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Issue 225

Ahmed Morsi’s Anthropomorphic Creatures

An intimate show of 12 paintings at Salon 94, New York, showcases the Egyptian-born artist’s dreamlike tableaux 

BY Cassie Packard in Exhibition Reviews , US Reviews | 30 NOV 21

The surrealist canon is currently undergoing a much-needed revision in the West – or, at the very least, on New York’s Upper East Side. Three exhibitions within a 20-block radius underscore the movement’s multifaceted, international character: a presentation of work by Polish artist Erna Rosenstein at Hauser & Wirth; the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s examination of surrealism in 45 countries, co-organized with Tate Modern; and, at Salon 94, New York, an intimate show of 12 paintings spanning six decades by Egyptian-born artist, poet and critic Ahmed Morsi. (The nonagenarian, a New York resident since 1974, is also featured in MoMA PS1’s quinquennial ‘Greater New York’.) 

Ahmed Morsi Untitled (Fallah, The Peasant) 1954
Ahmed Morsi, Untitled (Fallah, the Peasant), 1954, oil on wood, 85 × 69 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Salon 94, New York

Despite frequent questionable references to ‘(re)discovery’, artists highlighted in these revisionist takes are usually well-known in their countries of origin. Morsi, whose work has regularly been exhibited in Egypt – and, increasingly, the Gulf Arab states – since the 1950s, was born in Alexandria in 1930. The artist is associated with the Alexandria School, a group of young artists, writers, and other creatives who, as Morsi noted in a 2019 interview with Art Breath, ‘lived surreally’ in the cosmopolitan port city during the 1940s. Yet, his early work also evinces the populist and social-realist tendencies of the Contemporary Art Group, founded in 1946, which mined the Egyptian unconscious through local folklore and tradition. Untitled (Fallah, The Peasant) (1954), an oil-on-wood painting with restrained hues and graphic outlines, depicts a worker with a lined face, rolled-up sleeves and massive hands; in the background, dovecotes nod to the millennia-old tradition of pigeon-keeping in Egypt, where the birds are a source of food and income. At Salon 94, this picture is displayed over a credenza in an elevator landing, rather than alongside the other 11 works in the show – including a painting that predates it: Untitled (Window in an Alexandrian Night) (1948). That work, which portrays a nude woman donning a headdress that denotes her as lower class, is perhaps more easily integrated with paintings from subsequent decades: enigmatic dreamscapes populated by nudes with mask-like faces, musical instruments, animals and conch shells.

Ahmed Morsi, Untitled (The Embrace - Nude & Horse), 1966
Ahmed Morsi, Untitled (The Embrace - Nude & Horse), 1966, oil on wood, 1.2 × 1.9 m. Courtesy: the artist and Salon 94, New York

In 1957, after two years spent teaching and writing art criticism in Baghdad, Morsi returned to Egypt, first working on theatrical stage sets and costume designs in Cairo and then resettling in Alexandria. Several paintings made in the lead-up to 1967’s devastating Six-Day War – an event that moved the grief-stricken Morsi to abandon poetry for more than three decades – teem with unabashed colour. Adam and Eve (1959) depicts two wide-eyed nudes, the woman’s body limned with celadon, in an Edenic expanse of soft lilac and mauve. A viridian creature with an apple, looking more sphinxlike than serpentine, has eyes that resemble those of the nearby humans. Years later, well after Morsi’s pivot from oil to acrylic in the 1970s, anthropomorphic animals remained prominent. In the most recent painting on view, The Loving Horse II (2010), a cerulean woman embraces an ultramarine horse; they share almond-shaped eyes and attenuated noses. Morsi’s recurrent blurring of human and animal characteristics, particularly in tender moments, suggests an equivalence between various beings, one that excludes the impulse to hierarchize, classify and dominate.  

Ahmed Morsi Green Fish 1983
Ahmed Morsi, Green Fish, 1983, acrylic on canvas, 2 × 1.5 m. Courtesy: the artist and Salon 94, New York

Faced with an inhospitable sociopolitical and economic climate following the Six-Day War, and bolstered by new laws easing rules around migration, many of Egypt’s creatives fled to the West. Nearly a decade after relocating to midtown Manhattan, where he lives and works today, Morsi painted Green Fish (1983). Dominated by a cool palette of moody blues, greens and purples, the grand-scale painting depicts a nude couple. The non-place where they stand together – alone but for the fish in the man’s arms and their strange, long shadows – suggests the silent shores of a beach at night, perhaps in the city that the artist left but never forsook. 

‘Ahmed Morsi: Detail from a Mural’ is on view at Salon 94, New York, USA, until 18 December.  

Main image: Ahmed Morsi, Untitled, 1954, oil on wood, 54 × 64 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Salon 94, New York

Cassie Packard is a writer and assistant editor of frieze based in New York.