It is as wholesome an image as you could hope to see in the world of contemporary art: a family of five poses happily for the artist, hoping that he will catch that fleeting moment of togetherness that will one day prompt joyful reminiscence. The father wears a fez, and has his arm wrapped loosely around his little girl. The mother embraces another girl, with matching pink bow and socks, and the youngest of her children, a chubby boy. The five of them smile, a little tentatively, before an intricate background of floral wallpaper.
But there is a coded message here. Although the image evokes the plainness and humility of the 1940s, the artist, Egypt’s Mohamed Abla, painted the work as recently as 2006. His nostalgic flight was making a point. “It is a work placed in the past,” he tells me as he prepares for a new show of his work in Chelsea’s new Artspace gallery. “It recalls the hope of that time – our first parliament, the beginnings of democratic life.
“If anyone had stopped to think why I was producing those images, it was clear that it reflected a dissatisfaction with current reality.” But no one stopped to think. The painting was freely shown in Cairo, becoming part of the artistic ferment that prefigured the 2011 revolt against the Mubarak government. Revolutionary art comes in many guises, I say. Would the authorities have picked up on the sophisticated nature of Abla’s critique? “No, no, no,” he replies, giving a rueful laugh.
Abla’s paintings function like a diary of the past decade of Egyptian life. As dissatisfaction rose with the regime’s reluctance to implement democratic reform, his paintings became more explicitly critical. He created collages, mixing drawing, photography and text, that were none too subtle in their messages. Nearly every scene of everyday life featured policemen hovering in the background, and random slogans – “We are looking for a new president”; “Egypt is ruled by corrupt groups”. These, not surprisingly, were not shown in public.
He relied on other Arab countries to receive exposure. In 2009 he sent some of his work to be displayed in Bahrain. “Of course they invited the Egyptian ambassador to the opening,” recalls Abla. “He was so angry that he immediately left.” When he finally exhibited some of those same pieces in a Cairo exhibition last month, he says people couldn’t believe he had made them before the revolution. Was he never worried that he would be found out? “The fact that I was a known artist took care of me,” he says. “But I was worried that it was so difficult to show my work.”
He stresses that anyone looking for signs of the revolution that was to come in the early years of the past decade only had to keep an eye on Cairo’s art scene. “I was convinced it was about to happen. The signs were there.”
He felt a weighty responsibility as the crowds assembled in ever-greater numbers in Tahrir Square. “To be an artist is to have duties, to talk to people, educate them, encourage their participation. You can reach things that you cannot reach by any other means.” When the insurrection took place, springing the Arab spring, Abla lived in a tent in the square for weeks and mobilised support for the cause.
This is an idea that is largely lost among the west’s artists. Not through any fault of their own. The plain truth is that nothing dulls the creative spirit more than centuries of civil liberties. Freedom of expression both enables art, and stymies it. A state that can absorb any number of blows against the body politic is blessed indeed. Yet its artists lose that sense of tension that can inspire great work. The only responsibility felt by many western contemporary artists is to scramble our senses and ironise our complacency.
Hence the worldwide interest in the work of Abla and his colleagues in the Middle East, and also in China. Art in these regions is both a clarion call and a signifier. Politicians and business people are encrusted in vested interests. They will never present a complete picture of what goes on around them. It is left to art and literature, when they are allowed to seep through, to guide us more truthfully. The globalisation of culture has a deepening and broadening effect.
All the more reason, in Egypt’s currently delicate political climate, to listen to Abla; or rather to study his paintings. Many of his works since the revolution are understandably hopeful. The busy crowd scenes are still there, but now there are rarely any looming authority figures. Those policemen that do appear are engaged in conversation with ordinary people. “That didn’t happen before,” he says plainly.
He is generally optimistic about his country’s future, although he concedes that it will take time for Egypt to find a semblance of stability. “It is a difficult case. There are so many powers pulling in different directions, each with its own interests. But now we know the way. We can always go to Tahrir Square.”
In one of his most recent works, “Being Together”, three men sit on chairs before the square that has acquired such mythic status over the past year or so. Their bland smiles are strangely reminiscent of the expressions in his family series. The men are representatives of some of the factions making their presence felt in the post-revolutionary world: an Islamic radical, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, and a soldier. It looks like a warning, I say.