In Ahmed Morsi’s strange, beautiful paintings, horses appear on the New York subway, blue humanoids inhabit places that seem to exist outside the confines of time and space, and genderless figures sometimes have more than one set of eyes. They are pictures that embody the sense of alienation faced by the Egyptian-born, New York–based artist, and until very recently, they were barely known at all in the U.S., even in spite of the fact that Morsi counts among the most important artists to come out of Egypt in the mid-20th century and has lived in his adopted country since 1974. Now in his 90s, Morsi has remained an astute observer of all around him. Writing in Artforum in 2018, critic Kaelen Wilson-Goldie said, “Maybe New York doesn’t know him. But he knows you.”
At last, New York is on its way to knowing him. Four years after an exhibition at the Sharjah Art Foundation in the United Arab Emirates stimulated greater interest in Morsi, his work is now featured in two New York presentations—MoMA PS1’s Greater New York quinquennial, where he figures alongside up-and-comers several generations his junior, and at Salon 94 gallery, which is staging one of the few solo shows he’s ever had in the city. While neither presentation is comprehensive, together they offer an essential introduction to a figure that many Americans and Europeans have failed to notice.
To hear more about his art, his poetry, and his unlikely rise in New York, ARTnews interviewed Morsi by email. His responses, below, have been lightly edited.
You once said your paintings deal with your “longing for home” as an Egyptian-born artist who has lived in New York for almost half a century. They often appear to be set in placeless spaces that are flattened and made shallow. How would you describe these spaces? Where—and when—do these works take place?
I am an Alexandrian-born poet and artist who has lived in New York longer than I have lived anywhere, including my birthplace, whether we consider my years in Alexandria or Egypt as a whole. So, I have been displaced most of my life, living away from my birthplace for most of my years. But here we need to distinguish between the geographic place that is Egypt’s second largest city from my “home.” My Alexandria is a city of my youth and also myth and legend. This is the “home” that has fueled my imagination, spilling into my poetry notebooks and pouring over my canvas. Don’t look for this Alexandria on your maps. So you see, it is truly placeless and timeless. A home that defies both space and time. Such a place that eludes the constructs of reality can only exist in one’s imagination—my imagination, because in a way I created her. And I am predestined to search for her.
The figures in these works often have almond-shaped eyes and abstracted bodies, and have sometimes been compared to Picasso. Indeed, you have written what has been called the first Arabic-language monograph of Picasso.
Picasso is one of the artists I was introduced to as a young teen in Alexandria. After World War II, Paris shipped its exhibitions to Alexandria, targeting the city’s sophisticated and affluent. I personally experienced the Spanish master’s paintings at a young age. By the time I was in my 30s, I had 20 years of attending exhibitions, studying art books and magazines, looking at prints, and reading criticism. I wanted to introduce Picasso to the Arabic-speaking population. Prior to the late 1960s, any important documentation, including publications related to non-Eastern art and literature, was available only in English and French. The language barrier isolated the majority of the population from the rest of the world across the Mediterranean and beyond. I was fluent in three languages, and I had my first taste of translation earlier as a new university graduate in Alexandria, then later at the Middle East News Agency where I worked in Cairo. So I took on the project.
Just a few years back, I happily received a message from a young contemporary Iraqi artist. He was thanking me for that translation. He came into contact with that book at the Baghdad School of Fine Arts. It was still the only Arabic monograph on Picasso in Iraq.
What does Picasso mean to you?
Picasso is an artist for whom I have immense respect and whose work touches me in a very personal way. The massive creative output alone is worthy of awe. He experimented with several media: painting, printmaking, ceramics. He even wrote poetry and designed stage sets and costumes. There is a lot of similarity in that way [between us], the kind you might look for in your “friends” and “teachers” alike, though on a personal level, our characters are vastly different. I feel there is an understanding of sorts between us, much the same way I feel as a poet to [C. P.] Cavafy.
