Al-Ahram Weekly On-line
4 - 10 January 2001
Issue No.515
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Current issue | Previous issue | Site map

Not quite a sylvan scene

By Nigel Ryan

Gamil Shafiq
Gamil Shafiq, who produced the image above exclusively for Al-Ahram Weekly, is currently exhibiting recent works at the Centre for International Cultural Cooperation. Below, Abdel-Hadi El-Gazzar continues till the middle of the month at Safar Khan, while Moataz Nasr, bottom, shows exuberant acrylics at the Townhouse

Ramadan, and its post-prandial bout of festivity, is hardly prime gallery visiting time. Indeed, throughout the past few weeks, and in the immediate aftermath of the celebrations, exhibitions have been noticeably thin on the ground, even those that purport to take notice of the holy month, lending it a slight, thematic bow.

True, Abdel-Hadi El-Gazzar has been, and will remain, at Safar Khan, in Zamalek, until 15 January. And if many of the images are familiar, that hardly justifies sniffiness. Apart from the few large paintings that form part of the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Egyptian Art, El-Gazzar receives far too little exposure. A maverick who left no real followers, he is one of the true originals of twentieth century art, Egyptian or otherwise. At some point the Ministry of Culture will surely organise a comprehensive retrospective, and the sooner the better given that the task of tracking down major works becomes increasingly complicated with the passage of time and the dispersal of the works themselves. But until that hopefully not too far off day it is to private galleries such as Safar Khan that we must be grateful for providing an opportunity to view (admittedly small scale) examples of his oeuvre.

Following the dry patch, though, things are beginning to pick up. One harbinger of a slightly more active season is the opening of an exhibition of new works by Gamil Shafiq, at the Centre for International Cultural Cooperation, also in Zamalek. The drawing above, which was commissioned by Al-Ahram Weekly and is not included in the exhibition, is nonetheless representative of Shafiq's distinctive graphic style. Those familiar with the artist's work will no doubt recognise the mournful-eyed and shiny-scaled fish (Shafiq is a keen angler) that have been making their appearance in his works for as long as I can remember, though quite what they are doing is anyone's guess. Peculiar how the most abstruse details can become points of reference. I have no idea why the fish are there but it has reached the stage where I would miss them if they weren't.

The Mashrabiya gallery's current show, the somewhat poetically titled My Sister, the Palm, is a group exhibition featuring themed works by the gallery's regular stable of exhibitors. You enter the gallery through a copse of pipes bound in twine, the twine itself, no doubt, being some palmy by-product. Though dodging through this contrived obstacle course is slightly annoying -- there is really very little that is attractive about piping, if indeed it is piping, wrapped in string, especially when it has been clearly placed to either grab your attention or else trip you up -- it is necessary to gain entrance to the gallery where a number of far less demonstrative pieces are on display.

A great many works are crammed into the space, which necessitates that they be small scale. And all make at least some passing reference to the palm tree of the title. Sometimes it is, perhaps, no more than arboreally genetic, as is the case with Shawki Ezzat's decidedly deciduous looking tree, a little more elm than palm, perhaps, but with a distinctive trunk in profile to the right, just in case we had misread the overall silhouette.

For his part, Xavier Puigmarti imagines Egypt synonymous with the willowy-trunked and frondy-leaved tree. Are they coloured photocopies or computer generated images: whatever, they comprise maps, with reduced images of stamps and exit and entry visas. These are tourist documents, replete with the official paraphernalia of travel, postcards from a place that, yes, boasts palms.

Yasser Grab has two vermilion stick people reaching around the trunk of the ubiquitous tree, not quite touching but maybe getting there -- this is tree as not quite a barrier -- while Rawia Sadeq turns her palm fronds into a series of Japanese screens, the panels irregularly spaced, and in the colours of Emara porcelain. Several of these miniatures are pinned against a black background -- dense foliage that looks for all the world like an artistically inclined designer's sketch for something intended to be much larger. Here the problem is the scale -- it would be nice to see these things blown up ten or twenty times.

Wahib Nasser has the knack of turning everything he touches into an atomic explosion. The ubiquitous palm is no exception: it, like everything else, can be subsumed in the mushroom cloud. If Gamil Shafik has been doing fish for what seems like eons, so has Nasser been speculating on these nuclear disasters.

Abdel-Hadi El-Gazzar
Moataz Nasr
Romano della Chiesa includes cardboard packaging, with details either superimposed or highlighted through coloured infill. Souper Alamounim reads one of these cardboard box sides. The original contents could well have been the set of aluminum saucepans in assorted sizes that flourish behind the palm tree that is at the centre of the design. And at the centre of the centre, emerging from the fronds that shade the pots? Who else but Cleopatra. Celebrated for a great many things, the one thing it is hard to imagine is the last of the Ptolemies being a dab hand around the kitchen. It is, though, on such inherent ironies that della Chiesa plays.

A second piece of adapted packaging boasts an ideal factory at its centre, one of those clean-lined, impossibly hygienic palaces of production that were the dream of the early part of the last century. It is in the desert, in a pristine landscape that, of course, boasts a few palms to the side of the factory. Proposed automotive battery factory reads the legend beneath. And in the cerulean blue above this industrial Never Never Land an oriental Icarus, in Disney-land Ali Baba dress, falls from the skies.

Mohamed Abla pieces together older images, a number of 19th century engravings, photocopied and then incorporated into larger, square pieces, the scenes viewed through a fan of knife-edged leaves. The scenes themselves include palms from all over the place, around the lions that sit so proudly on Qasr-Al-Nil Bridge to the engraved scenes that provided so much material for the illustrated papers that flourished in the 19th century -- the actual locations often being unimportant since all that was needed was something suitably exotic, ie colourful outlandish clothes, or else their absence and a lot of hothouse plants. There are, too, more recent images, again photocopies, but this time of photographs, similarly glimpsed from behind a screen of fronds, the whole series being boxed as a kind of book.

Glance around this show, and you might be tempted to believe that collaging techniques are due to make a massive comeback this season. Puigmarti and Abla are joined by Essam Marouf, whose asparagus tip come cactus palm is painted over a photographed marsh, the whole framed by an oval window.

Perhaps the most energetic piece of unadulterated painting and -- tellingly -- the largest thing in the current show, is Ahmed Nosseir's wildly discordant canvas in acid yellow, oranges and red. The gesticulations may seem wild, yet still they manage to resolve themselves into a face somewhere near the bottom of the canvas. It is a precisely controlled expressionism and one that more than whets the appetite for a solo show. At the opposite extreme is the delicate print included by Amr Heiba, a fine blue mesh that, in miniature, in a different medium and taking an opposite route, arrives at the same sense of poise as Nosseir's noisier canvas.

Where there are palms there must, of course, be a camel. Hesham Nawar obliges on this front. The bent forks fronds are painted gold, and they sit atop a trunk constructed from metal bottle caps. And standing placidly beneath, at last, is the camel. One knew it had to be somewhere. Nawar's tabletop sculpture may well be souvenir shop tourist tat revisited, but it is none the worse for that.

While the showing of Van Leo's photographs at the Townhouse closed this week, there is still an opportunity to see Moataz Nasr's impressive room of paintings on the first floor of the downtown gallery. These amorphous abstracts, acrylic on board, manage to escape the miniaturisation forced by cramming so much into the Mashrabiya. Half a dozen paintings in the room is quite sufficient. Nasr, fortunately, has avoided any limiting constraint, exploding across ample space and exuberantly so.

For full details of exhibitions, see Listings


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