It was a stroke of luck for the Bait’s five artists who discovered a painting from 1988
The remarkable case of the missing MA Ibrahim: a long-lost painting resurfaces in an Abu Dhabi villa
Earlier this year, five young artists set up Bait 15, a studio and exhibition site in a villa in Abu Dhabi. They took over the lease from the painter Mohammed Al Mazrouei, who left some materials behind: paintbrushes and cans in his studio, and some artworks, neatly packed in bubble wrap. Among these was a painting of floating, layered rectangles set against an earthy gold background. It was signed “Mohammed Ahmed Ibrahim”.
Ibrahim was one of the first generation of contemporary artists in the UAE, who in the 1990s and early 2000s pushed against accepted notions of what could be considered art. Honouring this legacy – as chance would have it – the Bait 15 artists had invited Ibrahim, who is still making artwork, to participate in their inaugural show.
Or, they’d been trying to: they contacted his gallery, but got no reply. Then Afra Al Dhaheri, one of the Bait 15 founders, ran into Ibrahim at an event. “I said, you know, we actually do have a piece of yours in the house. We don’t know if we’re allowed to touch it, but it’s sitting there in bubble wrap,” she recalls.
Ibrahim replied that he had no idea what work it might be, and asked the artists to open it and see. “It wasn’t dated,” she says, “but it was signed and titled, and it said The Universe After the Sun. And then he told me: 1988.” The painting was one of the few to survive the infamous fire of 1999, when, demoralised by public opposition to his work, Ibrahim drove out to the desert and set all of his paintings and sculptures alight. The only works that remain of Ibrahim’s oeuvre from before this time were those, like The Universe After the Sun, which the artist had already sold or given away.
Painted when Ibrahim was only 26, the artwork is a relic of this early time both in style and substance. Its tones are more muted than the bright colours the Khorfakkan artist now uses, and it was painted not on canvas, which wasn’t then readily available, but on the kind of fabric used for tents. At the same time, the links between this work and his practice since are clear: its evocation of otherworldly, symbolic shapes, sense of equilibrium and attention to colour make it indelibly an Ibrahim.
In 1992, the artist gave the work to the poet Ahmed Rashed Thani, with whom it remained for two decades. When Thani passed away, his family did not know whom to give the painting to. His daughter called Al Mazrouei, and said, “Do you want this, or should we throw it away?” Al Mazrouei took the painting, and let Ibrahim know – though when the latter came to Abu Dhabi from Khorfakkan, Al Mazrouei refused to return it. When asked about this, Ibrahim laughs. “Yani, it’s true,” he says. “But he is my best friend. It was ok.”
The work remained with Al Mazrouei until he moved to Egypt and transferred the house over to the young artists to set up Bait 15. For the inaugural exhibition, he shows his first-ever video. Ibrahim also loaned three paintings for the exhibition.
“It was beautiful. When Mohammed Ahmed Ibrahim came to the opening, he asked to see his early painting,” Al Dhaheri says. It is now hanging in the upstairs hall that connects the artists’ studios, formerly the villa’s bedrooms. “He told us about when he painted it and looked at its condition. It needs conservation, he said.”
“But who owns it now?” she continues. “We’re not giving it back! The house is the best place for it, for the moment.” Ibrahim agrees: “I didn’t know how they got it. But now it’s in a good place.”