1 - 7 July 1999
Issue No. 436
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875|
A million eyesProfile by George Bahgory
If exhibitions are too elitist, why not take to the streets?
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As a student of fine arts in the '50s, Sami Rafi' was distinguished by his colossal height. His head, towering over those of all his fellow students, beamed with a perennial smile, which I had to wrench my neck and stand on my toes to glimpse. He had, and still has, that brand of goodness and simplicity that infects you with love and the urge to be close to him. In my early caricatures, I portrayed him as a palm tree or a cylinder. I sketched him with a long neck and a cylindrical head: a hollow brass cylinder with nothing inside it.
After five lean years of learning how to draw, I gradually came to value what weight and depth this cylindrical head possessed. He was a genuine man, a talented and distinguished artist, a bunch of flowers overflowing with love of life and of our colleagues. We specialised in different fields of art: he in architectural decoration, I in charcoal sketches and later oils. I stole moments from my work to keep track of his success, along with that of some other colleagues: Kamal Hammouda or Raouf Abdel-Meguid (sculpture), Ezzat Saqr and Shadi Abdel-Salam (architecture).
Another Rafi' was our professor at the institute. He was an outstanding plastic artist, regarded by his students as one of the vanguards of modern art. But Sami Rafi' was an artist to the bone: he was not out to gain his fame from the family name he shared with his brother, Samir, who held frequent exhibitions and represented several schools of art. Samir was one of the most brilliant artists of the '50s. As professor of fine arts, he exhibited his work to a large public, and was classified as a surrealist who embodied the spirit of Egypt. Together with Abdel-Hadi El-Gazzar, Ramses Yunan, El-Seguini, Gazbiya Sirry and Hamed Nada, he had introduced genres which enriched the trend of modern art in contemporary Egypt.
Samir Rafi', the professor, one day invited his brother Sami Rafi', the first-year art student, to the Opera House, to meet with Sami El-Taleb, the Opera's art director. The whole day was spent watching a rehearsal of Moliere's L'Avare, in which Said Abu Bakr played the leading role. Sami was fascinated with the set, and the brilliant contribution it made to the play. He had already made up his mind to choose set design as his field of specialisation and, after years of work, he was chosen by Rashad Rushdi for a scholarship in Vienna. Years later, Sami returned with a new love, and the qualifications needed to manage the set department at the Opera, a post he held until the Opera House was consumed by fire one sad day in 1973.
After the fire, Sami reverted to his former teaching job at the Faculty of Fine Arts, where he still teaches today. His creativity and his great love for his compatriots meant he was always on the look out for opportunities to close the gap between the people and the plastic arts, to end the alienation of those outside the exhibition. He knew that most of the public at art exhibitions is made up of the artist's relatives and close friends. He set to work: his mission was to eradicate "optic illiteracy".
To communicate his art to the masses, he chose calligraphy. Names, phrases, proverbs, Qur'anic verses written on walls, on the porticos of houses, the façades of cafés or shops, which normally catch the public eye, became vessels to carry his innovative art, freely displayed on the street. In a competition held to choose a work immortalising the unknown soldier, he created an artistic composition within a pyramidal structure. The idea of drawing on national legacy had been inspired to him by a monument he had seen in Baghdad, erected in the days of the Iraqi revolution. The idea had remained latent for decades. The monument depicted Mesopotamia, the land between the two great rivers, linked by a series of arcs depicting Iraq's historical epochs.
Spontaneity, then, is the secret of his success. His great pyramid immortalising the unknown soldier in the shrine at Madinet Nasr, came about almost by accident. His more recent artistic achievement in the Cairo Metro stations was no less the work of chance. In addition to the numerous stamps he has designed for various official occasions, his two great works embody all the features of his art. Fate is often on his side. Prompted by a profound admiration of the monument to the unknown soldier, Farouk El-Gohari, professor of architecture at Ain Shams University and consultant to the Cairo Underground Authority, set out to find him and immediately commissioned him with the decoration of Cairo's 15 new underground stations.
His art unravelled a new world of aesthetic pleasures. His face is so expressive, his laugh contagious: his acrobatic movements and clown-like gestures could kill you with laughter. This is just the way he wants it: to the dregs. His wife, the novelist Zeinab Sadeq, is the love of his life. She whispers instead of speaking, moves lightly as a dove, breathes freedom of expression and possesses a profound knowledge of literature. Her qualities have brought the best in him to fruition. He cracks jokes and invites others to join in, but his tone is caustic. His head, hairless as an egg, grows shinier every year. On the periphery of his head, the hair is left to grow freely, losing its lustre as it turns to grey, then white.
He is an artist to the tips of his fingers. Art runs in his veins and beats with his heart. Art is within him: it has never been an occupation or business. His secret is deeply couched within himself, manifesting itself in moments of creation. He does not think such moments are historical or eternal.
The first of the underground stations featuring his work is Al-Mazallat. Having made a study of the district and its inhabitants, he decorated the walls of the station with sketches suggesting the weaver's work. The second station is near the Faculty of Agriculture, and the cotton industry is his inspiration. The third station, Al-Khalafawi, is located near Cairo's first college of fine arts; the walls are strewn with colours; palettes, brushes and pens. Red dominates. At Rod Al-Farag, sketches of boats sailing up and down the river recall the romantic lovers' promenade the area was at the beginning of the century, before the banks and bridge of Qasr Al-Nil came to sanction young love.
The fifth station, St Theresa, is decorated with scenes of Muslims and Copts embracing, to show the love and solidarity binding the two elements of society. The paintings are reminiscent of an ancient folkloric representation of Egypt's religious history. The sixth station, Ma'sara, is in the district where Egypt's first hospital was build. Here, his sketch depicts an eye, an ear and a mouth, signifying health. The seventh station, Mubarak, is all rays of light and shiny surfaces, reflecting everything, to symbolise the many developments that have occurred during the president's time in office. At Ataba, the site of the National Theatre, the station walls show the laughing/crying mask. At Mohamed Naguib, near the Ministry of Awqaf (Religious Endowments), Rafi' has covered his walls with the phrase Ma Shaa' Allah in a remarkably beautiful composition. Sadat, the 10th station, draws on the theme of the October War, depicting the wings of victory. At Opera Station, commuters rush past the famous Pharaonic painting of the three musicians bearing harps: here, however, the outlines of the harpist are repeated in trembling lines as if to suggest the echo of her music.
His innovative art graces the stations on the new line from Shubra Al-Kheima to Cairo University. The walls of the last station, at Cairo University, are decorated with books metamorphosing into pigeons with lamps of knowledge in their beaks.
The brilliant colours and graceful lines may escape the passengers racing to get to work or school; at first, they may not so much as glance even once at the walls. The underground is simply a modern, fast, comfortable and reasonably priced means of transportation. Habitual commuters, however, must look around, and eventually establish a degree of intimacy -- familiarity, even -- with the art covering the walls around them.
The metro stations may be their first encounter with the world of art, and new aesthetic pleasures may thus unfold, for the first time, before their gaze. A little beauty in a crowded, chaotic life must do some good: eyes that discover a whole new world of pleasure and beauty must be more rested, somehow.
The student of fine arts I encountered in his 20s has indeed accomplished the goal his brother foresaw, the day he gave him the ticket to the Opera. His brother had told him that day: "Do not be anxious about whether or not people see art: here at the Opera, they perceive the painting along with the play." Today, on the new metro lines, art is reaching out to the people. Millions of travellers every day can see colourful paintings and ingenious compositions. These works are all signed Sami Rafi'.
(photo: Randa Shaath)