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A brave new world

Obsession, anxiety and over-caffeinated paranoia are the predominate tones in the compelling universe presented by artist and Egypt Independent reporter Ali Abdel Mohsen in “Razor-Sharp Teeth,” a solo show currently on view at Mashrabia Gallery. The series of ink drawings on cardboard flaps and flattened boxes makes a seductive case for the potential of contemporary drawing practice — an interesting occurrence in an art scene that sometimes suffers from an overabundance of elaborate video installations and new media works.

Mohsen is by his own account a former waiter, real estate scout, cameraman, wolf hunter — and self-taught artist. The “self-taught” qualification might be a large part of what makes his work so engaging. His nervously scrawled drawings share a fervid energy and illustrative quality that’s reminiscent of canonical outsider artists like Henry Darger, as is the eerie sense of foreboding that pervades his works. But while an artist like Darger reveled in hermetic references to his own, interior fantasy life, Mohsen’s cryptic allusions to inhumane violence seem rooted in a very real, very local socio-political context.

These untitled drawings typically depict post-apocalyptic cityscapes inhabited by grotesque humanoid forms with angry, whirlpool-like spiraled lines in the place of faces; exaggerated, hairy appendages; and mangled genitals. All executed in what looks like black felt-tip pen, the forms are defined by heavy, scribbly outlines and agitated, angular slashes and hash marks. Thin washes of bright, pop-like colors add volume and atmosphere.

Space is loosely defined in these vaguely mythological, sometimes quasi-mystical scenes, giving them a universal, no-place quality; but certain topical references like clusters of sprouting satellites are suggestive of Cairo in particular — as is, more generally, the sprawling labyrinths of urban chaos that Mohsen depicts. Renderings of raw subjugation, humiliation and torture certainly evoke current events — the artist himself was arrested and beaten in the course of his reporting on the 18 day uprising in January 2011; but Mohsen thankfully manages to steer clear of any overt, revolution-themed iconography, conveying notions of dread and violence on a hallucinatory plane far beyond local specificities.

That’s not to say that “Razor-Sharp Teeth” is all doom and gloom. The drawings demonstrate an attractive tension between eerie desolation and comic-book like camp, or kitschy sci-fi. Some of these untitled works — like one drawing of a wobbly, unpopulated cityscape, or a zoomed-in portrait of a white deer with gnashed teeth that has been shot in the neck — veer particularly far toward a graphic novel or even pop-advertisement type aesthetic.

But perhaps the most interesting works in the collection are the subtler, more inscrutable ones; especially a series of drawings featuring rows and columns of tiny, cipher-like figures that stack up in some kind of absurd arithmetic. In one triptych, the first panel shows a few sparse rows of these figures — some with menacing fangs, others with fantastical satellite heads; some nude, some in niqab. The tiny creatures sometimes interact with each other (fighting, gesticulating, having sex), all against a yellow background with a vivid red river branching off into two streams at the top of the picture plane. In the second panel, the entire picture plane has been consumed by the figures, which engage with each other in an even more animated fashion; until in the last scene of the triptych, the tidy rows of figures have disintegrated into a jumbled knot of antagonism, with stray bodies tumbling out of the fray.

On the same night as Mohsen’s opening at the Mashrabia, a survey show of contemporary drawing by Egyptian artists opened across the river at the Gallery Misr. Despite the renowned names and a few interesting pieces, “Drawing” was a tired and tiresome look at a medium that can often seem un-sexy in a new media age. By contrast, Mohsen’s “Razor Sharp Teeth” was a fresh and exciting viewing experience that raised the stakes both for drawing as a practice, and for local artists’ potential to engage with a fraught contemporary context in an oblique, compelling way.

“Razor Sharp Teeth” is on display at Mashrabia Gallery until 8 March, 8 Champollion Street, Downtown, Cairo. The gallery is open daily from 11 am to 8 pm. Mashrabia Gallery is closed on Fridays.

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