Beside the Arabic monograph, I have two paintings—Iraqi Weeping Women I (2001) and Iraqi Weeping Women II (2011)—that were given titles as an homage to Picasso’s “Weeping Women” series. Of course, in my paintings, the women weep collectively—they share the loss of loved ones in war (the first and second Gulf Wars). But the subject of interpretation or study is the same.
But I would like to say that the almond-shaped eyes have their origin in the Mediterranean in general and in Ancient Egypt in particular. As far as Mediterranean genetics, when I look in the mirror, behind the lens of my glasses I can see those same eyes. Do you know the Eye of Horus? For the Ancient Egyptians, it represented the eye of Truth, of Insight, the eye of God inside Humans. That indigenous trait was carried on in the Fayyoum Portraits [from Roman Egypt] as well. So the eyes you see in my paintings come from an older place.
These works have also drawn comparison to Surrealism, thanks to their unusual blends of seemingly unlike objets in fantastical spaces. How did you first come into contact with Surrealism? Would you say it has influenced you in any significant way?
I was writing poetry in my early teens. I wrote in Arabic only at that time, but I read equally in English as well. Eventually, I taught myself French so I could read Rimbaud, who many refer to as the “father of surrealism” without a translator’s influence on the poetry. So I stepped into this world you call “surrealism” through the doors of poetry. The discovery, of course, was that this door was not closed in the first place—it was familiar. As a teenage poet, I was already a part-time resident of “another” place and “another” time. So, my feelings of alienation started long before my physical displacement. This lifelong meditation on existence created a “surreal” world, whose seed carries the essence of Alexandria, a dreamlike place constructed from a tapestry of imaginary recollections—or are they?
I have been referred to as the “untitled” artist. It is a fair statement because I naturally avoid labels and names which compromise the possibility of an unencumbered unique experience. But to use your terminology, I was exposed to “surrealism” through poetry only to realize that I had been living “surreally” without knowing these terms. It seems I have been longing for “home” for as long as I can remember, because feelings of estrangement have always been with me and for that I created a place of my belonging. That place resides in my mind but is empowered by something which is nameless.
Horses play a recurring role in many of these works. In one painting, a horse appears turned upside down in a New York subway station; in others, pared-down figures are shown riding atop them. What do these horses signify?
The horse, the bull, the bird, the fish, and the human figures all live in harmony with the fantastical creatures in my poetry and in my paintings. Do you see that all have the same eyes, the same vulnerabilities? You might see only a horse, but I feel his humanity. I have no doubt that he suffers and yearns and loves. I feel his humanity because much like me he too is estranged, on his back in a desolate subway station underground. We are both yearning for the sense of belonging.
In the ancient Egyptian religion, many deities were represented by creatures—the jackal, snake, or crocodile—with human attributes, unlike in Greek and Roman mythology, where the creatures were mostly monsters, causing humans havoc. You see, my relationship with the creatures of this world and the imaginary ones is rooted in my history.
For much of your career, in addition to producing art, you have written in various modes, penning criticism, poetry, journalism, and more. What role has writing played in your artistic development? Has it influenced your painting practice over the years?
In journalism, there must be an objectivity and a personal distance, but that’s it. Poetry and painting may be separate media used in a constant attempt to understand the Self, but my vocabulary on paper and on canvas is one. My approach to criticism is equally personal. I did not write reviews to teach because I am no one’s teacher. These essays were written much like journal entries by someone who was always quietly observing and usually humbled to meet a particular work he knew well only from books, to be introduced to a certain artist working in an unfamiliar medium (like photography), to be surrounded by my masters, teachers and peers in a single space and a single moment. So to write criticism as an artist and a poet, it engages a sixth sense, it is intimate. To bring that intimacy forward to a reader, a fluency in a visual language becomes very useful. I wrote my poetry and my criticism as though I was writing only to myself, using a lexicon that relies heavily on the visual.
An art critic in Egypt once said that I “paint my poetry and write my paintings.” Different media, but same language, one truth—my truth. But that vision is not the same that is experienced with our set of eyes. The visual language I refer to is the one you can only know when you close your eyes. Here words alone are not enough. I use a hybrid of words and images to help me attempt to articulate the otherworldly.
How would you describe your writing process?
