Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
17 - 23 August 2000
Issue No. 495
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Issues navigation Current Issue Previous Issue Back Issues

Fatma Refaat
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Fatma Refaat:

Bucolic musing

Profile by Khaireya Khairy

In looks and manner Fatma Refaat is the epitome of the grande dame. She is, too, an increasingly celebrated practitioner of that artistic pursuit that was at one time thought an essential accomplishment of the well-bred lady. She is a water-colourist.

After three decades of diligent, if anonymous practice, she entered the public arena in 1974, to great acclaim. Hussein Bikar championed her work immediately, and was quickly followed by others.

Refaat's subject matter includes rural Egyptian scenes, the snow covered landscapes of Canada, which she visits regularly now that two of her sons live there, and still lives, particularly flower studies. The most characteristic aspect of her work, Bicar insists, is its grace, delicacy and insistence on the poetry inherent in the subjects depicted.

Bikar and Refaat discussing brush aesthetics in embracing nature
Nile boats gliding across the rippling surface of the Nile, peasant girls bent over their washing on the river banks, contented animals surrounding a palm leaf-roofed house, hers is a bucolic and pastoral vision of Egypt, with no unsightly elements allowed to intrude on the calm she seeks to portray.

Watercolour painting is notoriously difficult, if only for the simple, technical reason that each mark of the brush is indelible. There is no question of overpainting, as with oil and other paints. Watercolours are constructed, layer by layer, but beneath each wash the earlier washes are visible. Nor can colours be retouched, leading to Refaat's candid admission that she has, in her time, discarded mound after mound of unsatisfactory works.

Fatma Refaat's surroundings do not jar with her appearance -- they are everything one would expect from the grande dame. Her sixth floor Mohandessin apartment is made to look even more spacious by the disposition of the comfortable, modern furniture. The door opens onto a bright reception room, the walls of which are lined by ... yes, the artist's own watercolours, pieces with which she could not bear to part. A table by the seating area is surmounted by a vase of beautifully arranged flowers. And in a far corner is the place she paints. A table is neatly arranged with her equipment. A nearby filing cabinet contains scores of folders filled with cuttings and pictures relating to Refaat's exhibitions.

An amiable hostess, Refaat orders refreshments while I take in the scene. I am immediately impressed by her bearing. At 85 she epitomises not just the grande dame, but the grande dame determined to age gracefully. Nor has age withered her enthusiasm for work. Last March she participated in an all women art show, and is currently looking forward to a trip to Canada where she will go, as always, with her painting kit in hand.

Refaat began painting in 1949, when she was 34, and the youngest of her three sons began kindergarten.

"I brought up the three boys myself, though at the time foreign and Egyptian nannies were readily available." But having observed the bullying manner many nannies adopted towards their charges, she decided to dispense with their services. When her youngest son began school, though, she suddenly found herself with time on her hands. Discovering she had a penchant for drawing, she determined to refine her abilities.

"I am not a product of any school of art but I did receive tuition from two of the most accomplished artists in Egypt, Hedayat and Ahmed Sabri, the best portrait painter at the time and most probably to this day," she says. Yet when she first asked for lessons, both declined. Instead, they encouraged her to start drawing, and allowed her to drop in on their studios to observe them at work.

She recalls that initially Hedayat gave her an ordinary copybook and asked her to draw whatever she wished. When he looked at her drawing next, he asked her what it was. She told him it was a tree. "It looks more like a cabbage," he replied, before imploring her to remember, always, that "even a tree has a soul."

Ahmed Sabri, for his part, once allowed her to accompany him when he was commissioned to paint someone's portrait, an invitation that she understood as a recognition of her potential. And indeed, if the family portraits that she has done, and which decorate her own home, are anything to go by, the lessons in observation paid dividends. Yet portraiture is an area that she has otherwise avoided.

Her two mentors had urged her to immerse herself in drawing before beginning to experiment with colour. And while she carried out their instructions, she also began a correspondence course with an art institute in Paris, which involved the endless drawing of lines. "I drew lines, straight, vertical, and parallel, then moved to circles, cubes and what not," explaining that this practice was intended to give her control when holding a brush.

And for the next 25 years she pursued painting as a hobby.

"I considered myself an amateur," says Refaat. When, finally, in the early 70s she did change gears, it came as something of an accident. She was in Canada, visiting her son, whose friend -- who happened to be the minister of culture at the time -- urged her to show her work to a gallery. She did, and clinched her first sale instantaneously.

The success of her first exhibition in Canada was the spur she needed. Now she can no longer count the number of exhibitions in which she has participated, generally showing between 60 and 70 pieces in each show. "Hers," Bikar says, "is a classical approach to nature, and she always foregrounds its beauty."

"When in Canada," says Refaat, "I huddle from the cold in a car, and have someone take me for a drive. I stop occasionally to make a sketch of any eye-catching scene. Once home I sit for hours until I complete the scene. Usually it takes me an average of five hours to complete a picture. However, I refer to it some days later should it need retouching, or I may discard it altogether."

When in Egypt Refaat would regularly drive out in the country to paint. But arrested twice by the police, for painting in areas she should not have been, she now has "a driver to take me around. He also acts as my bodyguard."

photo: Randa Shaath

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