Sitting on the stoop sipping coffee, Ahmed El Shaer can’t help but marvel at his good fortune.
A visual artist, he’s just moved into a new apartment that has a back yard and enough space for him to paint and create videos.
He looks toward the front window, where he can see the unpacked boxes piled up in the living room. His year-old black rescue cat, Tomasa, stares back at him with owl-like amber eyes.
Ahmed, who has curly black hair, a soft voice and a curated beard speckled with silver, counts his blessings:
He has two part-time jobs – he teaches video art to middle-school and high-school students at the Museum of the Moving Image and is a member of the ArtsConnection think tank developing online courses for children in city schools.
He’s newly married. (She’s an education director at a museum; they share the apartment with her mother, who is an artist.)
And he’s living in New York, which puts him in the middle of the greatest contemporary art scene in the world.
Ahmed is, of course, more than familiar with that scene.
He’s been showing his work here off and on since 2011, but this is the first time he’s had the opportunity to plant roots.
And they run deep.
The apartment he just vacated was near the Hell Gate Bridge.
He goes inside and emerges a couple of minutes later with a small, long canvas he just completed that shows the view of Astoria Park he used to have.
“I love this bridge,” he says, in awe of its engineering and architecture.
The thing is, Ahmed never really planned any of this; good things and extraordinary opportunities just kept happening to him, pushing him into place.
Ahmed, a multi-disciplinary artist whose primary medium is video, has always been interested in art.
He was born and raised in Cairo, Egypt, where his parents, particularly his mother, encouraged him and nurtured his budding talent.
Shortly after he earned a bachelor’s degree in culture and arts from the Faculty of Art and Education at Cairo’s Helwan University, he entered a competition that led to his landing a full-time job in graphic design with Egypt’s Ministry of Culture, a position he retained from 2002 to 2018.
From 2016 to 2018, he also taught media arts at the University for Modern Sciences and Arts in Cairo.
While he worked those two jobs, Ahmed continued to pursue his personal artistic endeavors, winning competitions and traveling all over the world to show his work.
In 2011, he made his first trip to New York City.
“I didn’t feel like a stranger because at that time – I was born in 1981 – Egypt was very much influenced by American culture,” he says, adding that he was a preteen when the first McDonald’s opened in Cairo. “I felt like I was home.”
As Ahmed continued to develop his art talent, the world stood up and took notice.
His work has been shown at the Venice Biennale, Bamako Biennale, CairoTronica, The Guggenheim, the Museum of the Moving Image and Casa Árabe in Madrid.
Ahmed’s videos combine Machinima, stock footage, 3D animation and experimental soundscapes and cover a range of themes.
His Crossover (The Scene) was inspired by migrants in a refugee camp in Calais, France; Selection, Reflection, Attention tackles the topic of natural selection; Hybrid Spaces and Other Objects is a visual bouquet of surrealist animation fantasy; and Cairo Under Attack channels the Godzilla film franchise with a set of game’s-on digital monsters.
In 2018, Ahmed landed a nine-month residency in the Game Lab at the University of California, Los Angeles as part of a Fulbright research program.
After returning to Cairo, briefly, for a group exhibition, Ahmed came to Astoria, where the Museum of the Moving Image was showing his work.
While he was in Astoria, he reunited with the woman he had been corresponding with for nearly a decade. Late last year, they married.
Ahmed, who is classically trained, learned the art of video at an independent workshop.
He concedes that producing art, especially video art, is not an easy way to earn a living.
Materialism, however, does not really interest him.
“Being a full-time artist and working in my studio is my dream,” he says. “But teaching is part of my practice, too. I love it because new-media art is dynamic; there’s always something new to learn about it. I teach my students, but I also learn from them, and that helps me as an artist.”
New York, he says, is stuck with him.
“I plan to stay here because of the new life and family I have established,” he says. “My art is second only to my wife. New York is the source of the art movement. I can study new kinds of art here.”
Nancy A. Ruhling may be reached at Nruhling@gmail.com; @nancyruhling; nruhling on Instagram, nancyruhling.com, astoriacharacters.com.
Copyright 2020 by Nancy A. Ruhling