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Artists' Index
Encyclopedia of Modern Art and Arab World
موســــوعة الفـن الحديـــث والعالــم العربـــي
Artists' Index

Ahmed Morsi

أحمد مرسي
Ahmed Morsi
 

​Born 9 March 1930 in Alexandria; lives and works in New York

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Ahmed Morsi

​Translated by

Dima Hamadeh 

Biography​

Ahmed Morsi first encountered the visual arts when he took figural drawing and painting taught by​ foreign artists residing in Alexandria. At the time, and unlike the Cairo School of Fine Arts, Alexandria lacked a formal art school during the early 20th century. In the 1940s, Morsi studied drawing from classical statues with the Italian artist Silvio Bicchi, whose father, Ottorino, trained the Egyptian painters Seif and Adham Wanly. Morsi was introduced to the Wanly brothers by Ahmed Fahmy, his English teacher, in 1949, when he began his own drawing studio in Alexandria.

 Morsi was a member of the so-called Alexandria School, which literary scholar Hala Halim credits with being a hotbed of Surrealist activity in Alexandria during World War II. The term "Alexandria School" was coined by the Egyptian novelist and critic Edwar al-Kharrat (1926-2015) to describe a group of artists who came of age in 1940s Alexandria. Halim claims that, just as his colleague Mounir Ramzi fulfilled his role as writer at the Alexandria School, Morsi acted as the poet and painter there. Al-Kharrat and Morsi would later meet while working at a copyright company in Alexandria and formed a close friendship that lasted until the former's passing.

Morsi combined his career as an artist with studies in English at the Alexandria University during the early 1950s. By the time that he obtained his degree in 1954, he had published his first book of poetry, entitled Songs of the Temples/Steps in Darkness (1949). Morsi issued nine poetic diwans, including Aghani al-maharib (Songs of the Altars, 1949) and designed cover illustrations for the novels of al-Kharrat and other prominent Egyptian writers. An unpublished book from 1958 included Morsi's poetry, accompanied by drawings created by the Egyptian artist ʿAbdel Hadi el-Gazzar (1925-1966).

It was during his travels to other Arab countries that Morsi encountered the world of art criticism. After moving to Baghdad in 1955, he taught English to support his two-year stay and quickly became part of a thriving visual and literary arts scene there. The Iraqi playwright Youssef al- ʿAni (1927-2016) invited Morsi to write an art exhibition review for the Iraqi newspaper, al-Akhbar, in which he brought critical attention to emerging artists.

Morsi returned to Alexandria in 1957, when he reunited with another member of the Alexandria School, the Egyptian playwright Alfred Farag (1929-2005). Farag then relocated to Cairo, and Morsi and al-Kharrat followed suit. It was at Cairo's National Theater (formerly known as Al-Azbakiya Theatre) that Morsi helped Farag produce his play, The Fall of the Pharaoh, at the National Theater in 1957. Morsi was the first Egyptian to design stage sets and costumes there, and drew inspiration for the Pharaoh's outfits from artifacts and paintings displayed in the Egyptian Museum. He then took on a design project for maʾasat Jamila [The Tragedy of Jamila], a play written in 1962 by the Egyptian playwright 'Abdel Rahman al-Sharqawy to celebrate Jamila Bouhired, an Algerian nationalist who fought against French colonial rule. Morsi also worked alongside the el-Gazzar at the Cairo Opera House to design a stage set for the production of Bury the Dead, written by the American playwright Irwin Shaw.

Throughout the late 1950s and 1960s, Morsi helped develop Arabic art criticism and bridged linguistic gaps between poetic readings from around the globe. With the Iraqi poet ʿAbdel Wahab al-Bayyati (1926-1999), he wrote Arabic translations of Louis Aragon and Paul Eluard in the late 1950s. In 1968, he co-founded the influential avant-garde magazine Galerie '68 with al-Kharrat, Ibrahim Mansour, Gamil ʿAtteya, and Sayed Hegab while serving as the Art Director. Morsi also wrote French-language entries on "Art in Egypt" and "Art in Iraq" for the 1975 Grand Larousse Encyclopedia, as well as criticism and translations of contemporary American poetry for the National Center for Translation in Egypt. When his wife, Amany Fahmy, obtained work as translator in 1974, Morsi moved with his family to New York. Fahmy eventually became Chief of the United Nation's Arabic Translation Service and she translated the English introduction of a book on the famous Alexandrian poet C.P. Cavafy into Arabic, while Morsi translated Cavafy's poems. Morsi also used his time between Egypt and America to publish art criticism in major Egyptian, Lebanese, and Kuwaiti periodicals, such as al-Watan and al-Hayat, in the 1970s and 1980s.

Morsi's most recent visual works include photography, which he uses to capture passersby among figural sculptures in New York City. Such candid images explore the human condition and isolation in urban settings by framing alternating moments of crowding and solitude. Morsi continually exhibits his works in the U.S., the Middle East, Europe, and Egypt, where he maintains his role as a key figure in Cairo's contemporary art scene.

Formal Analysis and Ahmed Morsi's Impact on the Art World

In his early career, Ahmed Morsi engaged with larger concerns in Egypt about the meaning of ordinary Egyptians in culture and politics. The large size and central positions of subjects in The Fishermen (1956) attest to the artist's intimate and poetic approach to his native protagonists, as well as​ a growing interest among Egyptian painters in the daily lives of peasants and the urban working classes. Artist and art critic Liliane Karnouk describes similar themes seen in the works of el-Gazzar as an early example of the "Folk Realist" style in 1940s Egypt.

