|Al-Ahram Weekly On-line
10 - 16 September 1998
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875||Current issue | Previous issue | Site map|
Hazem El-Mestikawi (left);
Adli Rizkallah (right)
Summer usually sees a glut of group shows as galleries, mostly private, attempt to fill the enforced caesura with a selection culled from the shows of previous months. This year, though, the majority of galleries have preferred to quietly batten down the hatch and await the return to the city of that multi-headed and, one suspects, increasingly elusive creature, the art-buying public.
Espace is among the few gallery spaces to have continued the practice this year presenting, until the end of the month, excerpts from the previous season's one man shows. It is a useful exercise and, despite the inevitable abbreviations -- such shows are, after all, a visual equivalent of indexed revision cards -- it provides a convenient overview of the production of the gallery's current stable of artists. Nor has Espace limited itself to contemporary works. Last season's programme included posthumous exhibitions by both Kamal Khalifa and Ramses Younan, both reviewed at the time and both represented in the current show.
The Khalifas on show include two typically distorted portraits of women (gouache on paper) -- shimmering, insubstantial, ambiguous presences that never quite solidify, and an ink drawing of a squatting nude that attains a monumental presence in a few, masterfully contrived calligraphic strokes. Ramses Younan, fastidiously monochromatic in three of the exhibits, displays a more varied palette in a fantastic, Heath-Robinson-like machine, the exact purpose of which, if unclear, is unlikely to be anything other than sadistic.
These, then, are the blasts from the past, works by artists who have received that peculiarly patronising appellation, pioneers. Whatever trail they were blazing, however, becomes increasingly unclear as the rest of the exhibition unfolds.
While Younan's embrace of a modern pictorial vocabulary inevitably invokes comparisons with Western models, Khalifa's more idiosyncratic and thematically limited paintings cannot be dissipated in like manner. He remains, stubbornly and always, himself.
Pioneering suggests progression, advancement -- a fallacy of development rooted in the 19th century positivism out of which the least convincing strands of European modernism were themselves to grow. So perhaps one should not be too surprised to find that several of the exhibits at Espace map over-familiar terrain, something that becomes most obvious with the sculptural pieces. Hazem El-Mestikawi's exhibition, from which the three examples shown here are taken, was accompanied by a catalogue with an exceedingly verbose preface: "The body here," it insists, "is seeking to get together. The part is seeking the whole. Through the suggestions of the body and those of sculpture there appears the greatest suggestion of all; the suggestion of life and the secret relation between the idea of art and the idea of nature becomes prominent; the bond between body and earth and the desire to break through the horizon."
Such metaphysically ambitious pantheism is represented in the current show by three small bronzes, crouched figures reduced to an overly familiar schema of flat surfaces and angles. Practice betrays a rhetoric whose verbosity could hardly make it anything other than redundant.
Sobhi Girgis is represented by three three-fingered pieces in three different positions. However astute the reworking of the expressive possibilities offered by what early commentators on European modernism would have called primitive tribal art -- Girgis introduces a flatness that echoes the frontality of many African masks -- it remains over-ploughed terrain.
The rest of the current show consists of paintings by Omar El-Fayoumi, Assem Sharaf, Sherif Abdel-Badie, Adli Rizkallah and Adam Henein. Omar El-Fayoumi shows one small, one large proto-modern take on Greco-Roman faces, the details -- patrician nose, rather strong chins -- picked out in black lines. Assem Sharaf employs his brown palette to create sexually charged spaces occupied by half human, half animal hybrids. In one of these four acrylics on paper, a waxy looking figure sits on the lap of what appears to be a curiously malevolent rabbit.
Sherif Abdel-Badie contributes a little colour with acid pastels of figures dancing at some hellish, never ending rave. The pinks are shocking, the green lime, the yellow fluorescent, and a few calligraphic marks are thrown in for good measure. Rizkallah's wishy-washy bending nude -- beautiful paper, beautifully framed -- is never less than tasteful, and never more, which leaves Adam Henein -- whose pigments, divided into flattish blocks of colour applied to papyrus, are modulated with an accomplished colourism. These two latter, hanging by the door, retain a powerful presence. They, like the Khalifas, bespeak a sensibility sufficiently developed to survive comparisons -- could any be found. An elegant closing shot in an exhibition with highlights, admittedly, and much else besides.
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