A region’s pain made material

“Untitled,” 2013, acrylic on canvas, 200x140 cm.

BEIRUT: First, there are trees, generally rendered on canvas. There are ladders – sometimes rendered on canvas, other times objects banged together from wood or bought from a hardware shop – seemingly put in place so vertebrates can climb the trees. Then there are the characters who would use the ladders – always sculptural, always headless, sometimes climbing, other times trapped within – or else standing amid ersatz greenery. This multifaceted mimesis is what awaits anyone entering Gemmayzeh’s Art on 56th gallery. The mixed-media works and installations by Randa Ali Ahmad comprise the exhibition “Rising: The Only Way is Up,” which express the artist’s perception of what has fallen upon the Middle East.

Freighted with metaphor, the ladder is a motif that has been used and reused in cultural production since antiquity. Take “Jacob’s ladder.” The term comes into English from an episode in the Book of Genesis, in which the patriarch of the 12 tribes of Israel dreams about a ladder to Heaven. More recently, it’s been included in the names of a diverse range of items, from a wooden-runged rope ladder to a climbing plant to a Hollywood film.

Georgia O’Keeffe also depicted the object in her “Ladder to the Moon,” in which we see a ladder suspended in the air. In Marc Chagall’s representation of “Jacob’s Ladder,” angels and demons struggle to take possession of the item.

The ladder is a leitmotiv of the work in “Rising: The Only Way is Up,” here reflecting society’s standards.

In her sculpture “There’s a Lady Who’s Sure, All That Glitters is Gold,” onlookers find a headless, human-like figure – actually a man’s suit of clothes erect but without a figure within – standing, apparently trapped within a stepladder. The figure is covered with glittering gold, which pools about its feet.

This installation, Ahmad explained to The Daily Star, reflected her vision of how materials – in this case the ladder – take precedence over spiritual matters. She acknowledges that the Led Zeppelin song “Stairway to Heaven,” inspired the piece and furnished its name.

In another installation, entitled “You Reap What You Sow,” Ahmad explicitly conveys the meaning of the adage as we find another male-suit-of-clothes character – this time painted bright green – standing in a field of greenery. Again the figure is trapped, unable to move least he risk stepping on growing seeds he planted.

It is intriguing to reflect upon how the artist’s imagining of this saying shows her view of the present turmoil in the region.

Ahmad’s most recent exhibition was “Arab Spring,” a 2012 show at the Karigulla Building, Downtown. There, natural motifs were set in the context of sceneries of war and, in this exhibit too, nature seemed to prevail. Headless characters were another motif of those works, evidently providing a focal point through which viewers could identify with the art.

The artist discussed how she used the symbol of the ladder to represent contemporary approaches to life. “We tend to forget about time,” she said. People tend to jump stages, passing from one level to another without attention, as though in a hurry to evolve or develop whatever idea they want to accomplish.

Ahmad’s paintings seem less busy than her installations. Colorful landscapes depicted in vivid palettes form a sort of picturesque rural cocoon about viewers. The impact is quite distinct from that of the installation work: It is as though the show’s two components pull against one another. Yet it does not prevent viewers from appreciating Ahmad’s bright palette.

Randa Ali Ahmad’s work can be read several ways. It can be interpreted didactically – as her suggestions for a better future for the region. The sheer weight of nature in the works can be read as a mark of hope. This metaphorical reading is complemented by the importance of verticality in these pieces. Trees, ladders, paths ploughing their way through foliage to an undetermined horizon – there are many symptoms of a bright and hopeful future here. Then there is the title of the exhibition itself: “Rising.” Randa Ali Ahmad’s “Rising: The Only Way is Up” is on show at Art on 56th until Jan. 11. For more information, call 01-570-331.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on December 27, 2013, on page 16.




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