Edham the Orientalist (from the series “Tracing the Covers of Nonexistent Books”), 2013. Oil on birch panel. 16 x 12 inches. Based on the cover of Sources of Islamic history and other texts, by Ismail Ahmed Edham. Banned book (ca.1935) re-issued in 2009. Cover image source.
Garnett's series 'Edham the Atheist' was produced for The Wayland Rudd Collection, a collaborative project and traveling exhibition organized by Yevgeniy Fiks that focuses on the representation of Africans and African-Americans in Soviet visual culture. A point of departure for this project is Fiks’ collection of over 200 Soviet images (paintings, movie stills, posters, graphics, etc.) of Africans and African-Americans spanning from the 1920s to the 1980s. The exhibition premiered at Winkleman Gallery, NY, January-February 2014, and travelled to First Floor Gallery Harare, Zimbabwe in June 2014. A book will be produced in conjunction with this project.
'The Wayland Rudd Collection' at Winkleman Gallery, Holland Cotter, The New York Times, Art in Review: Friday February 6, 2014:
Joy Garnett documents the short, elusive, embattled life of Ismail Ahmed Edham (1911-1940), an Egyptian writer (and distant relative of the artist) [sic] who claimed to have been educated in Russia.
Edham the Atheist, installation view, “The Wayland Rudd Collection,” a project by Yevgeniy Fiks. Photography by Etienne Frossard.
Joy Garnett: EDHAM the ATHEIST (2013 - 2014)
The works presented in “Edham the Atheist” draw on the painstakingly constructed identity of Ismail Ahmed Edham (1911-1940), an Alexandrian Egyptian with literary and scholarly aspirations. Edham flaunted a long list of academic credentials he supposedly attained while pursuing advanced degrees in the Soviet Union. However, it has been suggested by some that Edham never left Egypt.
In Egypt, if Edham is remembered at all it is for his polemical treatise Why am I an Atheist? (Limadha ana mulhid?),1 which was printed and published in 1937 by The Cooperation Press, Garnett's grandfather's imprint on the rue de France in Alexandria. In this tract, Edham explains how he came to form a group in Istanbul called The Eastern Association for the Advancement of Atheism, "a kind of moderate movement spreading free thought and atheist mission work." By his own account, in 1931 when the movement failed, Edham left Turkey for Russia to study mathematics and theoretical physics, returning to Egypt in 1934. Three years later, the publication of Why am I an Atheist? would be met with outrage, placing Edham in the spotlight. In July 1940, Edham’s corpse was found floating in the Mediterranean Sea off Alexandria's Gleem beach, a suicide note pinned inside his coat pocket. He was 29 years old.
This installation assembles a selection of photographed pages from Edham’s infamous tract, and from the biography he wrote of Garnett's grandfather, Abushâdy the Poet: a critical study.2 Also included is a painting of the cover of one of Edham’s banned books bearing his portrait, and which starts the series, “Tracing the Covers of Nonexistent Books.”
Garnett became aware of the existence of “Dr. I.A. Edham” when she discovered Abushâdy the Poet in the Harvard Library. It is one of two biographies of Abushâdy written in English. The then-twenty-five-year-old Edham's credentials are displayed on the cover:
D.Litt. (Hon), Ph.D., Sc.D. (Moscow), Vice-President of the Russian Soviet Institute for Islamic Studies, Member of the Russian Soviet Academy for Science, Formerly Professor of High Mathematics, University of St. Petersburg, Professor of Islamic History at the College of History, Stamboul
An impressive list of publications authored by Edham appears in the addendum:
- Life of the Prophet (in German);
- History of Islam (3 volumes, in Turkish);
- Mathematics and Physics (2 volumes in German and Russian);
- Theory of Relativity (3 volumes in German and Russian).
Many years later, the esteemed Leiden Orientalist, G.H.A Juynboll, felt compelled to shed light on Edham's accomplishments. In an article published in the Journal of Arabic Literature,3 Juynboll notes: "It could be established that Adham never got any doctorate, never became a member of the Academy of Sciences, never published one book or article in either Russian, French or German, never wrote his two-volume work in Turkish, entitled Islam Tarihi, never made friends with the Russian Orientalist Barthold, who had already died in 1930, one year before Adham claims to have gone to Russia, and never met with favourable criticism from the Russian Orientalist Kazimirsky, because there was no such person....After the publication of his Limadha ana mulhid? Adham became known as the 'atheist who spoke his mind candidly.'...Adham's outspokenness is, in our opinion, his most important feature."
Selections from Joy Garnett: Edham the Atheist. Cooperation Press, Alexandria, Egypt, 1937. 2013-14, Inkjet prints, dimensions variable. More info. Image courtesy the Abushady Archive.
1. Edham, I.A., Why am I an Atheist? (Limadha ana mulhid?), Alexandria, Cooperation Press, 1937.
2. Edham, I.A., Abushâdy the poet, a critical study. Leipzig, G. Fischer, 1936.
3. Juynboll, G.H.A. 1972. "Ismail Ahmad Adham (1911-1940), the Atheist." Journal of Arabic Literature. 3: 54-71.