Morsi has played a significant role in marrying visual and literary practices in the Arabic-speaking art world. Scholarship on modern art of the Arab world remains relatively new, yet one of its most fundamental debates revolves around the respective importance of the written word and representational imagery in defining modern Arab art. Through his dynamic approaches to oil painting, book design, and poetry, Morsi is one of the few artists in the region today to form a magnetic symbiosis between visual and text. Art curator Sam Bardaouil identifies this practice in earlier Egyptian artworks as the product of a distinctly local Surrealism. Morsi describes his own prose as al-sheʿar al-ramzy (symbolic poetry), which, he claims, was inspired by French poetry of the 1950s and the works of American poet William Blake. The figures of his 1969 painting, The Family, bear witness to Morsi's life-long engagement with symbolism and Surrealist practice in Egypt. Poet and cultural critic Ahmad ʿAbdel Moity Hegazi affirms the Surrealist qualities of Morsi's contemporary oeuvre by pointing to the subconscious origins of such pictorial elements.

Finally, Morsi had an impact on art criticism, as well as surrealism, in the Middle East because he helped stimulate lively debates in Arabic-language periodicals about the value and meaning of visual art. He wrote and published the first Arabic-language book about Pablo Picasso in 1966, less than twenty years after encountering the painter's work at an exhibition in Alexandria. His translation work also introduced people in Europe to the regional histories of modern art in the Arab world through his contributions to French encyclopedias, thus bridging linguistic and cultural gaps between art critics, art historians, and arts practitioners across the globe.


Selected Solo Exhibitions


2019                Ahmed Morsi: The Flying Poet, Aicon Gallery, New York

2018                Focus: ICONS, Abu Dhabi Art

2017                Ahmed Morsi: You Closed Your Eyes in Order to See the Unseen, Gypsum Gallery

2017                Ahmed Morsi, Art Dubai, Dubai, UAE

2017                Ahmed Morsi: A Dialogic Imagination, retrospective, curated by Sheikha Hoor Al Qasimi and Salah Hassan, Sharjah Art Museum

2016                Ahmed Morsi: A Pure Artist, retrospective, Ofok Gallery, Muhammad Mahmoud Khalil Museum, Cairo

2012                Metaphysics, Gallery Misr, Cairo

2005                Akhenaton Gallery, Cairo

2003                Akhenaton Gallery, Cairo

1997                Ahmed Morsi: Cavafi Suite, Mashrabia Gallery, Cairo

1996                Akhenaton Gallery, Cairo​

1996                Accademia d'Egitto, Rome

1995                Kitab al-fannan (The Artist's Book), Mashrabia Gallery, Cairo; also shown at The Egyptian Academy in Rome, June of 1996

1991                Cavafy Suite, Mashrabia Gallery, Cairo

1989                Soviet Cultural Center, Alexandria

1988                Akhenaton Gallery, Cairo

1987                Vorpal Gallery, New York

1985                Alef Gallery, Washington DC

1977                Asif Gallery, New York

1975                Columbia University, New York

1973                Akhenaton Gallery, Cairo

1970                Cairo Atelier

1970                The Place Gallery, London

1969                Cairo Atelier

1966                Cairo University "Atelier"

1966                Ahmed Morsi Studio, Alexandria

1966                Cairo Atelier

1961                Museum of Fine Arts, Alexandria

1960                Museum of Fine Arts, Alexandria

1959                Cairo Atelier

1958                Museum of Fine Arts, Alexandria

1958                Cairo Atelier

1956                Al-Wazariya Gallery, Society of Iraqi Artists, Baghdad​

1953                University of Alexandria


Selected Group Exhibitions


2020                Frieze London Online, Salon 94

2020                New Images of Man, Los Angeles, California

2019                Art Dubai 2019, Dubai, UAE

2018                Frieze London, London

2018                8th International Artists Book Biennale, Bibliotecha Alexandrina, Alexandria

2018                Eternal Light, Art d'Egypte, Cairo

2017                Night at the Museum, Art d'Egypte, Cairo

2017                Arab Print Vol III, Meem Gallery, Dubai, UAE

2017                100 Masterpieces of Modern and Contemporary Arab Art, Barjeel Art Foundation, Institut du Monde Arabe, Paris

2016-2017       Beloved Bodies, Part I, Barjeel Art Foundation, Maraya Art Center, Sharjah, UAE

2016                When Art Becomes Liberty: The Egyptian Surrealists (1938-1965), Palace of the Fine Arts, Cairo; and international tour started April 6, 2017 (National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Seoul, Korea)

2016                Debunking Orientalism, The Untitled Space, SYRA Arts, New York

2016                Looking at the World Around You: Contemporary Works from Qatar Museums, Santander Art Gallery, Madrid

2012                Surrealism, Present-Day Cairo, The Gallery, Cairo

2007                1st "Egyptian Salon," Amir Taz Palace, Cairo

2007                Spirit of the Moment, Spirit of the Image, Ebda'a Gallery, Cairo

1996                6th International Biennial of Cairo (also served as Member of the Jury Committee)

1971                Al-Wasti International Exhibition, Baghdad

1968                Cairo Atelier

1958                3rd Biennial of Mediterranean Countries, Museum of Fine Arts, Alexandria

1958                Museum of Fine Arts, Alexandria

1958                Cairo Atelier

1956                2nd Biennial of Mediterranean Countries, Museum of Fine Arts, Alexandria

1955                Museum of Modern Art and Cultural Center, Alexandria

1954                Inaugural exhibition of the Museum of Fine Arts, Alexandria

1954                1st Biennial of Mediterranean Countries, Museum of Fine Arts, Alexandria

1954                Societé d'Alliance Française, Alexandria​

 

Keywords:
Art, prose, poetry, painting, drawing, surrealism, contemporary Egyptian art, Alexandria, Iraq, Baghdad, translation, text, art criticism, prints.​