I don’t like methodology. I prefer working from a place of freedom. I prefer the purity and innocence that is borne when you allow for all possibilities. This is only to explain why I never had an art practice, neither as a painter nor as a poet. I never wrote at home. Many of my more recent poems were composed mentally, eyes closed, held to memory, while riding a downtown bus with my wife, Amani, on a Saturday morning. The flow would stop as soon as she touched my shoulder, alerting me to get up and exit at our stop. As soon as we made it to Cafe Reggio in [New York’s Greenwich] Village, I would order my espresso and many napkins. I always carried a pen but usually forgot my pocket-size poetry notebooks. I would empty my memory of those new lines, a poem completed, on disposable paper. Then Amani would remind me once we got home not to throw the napkins out.
Most of my sketches for my paintings were started on cafe napkins, or on pages next to poetry lines in my small notebooks and completed in the studio where my colors await. For me, a practice never begets something genuine. I never knew when the lines would flow or the images would come. I was never certain of how the final poem would read or painting would appear. I am not an ambitious man by nature. When they came, I surrendered and worked. Other times I still worked, writing criticism or translating.
Poetry played a key role in your output, though there was a prolonged period where you weren’t writing any of it at all. In an interview with Art Breath, you said that you stopped writing poetry—and shuttered Galerie 68 magazine, which you cofounded—in 1967, as a result of the Six-Day War. Why did you stop writing poetry during this period?
The war crushed an entire nation. In only six days many lives were lost, soldiers came home physically maimed or psychologically traumatized. We were financially improvised as a country. We were all crushed. Many of my friends, mostly writers and artists, went to the streets to voice their disappointment. Each used his or her medium to communicate dismay. But they were all politically connected since their youth.
I have never been a strong advocate for “groups” that gather under any banner, including politics. I am an introvert by nature, so I am in my element alone or at most with a handful of close friends. But I also think a collection of people who all have the same beliefs and convictions cannot envision something different, anything new. It is by definition limiting. And eventually, that common thought influences and subjugates individuality. It is not a liberating concept for me, quite the opposite.
Activists held demonstrations, writers penned their criticism, painters depicted a poor state of affairs, widows cried, and the poet lost his voice. That is what happened. Silence enveloped me.
And what made you want to pick poetry back up?
In 1996, I received a phone call from the Egyptian writer and critic Edwar El Kharrat, a childhood friend from Alexandria, informing me that the state was organizing an event to celebrate his 70th birthday. He asked me to write a poem, knowing very well it had been 29 years since I penned my last one, which he would read at the gathering. I made a few unsuccessful attempts to get out of it and we ended the call with the agreement that I would see if this was a realistic request in the next few days. I put down the receiver, took a piece of paper from the fax machine I used to deliver my reports on U.N. news to the Middle East News Agency and a pen, walked into my bedroom, and closed the door. Sometime later—I cannot recall how much time had passed—I opened the door and stepped out with a poem for Edwar which I faxed to him. It was the first time in almost 30 years, and the first time a poem came to me at home. I realized then the poet had not abandoned me. From that day, the poetry flowed again at unexpected times and unexpected places. Thank goodness.
You spent significant periods of time in Alexandria and Baghdad before coming to New York. How did they both inform your growth as an artist?
Alexandria, until at least the first half of the 20th century was an important port city on the Mediterranean. We shared this urban space with many other ethnicities—Greek, Italian, Armenian, Levantine. This tapestry of cultures created a very cosmopolitan city, much like New York. As a teen, I was introduced to contemporary artists and writers in my birth city. So ironically, I saw [works by] Picasso and Cézanne in Alexandria well before I saw exhibitions for Egyptian artists. I bought my first art books on installments from a local bookstore. After graduating high school, and in parallel to my university studies, I signed up to join the studio of an Italian artist, Silvio, son of Italian artist Otorino Becchi. I was studying English alongside Arabic in school, and had access to most books available in Europe. Through his father, who worked for the local municipality, one of my close childhood friends, the renowned Egyptian playwright Alfred Farag, had access to performances in the Teatro Mohamed Ali Pasha, which was Alexandria’s opera house. We saw music and dance performances by contemporary international artists who toured Alexandria as an extension of the continent across the sea.
