24 - 30 August 2000
Issue No. 496
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875|
Egypt Region International Economy Opinion Culture Features Travel Living Sports Profile People Time Out Chronicles Cartoons Letters
Framing the masters
Profile by Youssef Rakha
During a three-week break after George Bahgory's last -- triumphant -- exhibition, the purchases made by the Picasso Gallery in the past year are being hoisted up onto the walls, under the direct supervision of the owner and two of his children. Far from eclectic, these paintings -- sometimes remarkable, often simply accomplished, occasionally quite dull -- amount to an objective showcase of the latest in popular Egyptian art, "popular" being a necessary adjunct that, according to Ibrahim Abdel-Rehim at least, should not detract from these works' status as art, "not mere painting or decorative work," as the young-looking 53-year-old insists. "Sometimes the art is very remarkable but the audience doesn't like it, so it's not the kind of thing that makes for a successful exhibition." This latter is, after all, Abdel-Rehim's ultimate target, for which he rallies all forces to ensure efficient management, effective promotion, networking and consultation with artists and art critics. Such activities, which he invariably sees to in person, are consequent upon the determination to preside consistently over that most elusive of creatures, a successful exhibition. Reaping the profits in the process (although he self-righteously repeats that he is not in it for the money), Abdel-Rehim embraces his task with a shopkeeper's devotion to making his little enterprise a success, guarding it against idiosyncrasy and egotism, making it a welcoming and homely place for a small but loyal clientele, and eventually expanding its scope.
One can tell that he operates like a contemporary curator of the West, not a mere gallery owner in Zamalek, even though the actual whats of the art itself do not seem to concern him as much as the whos and hows; is it any different with even the most respected art dealers in contemporary Europe and America? The whos especially are crucial, not only determining the number of people who will come (and buy), but taking care of contingents like media attention, future interest in the gallery, and the overt manifestations of achievement, some of which Abdel-Rehim enumerates with genuine modesty but little passion: "To the journalists and commentators who possess artistic sensitivity and moral refinement, I must assert that I am very grateful. Because the truth is that they stood by me in an impressive display of solidarity, leaving nothing to chance and saying the truth that needed to be said. They considered what I was doing the beginning of an artistic movement, even. So when I finally held the opening, they supported me, they did not in any way demoralise me. Which explains why in the first exhibition I had works by 50 artists -- and these were not just any 50 artists. All were accomplished and respected, there wasn't a single one among them whose contribution could be questioned. And -- I can only thank God's endless benevolence -- the artist would physically carry his painting to the gallery and bring it to me in order to participate," a gesture demonstrating his or her implicit faith in Abdel-Rehim -- his experience, his knowledge of the market, his ability to turn their endeavours to success.
"I started out with only part of the present space, because as you know real estate in Zamalek is very cheap," he laughs. "I have always been like this in the sense that if I have enough money to build a three-storey building, I build a two-storey one until I feel secure enough with the turnout. Only then do I attempt expansion. So, yes, I occupied a small space which was not bad at all for a start, and since then it hasn't been all that bad, thank God. One exhibition was opened by Pope Shenouda and Sheikh Mohamed Sayed Tantawi, three or four by the minister [of culture], three or four by the dean of the Arts College..." Impersonally, as if citing items on a printout of his CV, Abdel-Rehim mentions the names of several more government and public figures (Bahgory, Adli Rizkalla, the late Habib Gorky are only a few of the names that crop up in connection with specific exhibitions), until his voice drops and gradually ceases. "Thank God," he says again. "It was really good, the gallery managed to establish itself in a very brief period." And again he launches into an exposition of his method of relying on an informal committee of artists, critics, collectors (all of whom are friends) to determine the gallery's curatorial policy, with "artistic excellence and popularity" as his overriding guidelines.
The gallery took off in 1993, after more than two decades of daily contact with some of the Egyptian art scene's most celebrated pillars. It marks a clear departure in Abdel-Rehim's life, the new destination being the space occupied by a powerful and multi-faceted individual/mini-institution of the art world, whereas before Abdel-Rehim was merely an artists' framer, then the owner of an exclusive framing establishment in Shubra Al-Kheima. The shop's gradual expansion from 1969 to 1975 marks his first significant career move -- his transformation into the proprietor of an establishment, well-connected in artists' circles. Now the owner of a gallery (and a full-scale frame factory, operated under the management of two university-educated children), he continues to display the accommodating humility, patience and eagerness to please of a gifted framing apprentice. The man who addresses me now is both these people -- and more. For one thing, he is a very peculiar instance of the self-made businessman. The timeline of his life follows the usual pattern of modest beginnings, resourceful connection-making and the final, impressive leap into stability and recognition. The difference is that, rather than shady dealings or heartless manoeuvres (the kinds of ineluctable undertakings that make the business world repulsive), all Abdel-Rehim ever did was consort with artists -- through his trade -- and make his talents genuinely useful to them.
