My drive through the craggy Hajar Mountains to reach artist Mohammed Ahmed Ibrahim’s studio conjured visions of Donald Judd’s stark Marfa, Texas refuge from the New York art world din. While Ibrahim certainly didn’t flee any comparatively hectic art scene in Dubai, his fascination with the rude, rocky land on this eastern shore of the United Arab Emirates recalls not only Judd’s own affinity to the barrenness of his Texan hideaway, but also the earthy toils of a generation of land artists, with whom Ibrahim shares a sort of spiritual lineage.
Khor Fakkan (literally, in Arabic, “the creek with two jaws”) is Ibrahim’s birthplace and current home—a rambling coastal town bookended by the Gulf of Oman to the east and the choppy cusp of the Hajar Mountain chain to the west. Pulling up to the cream-colored wall enclosing Ibrahim’s home, it was hard to ignore the aloof might of a single mountain peak—close enough to impose yet far enough to seem indifferent—as it loomed against a stormy sky. I instantly recognized the daunting summit from Ibrahim’s Sunset (2013): a monumental-scale photo that shows the mountain pierced by a giant hole, through which the sun would conceivably shine, as a means of prolonging the sunset. A nod to the tyranny of nature, the work is also a testament to the artist’s will to sculpt it.
Ibrahim escorted me through a garden littered with the forlorn trophies of countless forays into the mountainous surroundings—mounds of rocks, heaps of splintery wood, clumps of rotting leaves—punctuated by vibrant industrial flotsam and jetsam like yellow plastic buckets and orange parking cones. His slightly oversized dishdash and tousle of gray hair hinted at a vague countercultural streak: the subdued sartorial rebel who shuns the crisp, form-fitting finery of many of his sharp-shaven countrymen.
We accessed Ibrahim’s studio by an external corridor that seemed to hug the contours of a house of uncertain geography. Against the muffled clang of pots and the background hum of a distant conversation, we settled into a discussion of a practice that has spanned some three decades, musing on the allure of nature, but also the imminence of its demise.
Unsurprisingly for a self-proclaimed land artist, Ibrahim’s studio is small. Yet it is so densely packed with imagery and forms that it is hard to know where to look first. Folders teem with repetitive line drawings that call to mind his “Forms” series (2009– ): regiments of single black marks aligned in rows on spongy, off-white paper that seem at once prehistoric and modern, like primordial Barnett Newman stripes. Some of the more symbol-like shapes familiar to his two-dimensional works have come to life as small sculptures, either clinging to the walls or crowded into clusters on a shelf. The objects—occasionally shaped like primitive tools or bones—seem to have been strewn rather than placed, and the space is tainted with a sense of forage, as if these pieces had been unearthed from some ancient lair, rather than crafted by the man with whom I’m speaking. Jarringly different, colorful spheres riddled with the telltale blue of water-bottle caps loiter along a wall.
A wide block of black and white papier-mâché works—flat, canvas-like structures propped up in rows and curious, articulated pieces with grooves and slits—were shrouded in plastic in the center of the room. One small papier-mâché piece sat on the floor at the perimeter of the plastic wrapping: a white square penetrated by a black wedge. “You are the first one to see this series,” he confided, going on to explain that the color is entirely natural, coming from the pigment of the paper itself. Less constructivist looking, the elaborate caramel-colored shapes seem organic, like stalks protruding from a bulbous core. Other oddly totemic pieces could easily hail from the artist’s “Khorfakkan” series from the early 2000s, brooding constructions of log-like components made of clay drawn from a pit near the artist’s home. Wayward clay towers—squat at the base and tapering as they rise—spiked up from the floor.
A repetitive bent is evident in the paper and canvas works. The series “Sitting Man” (2010– ) is a stream of varying sized, different colored paintings of a man sitting on a chair, his hands placed on his knees. Cropped at the shoulders, the headless figure and his changing chromatics appear along the far wall of the studio in a succession of large-scale canvases, repeated in smaller sized sheets of paper hung on wire over the desk.
Like many Emirati artists, Ibrahim holds a day job (as a technician in a hospital), where he sometimes sneaks in some drawing—mostly of the repetitive legions of black, linear marks—during office hours. “If someone comes, I hide it,” he laughed. “Otherwise I have to teach him about art.”
Near the door, a promotional poster announces the 2002 exhibition “5/U.A.E.” at the Ludwig Forum for International Arts in Aachen, Germany. A watershed moment for the pioneering “Group of Five” artists—Hassan Sharif, Abdullah al-Saadi, Hussain Sharif, Mohammed Kazem and Ibrahim—the show brought contemporary practices in Emirati art to the attention of a wider international audience. The poster is a reminder that the common ancestry of these artists underpins shared concerns and techniques. Not least of these is both Hassan Sharif’s and Ibrahim’s near-obsessive penchant for repetition, for the mark-making gesture that is ceaselessly renewed. “It’s a kind of meditation for me,” said Ibrahim. Meditative as it may be, the studio space tells only a partial tale. The rest is in the mountains.
Ibrahim believes that he is somehow biologically linked to Khor Fakkan, his birthplace. “I am carrying this place in my genetics,” he explained. “It will never leave me and I feel it when I am doing my work.” Regularly “getting naked with nature,” as he puts it, camping out in the mountains for weeks at a time, Ibrahim describes his process in terms of hunting and gathering—the random encounter with some unexpected material that ends up as a work. In some of the more remote spots of this inhospitable wilderness, Ibrahim might be one of the first humans to linger there. “There is a kind of peace to feel that you are the first person to turn over a rock,” he said. “But it is also a kind of power to express myself.”
An early example of this expression was Khorfakkan Circles, a work of land art “in the deep mountain” from the 1990s in which found stones marked out circles on the ground. Elsewhere in this monochromatic landscape, he wrapped sidr trees with brightly hued cotton fabric, left to disintegrate in silence. More recently, his land art has evolved into gestures that are at once more contained and critical. Land Shift (2015), for example, was an exchange of a two-square-meter piece of land from Oman with another from the upscale Jumeirah neighborhood in Dubai. The exchanged surfaces raised sticky questions of borders, value and property. Unsigned and mostly unremarked upon, these land art works blend anonymously into their environment, where they weather and wither, far from the confines of yet another determining space in Ibrahim’s life—the gallery.
“I feel selfish with land art,” he remarked. “Just doing it and keeping it out there. The gallerist needs to see it. There is an urgency to see.” Increasingly, he relies on photographic documentation and even Google Maps to direct interested viewers to the site. This urgency is linked to outrage: Ibrahim sees nature dwindling around him as buildings sprout and cities spread. If nothing else, his work is a rallying cry to re-engage with nature, to re-ignite respect for the wilderness. “The mountain is disappearing,” he lamented, pointing to the summit he virtually perforated inSunset. “They make concrete for skyscrapers. They take the mountain and bring it to the city. Maybe the next generation won’t even have a mountain anymore.” After a weighty pause, a warning: “What is gone will never come back.”
Ibrahim maintains that an artist doesn’t create; his role is to “sort through, to show, to point out what already exists.” If this “sorting through” happens in the realm of nature, though, the studio is the inner sanctum of the process itself. “We have a lot of dialogue, a lot of secrets, the material and I,” he claimed. Khor Fakkan, then, is not a place of escape à la Donald Judd, but a site of exploration and discovery, even in the studio itself. Yet it is hard not to wonder, driving back to Dubai past the Khor Fakkan port on the E99—a thankless stretch of road bordered by oil storage tanks as daunting as the dwindling peaks—how far into the mountains Ibrahim will have to retreat to sustain his singular relationship with a primordial nature that is, slowly but surely, vanishing.