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Ehab Mamdouh in Muqeem

1st May 2015

Mariam Nihal
Saudi Gazette

To read the article on Saudi Gazette please click here.

Born in Egypt, Ehab Mamdouh spent most of his life in Dammam, Saudi Arabia. Mamdouh’s work is inspired by traditions in Islam integrating Ancient Egyptian civilization. Using contemporary forces with ancient forms, Mamdouh designs his work in digital form.

In an interview with Saudi Gazette, he said: “I’m a filmmaker by trade and I took to heart the idea that I should be well-versed in the past to understand the present and future. I studied history, particularly cinema history, as part of a liberal arts program. After graduation, I gained experience at local cultural events as well as those organized by foreign cultural centers in Egypt, and pursued further study in digital production techniques, graphic design, and advertising, among other disciplines. The Saudi fine arts scene reinvigorated my senses. I was drawn to the visual arts movement that began to thrive in Riyadh’s exhibition halls, one that focused on visually depicting ongoing social conflicts. Art spread thanks to an economic boom, the cultural stimuli that accompanied that boom, and the openness onto the world, where visual arts took their cues from works being exhibited in London, New York, and Venice.”

Over the last sixteen years, he worked primarily as a director and film producer, focusing on subjects such as identity, religion, the Arabian Peninsula, and Islam. His love for reading on a multitude of subjects helped him publish Bank of Arts magazine, where he served as the editor in chief and artistic director.

“In fact, I have a lot of art projects I’m working on, including religious projects. After the success of the residency at Alaan Artspace, I am re-organising my thoughts. I’m also writing a novel, which I hope to turn into a film for an international audience.”

In his debut exhibition Muqeem, Ehab Mamdouh adapts the human form into geometric symbols, representing the five postures of prayer.

“In Muqeem I convey a fundamental tenet of Islam, embodied by the five daily calls to prayer, replete with attributes borrowed from classical Islamic art but infused with the contemporaneity of modern art—all in the context of contemporary Islamic art,” Mamdouh said.

Referencing geometry in traditional religious art, his work is stirs conversations and debates regarding postures, Arabic calligraphy and human forms.

Mamdouh described Muqeem as a veiled extension of Islamic art, in accordance with the standards by which the latter was classified in the past, yet it is shaped by the cultural development of society and by the intellectual growth that the artist experienced on an individual level.

“Muqeem is derived from the second pillar of Islam—prayer—and takes its name from a Quranic verse: ‘O my Lord! Make me and my offspring the callers [Muqeem(s)] to prayer, and accept my supplication O Lord.’ It also comes from the idea of group prayer, one of the five duties of Islam, which follows the call to prayer and ends with a set of beautiful, rhythmic movements that clear the soul through sacred spiritual practices and reestablish the believers’ presence in the material and social world, subsequent to their pure, ritualistic contact with their Maker.”

Mamdouh recreated this important tenet of Islam as an artistic element in his work, via a symbolic representation of Muslim ideology, affirming both its continuity and its significance in people’s lives today.

Instead of choosing the act of prayer as a title, he chose the act of calling to prayer, alluding to the need for a re-examination of contemporary Islamic art on one hand and a myriad of social mores on the other. “Through this work, I explore the call to prayer as a factual act and prayer as an act that cannot be proven to have occurred, in light of the harsh repercussions associated with religious practices in contemporary society, or the affirmation of the individual’s attempt to perform his or her religious duty, regardless of social, political, economic, revolutionary, or partisan circumstances that may be developing around him or her,” he added.

In Muqeem, he uses a repeating pattern of geometric designs derived from classical Islamic art—and yet distinct from it—to portray Muslims, in fact, practicing one of the most important rituals of Islam—prayer.

Traditionally, religious edifices (mosques) were sacred places not to be adorned with decorative representations of human beings; all representations therein were to be of God alone. Yet here, using modern techniques, Mamdouh explained how he merged the worshiper and the act of prayer itself through geometric decoration, depicting how Islamic art has changed both qualitatively and intellectually in tune with contemporary art worldwide.

“I have replaced the abstract geometric elements of classical Islamic art with an abstract portrayal of the praying worshipper. This produces a similar overall impression, but one that is more appropriate for modern times, when art transcends the concept of serving religion to ultimately expressing human thought, all the artistic components of which can be discussed, not only those relating to religion.

Today, in a Muslim country where religious rites are regularly practiced, prayer is an important influence in people’s daily lives. I use prayer as the symbol to represent myself in my art, in a unique manner, using modern abstraction and the abstract art used by ancient Arabs to conceptualize their God, religious arts, and symbols.

My artistic style merges the Islamic milieu of my upbringing in Saudi Arabia and Egypt with my deep knowledge of the region’s history and architectural heritage. The element forming method is from Egyptian artistic characteristics dating to the second millennium BCE.

This is the result of exposure to the ancient Egyptian style of sculpting and portraying, characterized by an unambiguous technical methodology for depicting living beings, according to beliefs long associated with the region and its ideologies.”

Mamdouh was greatly influenced by his mother, who specialized in Islamic studies and by ancient Egyptian art, which as he remembers, disappeared from the Egyptian scene during various periods of colonial occupation, but returned with the liberation of Egypt from external conquerors, manifesting itself in the work of such pioneering artists as painter Mahmoud Said (1897–1964) and sculptor Mahmoud Mokhtar (1891–1934).

“I have long been interested in the visual arts and I consider everything from an art historical perspective, all within a religious, historical, and cultural framework. Visits to historical mosques for Friday prayers and frequent tours of Islamic art museums, both beginning at an early age, exposed me to religious and historical concepts related to ancient Egyptian art, Fatimid and Mamluk Islamic monuments, and other art forms that have characterized Cairo throughout Muslim history.”

Mamdouh strongly believes Saudi artists have a great deal of potential to achieve the values of artists in other parts of the region. “Our scene is still emerging in Riyadh, it will not be recognizable in five years from now.

At moment, many Saudi buyers prefer to purchase art while travelling abroad, but more and more they are finding work they love right here at their doorstep.”

The government of Saudi Arabia has committed to spending more than US$1.7 billion on building 230 new museums. Mamdouh believes this will have an enormously beneficial impact on the Kingdom, which has been lacking in public arts spaces and education. King Abdulaziz World Cultural Center in the Eastern Province is collecting contemporary Saudi art for the very first time.

“It will further put our artists on the map, as there seems to be a thought that some Saudi artists are under-valued by global investors, in comparison to artists from other parts of the region.

So now it’s time for Saudi, and Riyadh in particular, to step up and take its place at the table.”

Ehab Mamdouh, is a resident artist at Alaan Artspace in Riyadh.

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