Hamed Abdalla

Defeat

1963

Artist
Hamed Abdalla 1917–1985
Original title
Mahzoum
Medium
Silver, aluminium, tar and oil paint on board
Dimensions
Frame: 633 x 745 x 42 mm
Collection
Tate
Acquisition
Presented by the executors of the artist’s estate 2014
Reference
T14314

Summary

Defeat 1963 is an abstract painting on board in silver leaf, aluminium, paint and tar. The silver leaf has been overlaid with aluminium, creating a highly textured and strikingly bright surface. A blowtorch has then been applied to this base layer in order to create scorch marks on the silver and aluminium ground. The composition was finished with a combination of black paint and tar which create abstract calligraphic forms. The effect is a contrasting composition of elements and textures, as well as burnt and bright surfaces, resulting in a visually rich painting that is reminiscent of the effects of fire while still bearing the luminosity of silver.

This work is characteristic of Hamed Abdalla’s practice in the early 1960s. The unconventional materials and technical expression testify to his liberation of forms through the destruction or alteration of the material qualities of his media; a trajectory which Abdalla continued to explore throughout his career. However, the use of tar in this work is unique within the artist’s practice. It defined an important shift in his technical evolution and his application of different textures, colours and materials. The formal development of his paintings at this stage (which were dominated by burnt surfaces), as well as his choice of materials, exemplified a departure from his usual experimentations with conventional paint, which had a lighter, gestural feel.

Defeat is part of the series Illuminations which Abdalla worked on from 1963 (the year he made Defeat) to 1966, while he was living in Copenhagen. The series defines one of the most original and radical moments in his diverse practice. Initially trained in calligraphy in Egypt, but frustrated by the political and social situation in his home country, Abdalla settled in Copenhagen, where he experienced a period of intense experimentation and discovery. The ideas that had pervaded the work of the CoBrA artists (based in Copenhagen, Brussels and Amsterdam) were still prominent at this time in the local and international context. Their concepts of freedom of form and colour had a significant impact on Abdalla, who shared CoBrA’s fascination with scrutinising familiar methods and radically exploring new artistic forms.

Abdalla pioneered a practice based on continuous experimentation with the concept of the ‘word-form’, which combines in painting the use of shapes, colours and forms to achieve visual effects that allude to written words. His use of anthropomorphic shapes, symbols and forms of writing reveals the nature of linguistic traditions, displacing habitual understanding and integrating language into the fabric of conceptual thinking. Words such as ‘sadness’, ‘capitulation’, ‘slavery’, ‘prostration’, ‘pain’, ‘war’, ‘defeat’, ‘resistance’, ‘revolution’ and ‘freedom’, but also ‘love’, ‘affection’ and ‘desire’, are among the terms widely used in his symbolic statements, becoming quintessential features of his practice.

While in Europe, Abdalla remained engaged with political developments in Egypt. The 1950s and 1960s were marked by conflicts throughout the Arab world and Egypt was no exception. The Suez Crisis of 1956, the subsequent political humiliation of Egypt’s president Gamal Abdel Nasser and the abandonment of the Unity of Nations ideals had a distinct impact on Abdalla’s creative output. Reflecting on political failure, but also on the spectre of poverty that haunted his country, Defeat describes a scene that, although abstract, can be pictured by the viewer. The word defeat seems to be embodied in the calligraphic black forms which can be read as hunched or beaten down silhouettes. The word itself can be distinguished written in tar and abstracted or expanded through the burning process. The overall effect is a dramatic impression of the subject matter which blurs the boundaries between abstraction, figuration and language. Like other works by Abdalla in which linguistic meaning is presented on the pictorial plane to be discovered in anthropomorphic forms, Defeat functions at the boundary between visual and verbal forms of expression.

It was not just his association with CoBrA that made the period between 1956 and 1966 important in Abdalla’s career. With his work gaining international attention, Abdalla sought to expand his vocabulary, challenging the conventions of formal composition and language and creating a highly idiosyncratic practice. On the occasion of an exhibition of his work in Odense in 1965, the critic Ib Paulsen wrote:

Abdalla is an artist in the best meaning of the word. He works creatively and with a great textural fantasy, in such a way that his choice of unfamiliar materials has just as natural an effect as his use of the familiar. For instance, some of his works in aluminium colour and pitch, worked together by means of a blow-torch, have a great effect … His pictures stand mostly as modern hieroglyphs forming a firm composition.
(Quoted in El Zein 2014, p.90.)

Further reading
Roula El Zein (ed.), Abdalla, L’oeil de l’esprit, Paris 2014.

Vassilis Oikonomopoulos
July 2014

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Display caption

Defeat is characteristic of Abdalla’s experimental approach to unconventional materials and techniques. Although he relocated to Copenhagen in 1957 and later lived in Paris, he remained engaged with political developments in his native Egypt and much of his work reflects on political failure and the impact of conflict. Abdalla made Defeat by overlaying silver leaf with aluminium before using a blow-torch to create burnt areas on the otherwise bright surfaces. The composition is completed with marks resembling writing made with a combination of black paint and tar.

Gallery label, October 2016

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