When he was only 12 and on holiday in Cairo, Abdel-Rehim seems to have received some kind of calling. At any rate, he decided to stay. He is reluctant to talk at length about this part of his life: what drove him out of his parents' house in Zaqaziq, Sharqiya, in the first place; how he managed to apprentice himself to a well-known French Jew who framed the works of celebrated painters in his little establishment on Shawarbi Street (one of the more vibrant commercial centres downtown); how, finally, he came to look on making frames, of all the trades available to a budding artisan, as his life-long vocation. These questions are especially confusing in the light of the fact that "at no time were things particularly drastic or uncomfortable." One is tempted to think that there might have been better options. The reasons, Abdel-Rehim insists, are simple. "The original plan was to continue with my education, and I would have loved to go to art college, but I stopped after receiving a high-school diploma because there came a point when, if I wanted to go on with my studies, I would have to stop my work as a framer. And I liked my work so much there was no way I could have brought myself to do that. So it was for the love of art that I gave up the desired higher education," which concession, it is clear, continues to bother him -- even though he is aware of the dignity and daring of taking the harder route to success. One uncle was "an amateur, anonymous artist," and he supplied him with his first encounter with that magic realm. Cairo could only have broadened the scope of such encounters.
Having settled with a Shubra-residing uncle, Abdel-Rehim quickly found his way around the big city. After what he describes as "an incredibly brief period," he started living alone. In the morning he would go to work, in the evening to school. When subsequently he says "the private sector is exhausting," it is evidently to the toil of braving the world independently, as a teenager, that he refers. "At a very early stage I knew that if I wanted to survive I had to fend for myself, that there was no other way." He attributes his "permanent nervousness" to the unceasing panic of managing his own finances that began with leaving his uncle's house. But even though, by forgoing university, he was giving up a secure and respectable future, there was something about his work that reassured him and confirmed him in his newly acquired position as artisan among artists. "These were sensitive, perceptive, reliable people; and I felt that whatever job I got, however prominent or redeeming on the social ladder, I could not possibly end up with a better or safer bunch." By the time he was 14, indeed, the likes of Inji Aflatoun, Tahiya Halim, the late Mounir Kanaan and Hussein Bikar (his surrogate family, as he remembers it, in order of emotional proximity) were consulting his opinion on the finishing touches to be added to their works. By the age of 23, in turn, he was seeking their advice on his new workshop, established on the savings of a decade of invariably uplifting work in good company. Already he felt he was not alone, he was part of an increasingly respected community whose power he could always utilise. And his function in that group was indispensable.
Abdel-Rehim is a delightful host, well versed in the art of engaging people and facilitating their activities, be they artists, collectors or journalists. His connection with the countryside, the fallah aspect of his persona, is evident -- and while he makes no effort to hide or temper it, nor does he make a point of emphasising it to excess. The connection gave him a sense of security, he explains, because he felt he had roots that he could draw on for moral and, if necessary, material support. As to whether the art-dealing metropolis poses a threat to that connection now, suffice it to say that he returns to Zaqaziq at least once a month; even his Cairo-born children are intimately familiar with his birthplace. This is perhaps the most intriguing facet of Abdel-Rehim -- that, like the master artisans of old, his private and family life is something of which posterity will know nothing; and, no matter how deeply he has penetrated the urban artsy circles, his values have in no way been compromised. Within his own lineage, Abdel-Rehim is the founder of a lucrative (if delicately rarefied) colony; at the same time, he is its most powerful conqueror. The wars are peaceful, however, constructive rather than destructive, unashamedly enterprising. And Abdel-Rehim remains admirably level-headed. "I did try my hand at painting," he admits. "But I didn't feel that anything I did was sufficiently interesting or different to show to anybody. And it is not like me to do things by halves. If I do anything at all, I want to do it right."
Framing, by contrast, holds the key to what he does best -- serve the beauty, value and vitality of others. The value of a frame, he tells me, is equal to how much it serves the picture; and like art, good frames are highly valued not because they cost a lot to make, but because they are beautiful and inimitable. "There are no hard and fast rules about it, except that you can see it and then it becomes possible to tell. The fabric might be expensive, but it is ultimately the tailor and how well he knows his client that determine whether the suit will be right. So, too, with the frame. You keep looking at the picture, thinking about the colour, what goes, what brings out what, why this and not that, how far and how wide... And only then, assuming that you know what you're doing, will it be obvious that this frame is right. Which is how," he adds, "in 1988 Ustaz Bikar published an article in the paper in which he referred to me as 'the anonymous artist." This is but one example of artists' testimonies in praise of Abdel-Rehim, an artisan and businessman who has acquired the status of artist -- all through performing a useful function, as practical as it is creative. Even the Picasso Gallery he describes as "the latest extension in the services we offer the artist." Thank God indeed.
Before we leave the gallery, Abdel-Rehim's charming daughter takes down our contact numbers, should we care to be notified of events.
photo: Randa Shaath