BY Rob Goyanes in Opinion | 14 MAR 24
Featured in
Issue 241

Memories Collapse in the Paintings of Ahmed Morsi

The artist's otherworldly aquatic scenes maintain a mysterious and intriguing attraction

BY Rob Goyanes in Opinion | 14 MAR 24

This article appears in the columns section of frieze 241, ‘Outer Depths

Everything is bathed in verdant light in Ahmed Morsi’s Green Fish (1983). Two humanoid figures, semi-androgynous but coded as female and male, are standing on a beach. Their proportions are exaggerated: massively dilated eyes and long, narrow noses take up most of their heart-shaped faces. The male figure is holding the eponymous fish and looking directly at the viewer, while the female figure looks at him, imploringly. The source of the light (an emerald moon doesn’t seem implausible for Morsi) is out of frame, imbuing the figures, sand and wisp of cloud with an eerie tinge. Everything, that is, except for the dark blue ocean.

But it’s the image of the fish that I can’t shake.

Morsi was born in the coastal Egyptian city of Alexandria in 1930. A junior member of the surrealist scene, he found community with local artists as well as the literati. He studied with the Italian artist Silvio Bicchi before graduating from the University of Alexandria with a degree in English literature in 1954. He spent the following two years in Baghdad, where he started writing art criticism, then moved to Cairo, where he designed stage sets and costumes for the Khedivial Opera House and the National Theatre.

Ahmed Morsi, Green Fish, 1983. Courtesy: the artist
Ahmed Morsi, Green Fish, 1983. Courtesy: the artist

Fish showed up in some, but not many, of his early paintings – mostly as merchandise or as food. In Two Fishermen (1954), for instance, a man leans over with his hands in a bucket of small fish, while another walks up with a few fish slung over his shoulder. Morsi’s palette and proportions from this early period were naturalistic: red sunsets, a cat with a fish in its mouth, brown skin tones, figures identifiably human.

In 1974, Morsi and his family moved to New York when his wife got a job with the United Nations. After relocating, his paintings took on a gloomy, celestial glow, an aquatic atmosphere of greens and blues. Strange figures began to appear: anthropoid nudes split down the middle, freaky horses, human-sized birds. But it’s his fish that pull me in the most.

Seaside (1987) presents a tableau of nude figures with turquoise skin, all fretting and dissociating in a sparse landscape reminiscent of the works of Giorgio de Chirico; a gigantic fish lays in a boat-like coffin while, in the background, a male figure approaches, carrying over his shoulder another big fish with its mouth agape. The seaside in this painting, as in all Morsi’s oceanscapes, recalls the coast of Alexandria; just ashore, however, is an orange and white cone emitting steam – a commonplace in New York. Memories dissolve and meld when estranged from one’s homeland.

Ahmed Morsi, Four Eyes,2011. Courtesy: the artist and Arab Museum of Modern Art Collection, Qatar
Ahmed Morsi, Four Eyes, 2011. Courtesy: the artist and Arab Museum of Modern Art Collection, Qatar

The paintings produced during Morsi’s 50 years in New York are submerged in the dimness of a dream. They’re strange, damp epiphanies. In Black Fish (1984), a livid figure with a head shaped more like a brain holds a small black fish. It seems to squint, as if annoyed about getting caught. Red Apple (2001) depicts a group of five: two pairs who are near-mirror images of each other and a single figure along the right edge. The couples stand in waist-deep water; in their nets are two big fish. A pyramid burns behind them.

In a 2021 interview with ARTNews, Morsi compared the experience of leaving Alexandria for Baghdad to cutting his umbilical cord. The piscine motif across his oeuvre seems to speak to the abject and unsettling nature of this experience: coming from an othered world, fish crystallize a recognition that we are often strangers to ourselves.

Ahmed Morsi portrait. Courtesy: Thos Robinson
Ahmed Morsi portrait. Courtesy: the artist; photograph: Thos Robinson

I return to Green Fish. It’s the eye that draws me in. Not only is it wide open with fear, drowning in oxygen, and almost identical to its captor, but the green fish also seems to be looking, in horror, at the source of that lymphatic light.

Morsi first left Alexandria, so he told Artforum in 2018, because his intense attachment to the city had become embarrassing. His paintings represent a longing for his homeland not as it is now, but for how it lives in his mind. In ‘First Impression’ (1998), a poem he penned 24 years after arriving in New York, he writes: ‘You were pulling the nets of exile, / burdened by the feeling / that you were looking at your hometown / through a hole in the ground’.

This article first appeared in frieze issue 241 with the headline ‘Piscine Dreams’

Ahmed Morsi in New York: Elegy of the Sea’ is on view at Institute of Contemporary Art, Miami until 28 April

Main image: Ahmed Morsi, Green Horse, 2001. Courtesy: the artist

Rob Goyanes is a writer and editor. His work has appeared in Affidavit, BOMB, Los Angeles Times and elsewhere.