Detail from a Mural
Mid-20th century Alexandria, Egypt, then one of the most significant cultural centers in the greater Levant, counted the painter, poet and publisher Ahmed Morsi among its most treasured luminaries. Now on view at Salon 94 in “Detail from a Mural”—which coincides with Morsi’s inclusion in MoMA PS1’s “Greater New York"—11 works introduce New York City, where the artist has worked in relative obscurity since 1974, to an absolutely magnetic painter.
Morsi was part of a generation who came of age as Surrealism was taking root in Egypt in the 1940s. The movement initially swept the country in 1938, when members of jama’at al-fann wa al-hurriyyah, or Art et Liberté, interrupted Alexandria-born Futurist F.T. Marinetti during a reading in Cairo to announce their new manifesto: “Vive l’Art Dégénéré!” The document advocated rebellion against both the fascist aesthetics of Axis Europe and the revival of ancient iconography then promoted by the nationalist Egyptian government. “We stand absolutely as one with this degenerate art,” it reads. “In it resides all the hopes of the future.” Surrealism, with its emphasis on individuality and freedom of expression, was well suited to the group’s ideological temperament, and subsequently taken up as its unofficial credo.
By 1968—the year Morsi launched the avant-garde, Pan-Arabist magazine Galerie 68—what’s now simplistically characterized as “Egyptian Surrealism” had long since shed any link to doctrines issued from André Breton’s desk in Paris. Rather, it had merged the European movement’s expressive spirit with aesthetic traditions singularly tied to the region, including Alexandria’s mythical influence in antiquity, the revolutionary potential of Pan-Arabism and the 20th-century renaissance in Iraqi poetry.
“Detail from a Mural” provides nuanced context for Morsi’s work. Curator Alison M. Gingeras, who contributed a brief essay on the show, notes that Morsi was exposed to modernists like Pablo Picasso, Constantin Brâncuși, Giorgio de Chirico and Alberto Giacometti; he also translated collections by Surrealist poets Paul Éluard and Louis Aragon. Importantly, however, Gingeras also emphasizes his formative immersion among Baghdad’s literati as well as the unfortunate fact that Morsi’s fame faded in the 1980s when, in New York, he “refused to renounce his Egyptianness for a more assimilated identity.” Americans didn’t know what to make of an artist whose work was surreal but not Surrealist, who left his homeland yet still operated on faraway traditions.
In truth, Morsi’s practice represents a more compelling synthesis of various aesthetic and literary traditions. The gallery’s selection, though small, reflects six decades of extraordinary artistic activity, introducing the artist primarily through visual rhythm. Green Fish (1983), an astonishing painting that typically resides in Morsi’s living room, depicts a couple in midnight hues, their limbs rendered as planar surfaces—an effect amplified by the male figure’s body seeming to merge with a black obelisk. He stands in contrapposto, wielding a massive fish. Nearby, a large untitled painting from the early 1980s depicts an androgynous subject playing the lute. This musician, on first glance, looks to be seated on a blue stool—but what to make of the matching eyes peering over the top of its head? On second glance, I realized, the musician is sitting on the lap of its double.
While Surrealism may have initially gained popularity in Egypt for squaring with the perceived path to liberation from oppressive historical and aesthetic regimes, Morsi’s intellectual considerations prove far more complex. Operating within the expressive milieu unlocked by Surrealism, Morsi crafted his own vocabulary of symbols—along with lutes and oversized eyes, birds, horses, shells and musicians make frequent appearances—by drawing on a range of sources, from Alexandrian and Arabic poetry, to Iraqi art and literature, to Egyptian theater, to, upon his arrival to New York, subways and other metropolitan cacophony. What’s revelatory about his work is how it wields these symbols to explore the cultural traditions of a region steeped in collective narratives, in mythopoesis. How else to interpret the final verse of his poem “Intiba‘ Sadis ‘Asha fi Thalath Harakat” (Impression 16 in Three Movements) than to imagine the artist, half a world away from Alexandria, reflecting on his dream of a dream?
Years of estrangement made you forget
that you left your secret mark in a dream
and shoved the dream in a rush
—as you left following a mirage into exile—
in one of the drawers of a chest of
a paradise lost.
Ahmed Morsi, Green Fish, 1983. Acrylic on canvas, 78 3/4 x 61 inches inches. Courtesy of the artist and Salon 94, New York. Photo: Dan Bradica