I knew the reason why I was making art, I would have stopped...I do not know how to answer you. If I knew why, it would have ended....the idea would have died.

LK: This week when we talked about the lines that you draw you told me that you would be at work and then open your sketchbook and begin drawing the lines, is that right? You told me that when people ask you, you do not tell them what you are doing. Is there a link between the nature of the work and there being no audience for it?

MA: This kind of work has a certain amount of secrecy; it has its
own privacy. People in my field of work have no connection to art,
so questioning makes me tired. There is no need to reply. But on the contrary, when I work in an artistic environment surrounded by artists, no artist will ask me what I am doing.

LK: But do you think that your artwork itself is different when the art has an audience? There is a specific time when you have an audience, for example your work at Art Dubai, it is more oriented towards the audience, not like the land art work whereby you go and turnover stones by yourself. Do you feel that there is a certain change?

MA: The purpose of artwork is always for the audience to see it. If it is not presented to an audience it is not considered art, the audience must see it. The eye of the viewer must see it. Even if the audience only hears the stories, it exists in their mind’s eye. There is nothing hidden from the mind of the viewer.

LK: But is there a connection between what you say about the imagined work and the work itself? Your concept of imagination or the unseen repeats in your work, and there are for example, various sculptures whose forms are based on the forms that we see when we close our eyes, right? What does the audience see?

MA: I give the viewer the freedom of imagination with these symbols. I give him a vast scope of imagination; he has complete freedom. The viewer imagines the work, and as such when I say that I work on the area located between the eyelid and the pupil i.e. the space, when people close their eyes they believe that vision stops, but it does not stop, it is constant, it is just the motion of the eyelid closing.

LK: Let us speak a little about the works displayed at Art Dubai such as Land Shift. Have you ever made a similar work before?

MA: In the past I moved stones from one place to another

LK: Yes, tell me a little about this work...

MA: The work is composed of a stone tied to a copper wire, with around 3000 pieces. Its combined weight is over three tonnes. I took the stones from the Khor Fakkan area, i.e. from a cheap area at the edge of a mountain and transported and displayed them for the first time in the Dubai International Financial Centre; the richest place in the UAE. This spatial shift created a change in its material value.

LK: What year was this?

MA: 2006 or 2005, the value of stones changed, I added value to them by transporting and moving them from one place to another. I transferred them to Jumeirah and displayed them on the beach opposite the Burj Al Arab, an expensive place. Then I displayed them at the Cuadro Gallery and after that at the New York University in Abu Dhabi.

LK: What is the importance of the stones having come from a specific place – Khor Fakkan?

MA: It is like my home in the sense that they are my stones, they are not strange. They are stones that I know and whose history I know. I played with them when I was young and even when I grew up I kept on playing with them. They are a part of me.

LK: Let us speak a little about the stones in your works. In the text you wrote about the history of stones as sculpture, called Illuminations you mention the Philosopher’s Stone. Can you tell me more about the relationship between this and your work?

MA: It is about the Philosopher’s Stone that is used by alchemists to turn stone into gold. This is not real, it is a trick used by alchemists on people so that they are always in a state of waiting. This was always a way to attract attention to a talented person and so on. This is the relationship. It is the same discussion that we had with Hassan Sharif and the story of Scheherazade and Shahryar and the issue of postponing meaning, life, value...etc.

LK: But you do that in your work, you take stones from a certain place and put them in Art Dubai, and as you said....turn the value of the stones into something greater.

MA: In its artistic context.

LK: So you play the role of the alchemist, is that right?

MA: The alchemist, yes. Right. That’s correct, there are aspects of the alchemist.

LK: You have other works incorporating stone, is that right?

MA: I made a piece with stones tied to nylon thread from one end, on a string.

LK: You mean the stone itself was tied?

MA: Yes, tied to a string.

LK: Why tie it? In your other work in Art Dubai you tied stones together?

MA: I always use this process of tying...Introducing a new element to the stone or maybe out of worry that the stone will escape or the like.

LK: So you tie them?

MA: Yes.

LK: To mark it?

MA: In order for this stone to belong to me, Mohammed Ahmed Ibrahim in the end.

