Egyptian Artist Ibrahim Ahmed Speaks Out About His Censored Work At The Havana Biennial

BY Nadine Nour el Din / Jun 16 2019 / 21:12 PM

Following the censorship of his work at the Havana Biennial, Egyptian artist Ibrahim Ahmed speaks to Nadine Nour el Din about his experience

Egyptian Artist Ibrahim Ahmed Speaks Out About His Censored Work At The Havana Biennial
Hesham Mohamed Hassan
Ibrahim Ahmed. Does Anybody Leave Heaven. 2019

In the bustle before the Havana Biennial's official opening, as works were being frenetically installed, Cairo-based artist Ibrahim Ahmed was asked to alter the presentation of his piece or be excluded from the Biennial due to the work's direct visual criticism of the US. Quoting Biennial co-curator José Fernandez, Ahmed cites the reason he was given for the exclusion of his work, “this is a government funded biennial, and the government cannot be seen actively presenting an artist who is directly criticising the US. We have a complicated relationship with the US, and we can’t be seen promoting this sort of work.”

Does Anybody Leave Heaven? (2019) is an assemblage tapestry comprised of found textiles; clothing, bags and miscellaneous items adorned with the flag of the United States of America, collected from Egyptian street markets. When Ahmed relocated to Cairo from the US in 2014, he was consistently asked the question, "does anybody leave heaven?" In the world of his peers, Cairo is considered a place to escape from, and the USA is a place that one dreams of planning such an escape to.

This work presented for the Havana Biennial is a commentary on the constructed mythology and fetishism surrounding the United States as a place of desire and opportunity, particularly by young underprivileged men who have normalised wearing the American flag in the streets of Cairo, where it is often found on a variety of garments and wearable products sold in popular markets. The installation, hanging across the ceiling is reminiscent of the ceiling paintings in Ancient Egyptian temples, adorned with night skies and yellow stars.

Ibrahim Ahmed. Does Anybody Leave Heaven. 2019. Courtesy of Hesham Mohamed Hassan 

Impressed by his installation, Only Dreamers Leave, at the Dakar Biennale (Dak’Art), Ibrahim Ahmed was approached by José ‘Pepe’ Fernandez and was initially asked to show that same work in Havana. Meanwhile, he had been inundated with imagery of the US flag and conversations about US presence as an imperial force.

Having moved away from the US, Ahmed explains that he was increasingly realising that the familiar American presence never really left, and continues to be part of his day to day life, “so I thought to myself, what better context to show something unpacking this presence than in Cuba?” He elaborates that the juxtaposition of these ideas is particularly relevant to the Cuban context, considering the recent Decree 349 - issued in July 2018, giving the Cuban government the power to decide which works of art to exhibit, and who can be considered an artist.

Following the official invitation to participate, Ahmed submitted a proposal for the new work in November specifically outlining his use of the US flag in his work. This was greeted with an encouraging, favourable response, and as such Ahmed proceeded to seek out funding and start production of his own accord, to meet the deadline for the opening in April. Reflecting on the process Ahmed adds, “in hindsight, nobody said, ‘Ibrahim, we love this, but these are the parameters of using the US flag, please be wary and be cautious’.” In fact, Ahmed asserts that the Biennale team provided no funding, expenses, or visa assistance, and communicated with the artist sporadically.

Ibrahim Ahmed. Does Anybody Leave Heaven. 2019. Courtesy of Hesham Mohamed Hassan

Ahmed describes the palpable tension as the curators came together to discuss the fate of this work and he contended with this presence. “There’s too much American flag, everybody will read the confrontation with the United States,” the artist recalls a solemn Fernandez saying, having decided that the work would have to be flipped over to conceal the flag imagery or excluded entirely, “The other side [of the work] is more soft, in a way more conceptual, and not direct allusion.”

The artist’s vexed response to this indicated the Biennial’s conceptual framework, built on constructing new narratives for the Global South, “a new narrative can’t be manifested unless we dispel these fantastical interpretations of the West, we need to have a conversation about the US presence; culturally and militarily.” Firmly set on his vision of stars and stripes, Ahmed denied the request to flip over his work and expressed his disappointment, making every effort to pack up his work and leave with the same duffel bag he had brought it in.

Born to Egyptian parents living in Kuwait in 1984, Ibrahim Ahmed spent his childhood between Bahrain and Egypt before moving to the US at the age of thirteen. In 2014, he relocated to Cairo, where he currently lives and works in the informal neighbourhood of Ard El Lewa. Ahmed’s practice involves masterful manipulations of material, informed by research into the histories and movements of people and objects. Demonstrating a preoccupation with history and materiality; his works in mixed media, sculpture, and installation engage with subjects related to colonialism, structures of power, cultural interactions, and fluid identity, bringing to the fore ideas of the self and notions of authenticity within the parameters of the nation-state. 

Ibrahim Ahmed has exhibited his work in solo exhibitions at Sara Zanin Gallery, Rome (2019); Gallery Nosco, Marseille (2018); Volta Art Fair, New York (2016); Townhouse Gallery, Cairo (2016); artellewa art space, Cairo (2014); and Project House, Newark (2010). His work has also been included in numerous group exhibitions, including at the Sharjah Art Museum, Dakar Biennial, Biennale Internationale de Casablanca, No Longer Empty, New York, Swab Barcelona, and the Dubai Design District.

Artist Ibrahim Ahmed stands with Does Anybody Leave Heaven. Courtesy of Hesham Mohamed Hassan

Featuring 83 artists, the 13th Havana Art Biennial took place 12 April – 12 May 2019 under the slogan “The construction of the possible”, an ironic title considering the several incidents of censorship resulting in quite the opposite. In his curatorial essay 'The multiple constructions of the (im)possible', art critic and curator Nelson Herrera Ysla, co-founder of the Wifredo Lam Contemporary Art Center and, in 1984, the Havana Biennial Exhibition writes, “The Havana Biennial is being held in the midst of difficult circumstances,” referring to the political, economic, and natural disasters that have contributed to the current cultural and political climate.

The first of its kind, the Havana Biennial was historically one of the most globally celebrated for its inventive conceptual discourse and inclusive reach. Sadly, censorship is a well-established reality for Cuba; artists and cultural producers alike have been ostracized or jailed for critical political affiliations. Considering the political underpinnings of Ahmed’s work, it comes as no surprise that curators of an institutional exhibition would move to exclude it. Ibrahim Ahmed’s evolving body of work, however, brings forward connections to a discourse that must not be suppressed.

Originally commissioned by the New Art Exchange in Nottingham (UK) Does Anybody Leave Heaven? is set to be exhibited there later this year, following Ahmed’s participation in the forthcoming group exhibition, African Soldier, opening September 27 – December 2019 and taking place between the New Art Exchange and the Imperial War Museum in London. Presenting Only Dreamers Leave, Ahmed examines metaphors of mobility, in an attempt to rewrite the narrative of the immigrant dream to include the reality of global systems of exclusion and segregation that are impossible to leave, drawing on elements of his diasporic experience, characteristic of his practice.

For the exhibition in Nottingham, Does Anybody Leave Heaven? has been fashioned into a multimedia installation with sound, video, photography, and textile elements. Centrally featuring the ornate assemblage tapestry, in the same position it was when the artist was instructed to take it down, the installation brings to life his Cuban confrontation in a new multifaceted experience.