A thousand maps without an apparent direction

Though an ambitious and fresh exhibition, Ashraf Ibrahim’s display at the Palace of Arts leaves many questions unanswered

Published on Tuesday 13 Sep 2011 in Ahram Online

A new exhibition titled “Memory Maps – art-mazement” which opened on Monday 12 September at the Palace of Arts is a collection of maps on which artist Ashraf Ibrahim painted many personal impressions. Ibrahim’s experimental use of maps and mediums is emblematic of a trend in modern art.

Modern artists constantly reach to new ways of expression, looking for new tools and mediums. Equally, their understanding of the base for an artwork is being constantly revised as they look beyond traditional materials such as paper, leather, fabric, wood etc. In this context, ready printed material is not only used in hundreds of collages and cut outs, but it can also serve as a complete base for an artwork. To many experimental artists, bases such as printed newspapers or maps become an important protagonist in the artwork itself.

For many years, maps have been inspiring artists with their logic. This avowedly perfect logic – with the use of organisational signs expressed by lines, dots and shades – is either followed or challenged by contemporary artists.

Nikki Rosato cuts out maps to create two and three dimensional human bodies where map symbols such as lines and dots become an important element in the structure of his paintings and sculptures. Rosato finds a parallel between details of the physical structure of a human body and details on a map.

Sabine Réthoré, a cartography artist who lives and works in Marseilles, applies a new poetic to maps and globes. Her artwork challenges the topography, confronting it critically. Réthoré sees that maps are in fact concealing the earth more than revealing it, and accordingly, she also repositions maps, questioning conventions inherited from the Greeks which placed South on the bottom and North on the top. She also would create new axes and central points on the maps and globes.

Ben Joyce’s series of “Abstract Topophilia” decorates the walls of Google Earth’s offices. He uses maps provided by Google Earth and resets them in different colours, adding bold dramatic visualisations to express his personal interpretation of the spirit and dynamics of life in the city redrawn.

Australian artist Laura Wills uses the actual contours of maps, its shades, points, lines and colours as a platform for her imagination to create upon, using all topographic elements to serve as integral parts of the new painting.

These artists are only a few examples of hundreds of creators who use maps as bases for their artistic reflections, each of them suggesting something new and original, each of them finding a personal relation with the map.

In “Memory Maps – art-mazement,” Egyptian artist Ashraf Ibrahim uses hundreds of copies of identical maps of Vienna and applies, with paint or ink, a variety of abstract drawings, shapes and figures onto them. Some shapes are free expressions, while some hold strictly geometrical values. In Ibrahim’s paintings we also find many Egyptian accents with some of them subtly placed and others very directly, such as pyramids drawn on the Vienna map. The maps are presented in several series, in rows or glued together on larger canvases. Ibrahim even uses many alcoves of the Palace to fill them with maps cut out to fit their size.

Ibrahim believes to have found a valid connection between observations he made in Vienna and Egypt which represents his homeland geographically and ideologically. In the exhibition programme, Ibrahim explains that it is the precision of lines and colours that intrigues him in maps. Hence, he finds a relation to human emotions, ideas and memories.

With no doubt, this exhibition is very unique to Egypt’s art world for a number of reasons. The concept of over-painted maps is rather unconventional to a regular Egyptian art follower, and as such, it piques one’s curiosity and triggers a number of interesting thoughts about the subject matter.

Exhibited in the Palace of Arts, one of the biggest and most fascinating exhibition locations in Cairo, the event itself adds certain credibility to the artist and his work. The sheer size of his work –understandably the exhibition is dubbed “1000 maps and still a maze?” – could possibly be one of the largest solo exhibitions to take place in Cairo over the past few decades. To add to this, the Austrian Cultural Forum has taken the exhibition under its wings, topping it with a couple of big sponsors and a number of renowned supporters.

The Austrian Cultural Forum’s active involvement is well understood. In the exhibition programme, we read that in 2007 “Ashraf Ibrahim attended the ‘Arts in Residence’ programme of the Austrian Ministry for Education, Arts and Culture.” Within the three months of residence, Ibrahim had a chance to get acquainted with Austria’s artistic community. He is now presenting the fruits of this experience.

Ibrahim also works as a Curator for Fine Arts Sector at the Egyptian Ministry of Culture (National Exhibitions Department), which was a post given to him in 2005, following his five years as a director of Cultural Affairs at the Mohammed Mahmoud Khalil Museum in Cairo.

With no doubt, the number of works on exhibition is overwhelming, and the location exhibiting them – the Palace of Arts – is mesmerising in and of itself. Supported by a strong logistical backbone, the opening evening created a big impact. But once the lights come down, one is left in front of the naked art and the search for individual values begins.

Many questions will come to one’s mind. What is the direct relationship between the artist and Vienna specifically, or could the map be replaced with one of London, Paris or Rome without affecting the core concept of a bi-cultural dialogue stressed by the exhibition, artist and Austrian Cultural Forum? When this institutionalised understanding of the bi-cultural dialogue is put on a desk of an artist, the viewer expects to find profound reflections expressed with the tools in hand. What journey does the exhibition take the viewer on? What is the importance of Vienna and the artist’s presence in the 1000 maps? How does each work contribute to the whole, and how is the whole nourished by each detail?

Searching for answers to those questions, “Memory Maps – art-mazement” seems to be the perfect title.

The exhibition will continue until 22 September at the Palace of Arts, Cairo Opera House Grounds.

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