LK: Mohammed perhaps it would be good for you to tell us about a work you made that you did not document. A work that is important to you.

MA: It would be the turned over stones that we talked about, because it was the first work I produced and the first work that turned my attention to the environment, mountains, nature, earth and the body of the earth. At the beginning lifting the stones would expose the ground. Afterwards I changed the place of the stone and in this way I changed the outer surface that has been exposed to the sun for millions of years whereby the bottom surface was now on top and vice versa. Over a vast area of land you see the extent of change in that spot and how different it is to what is around it. This is the effect I left through this process. For example, a passerby may notice this spot because its colour is different, so he might come closer. Perhaps he might play with the stone and turn it over again. In this way I gave the stone more opportunity to be moved, through me or through those in passing. There is another story about another work I did with stones tied to a yellow nylon string that I made in a village here that we call Al-Badiya on the coast of Djerba. I made the work on a mountain that backs onto the village. I tied the stones and went, and of course I photographed them for documentation. After a while, a friend of mine from that village, Rashed Boughazi, said he knew that I had done the work, he said: “Mohammed, do you know what happened to your work?” so I asked him: “What happened to it?” That was at the time of the change of seasons from spring to summer, i.e. the period from February when you cannot fish. My friend said that the fishermen thought that someone had used black magic against them by tying the stones, and thus tying the sea!

LK: Magic!?

MA: Yes, magic, linked to the sea. They brought a religious man to break the spell and they disentangled the string from each stone. That’s the story behind it.

LK: O.K, let me ask you a little about your other work “Land Shift” that you displayed at Art Dubai. Why did you choose to bring sand from Oman and not any other place?

MA: It is a way of breaking boundaries, going beyond borders. Oman is the country closest to us, but if I had to cross continents I would not do so.

LK: So the issue is not related to Oman or the Emirates as specific countries?

MA: No, no.

LK: Or the history of the region?

MA: No.

LK: It is more related to borders?

MA: Yes, to borders and moving beyond the borders of the UAE.

LK: I also remember that you spoke about the exchange between the village and the city in relation to this work, maybe you could expand?

MA: Yes, I’m hoping this work will invoke an exchange between the village and the city as well as between the sea, the coast and the mountains. So that you’d end up with a hybrid. So let us start from the nature of soil in the city of Jumeirah, it’s completely different from those found in the mountainous region in Oman, and therefore its presence there leaves an impression on the viewer and prompts many questions.

LK: Touching on the subject of exchange, we know that Art Dubai is a place where artworks are exchanged for money....Did you think about this issue when you were thinking about exchange? I mean those things in parallel, that the exhibition itself includes an act of exchange just like the exchange of land?

MA: The possibilities are open; the type of work opens the way for the viewer to read into and interpret the work in his own way.

LK: Perhaps the issue is not only about the process of exchange. You like to cancel distances, is that right? Such as in the stone piece, you tie together the black stone from the Caspian Sea, with the white stone from the Khor Fakkan Sea, tying them together with copper wire, which is a conductor, is that right?

MA: Yes, there is a large approximation process, abolishing distances. It is not just connecting stones, the distance between the Caspian sea and that of Khor Fakkan... it is perhaps thousands of kilometres, this distance is cancelled through putting the stones close together and connecting them.

LK: Do you think the black lines that you constantly draw in your sketchbook are in some way related to recording time?

MA: Yes, recording time, that is a nice expression. It is similar to seizing time. Then it is also basically a calculation process.

LK: With lines?

MA: Yes, with lines. When I was young we would see a man passing by houses to sell water, he would pencil a line on the wall of each house every time he delivered water. Every month or week he would count the black lines to know how many times he provided water to that house. However, when I saw the lines I would add to them. My father knew that I did it and he hit me severely because I added to the money he would pay.

LK: You also work in the studio on three-dimensional lines. What relation does this have to your other work?

MA: I read the books by Ikhwan Al Safa. When they write about a dot, they say that a line is formed by moving a dot from top to bottom or from bottom to top. If you collect them we will have a surface. When we collect the surfaces together we have a three-dimensional object. I liked that a lot. I went back to drawing a line and overlapping shapes. The line, for me, became a symbolic type of shorthand.