To me, the city was much more than a cosmopolitan dwelling. In her roots, she was also ancient Egyptian, the seat of the last of the greats and the largest city of the ancient world. She was also Hellenic—this city that spoke Greek twice in its history. She was also Roman, as the second largest city of the Roman Empire, and Byzantine as well, and a major center of early Christianity. You see, Alexandria was ageless and incomparable, and perhaps almost indescribable. She is with me, even in New York and especially in New York, the farthest I have distanced myself from her geographically. She reigns in my imagination, the Alexandria of my youth, or perhaps the Alexandria that is now also part-legend. She is a mythological city that has always been present in my poetry and in my paintings, and though I have made several attempts at cutting that umbilical chord, she remains.
How did you go about cutting that umbilical cord?
The first time I made a conscious effort to purify myself of the city’s influence, I chose to move to Baghdad. After graduating from the University of Alexandria, I started working full-time as a translator in a patent office, Margi Overend, owned by a Maltese gentleman. I gave my resignation and joined a friend who was also moving to Iraq. Should I tell you about the coffee? It is important. I had developed a taste for espresso that was made by magnificent imported Italian machines. My mother indulged me as a young boy by allowing me sips of her Turkish coffee—she was also a coffee drinker amid a population that mostly favored tea. Once I had an espresso, my preference was always for the Italian cup. And so, I told myself: If I found a good cup of espresso in Baghdad, I would stay. If not, that would be an obvious indication that I ought to leave and return home. The day of my arrival, I walked through Al Rashid Street, a main street in the city, and noticed through the window of a local cafe an espresso machine. I entered and thankfully the espresso was good. I stayed in Baghdad for two years. Yes, that’s a true story.
In that same fateful cafe, I met Baghdad’s cafe society of artists and literati. Historically, Baghdad was a significant cultural center of the Arab world, and at the time of my stay, it was experiencing a cultural renaissance. I was lucky enough to have been instantly adopted by Iraq’s artists, poets, and writers. It was in Baghdad that I wrote my first art criticism. I was given a full page and complete freedom to write a review of major exhibitions of some of Iraq’s most notable artists. I made lifelong friendships in Baghdad. My relationship with Iraqi renowned poet Abdel Wahab Al Bayati also culminated in many collaborations; I designed book covers for his poetry publications, and I translated works by Louis Aragon and Paul Eluard from French to Arabic while Bayati was responsible for editing the final Arabic documents. Other important friendships included Fouad al Takarli, prominent Iraqi novelist and writer, and, of course, Armenian-Iraqi artist Ardash Kakafian.
You have only had a handful of exhibitions in New York, and Kaelen Wilson-Goldie wrote in Artforum that you effectively quit the New York art world during the ‘80s after being turned off by the churn of the market. Why did you stop exhibiting in New York so long, and what made you want to return to showing here more often?
The New York art scene of the 1980s was colored by booming financial markets, defining that world as one of over-exuberance in consumerism. This is not a comfortable landscape for a man such as myself. I slowly distanced myself as an artist and gradually moved all my exhibitions outside.
In late 2016, I was included in an exhibition on Egyptian Surrealism (“When Art Becomes Liberty: The Egyptian Surrealists (1938 – 1965)”) co-curated by Hoor Al Qasimi and Salah M. Hassan. In early 2017, Hoor and Salah co-curated my first international museum retrospective. The exhibition coincided with the Sharjah Biennale and Art Dubai, where I was also exhibiting, allowing even greater visibility for the work. This led to Kaelen’s piece in Artforum, after which we received calls by galleries and curators expressing interest and requesting studio visits. So the first return to New York was a natural flow of events following the retrospective. I am no longer able to entertain long-distance travel, so I am grateful for the opportunity to see my work hung on walls again. All I have to do now is go to the gallery or MoMA PS1 and gaze nostalgically at my Alexandria in my new city and home, New York. It is enough to make me happy.