Drawn to beauty
A startling exhibition of the works of the late Kamal Khalifa at the Safar Khan Gallery, Zamalek, exorcises the demons that drove the artist, writes Gamal Nkrumah
It is one of life's satirical paradoxes: some of the most talented artists are destined to receive accolades only posthumously. Such is the historical lot of a certain kind of aesthetic. Kamal Khalifa (1926-68) was one such artist. "I knew Khalifa personally. He was a prolific writer and a painter who worked tirelessly in spite of his abject poverty and debilitating illness," the curator of Safar Khan Gallery, Sherwet Shafei told Al-Ahram Weekly. She has about 40 of his paintings in her possession. "I always believed in him and I knew that he would still be a great name years after he has gone."
His inspirational sources in his youth set the pattern for his attitude in maturity -- he never reached old age. The gale of creative destruction blew over ever harder after his death a year after the June 1967 defeat. The national mood was bleak and forbidding. Given all that, it is a miracle that he managed to produce such wonderful work.
His passion was to go against every grain there was. "That is Khalifa for you," Shafei muses. I scribble furiously into my black Al-Ahram notebook. There is something about sculpture that prevents most people from seeing straight. In a predominantly Muslim country, perhaps it is the unfortunate association with graven images, with paganism. Sculptures are systematically suspect -- a grotesque reminder of idolatry.
The anti-sculpture sentiment is not as pervasive as it was a decade or two ago. Khalifa's works were all but forgotten. He worked wonders with the adaptation of easel-painting to his own personal characteristics and whims. His works were hidden from the public eye. That was until Sherwet Shafei took a shine to Khalifa's works.
Shafei first witnessed his talent at an exhibition of his works at the Manesterly Palace, then a major art gallery. She strives to sustain his legacy. "He is not dead as long as his works are exhibited and admired."
The idea of consecrating Khalifa's legacy is, however, still in fledgling form and Shafei is keen to develop it.
Khalifa possessed a phenomenal visual memory and a voracious visual appetite. These two qualities provided him with endless stimulus, as she blithely put it. The profusion of female studies was his trademark. Younger generations of Egyptians are unaware of this talented sculptor and abstract painter. This attention deficit, of course, derives from the inherently biased attitudes against artists that prevail amongst the religiously inclined fundamentalist who abhor the openly agnostic works of freethinkers such as Khalifa.
Yet Khalifa's works have an astonishingly hedonistic, contemporary ring. "It was all a mixture of joy and sadness," Shafei stresses. His works achieved incremental success at exhibitions at home and abroad. Khalifa's masterpieces made it around Cairo's private gallery network.
Whatever their long-term resonance and implications, and despite these achievements, Khalifa was tormented throughout his career by the tuberculosis that eventually claimed his life. Which is obviously the best way to comprehend and appreciate his slightly demented but profoundly moving works. His personal pain was objectified in his paintings and sculptures. His innermost secret desires, too, were embodied in those headless figures.
Posthumous canonisation notwithstanding, Khalifa is still in many respects a thoroughly obscure artist. How much time Khalifa actually spent in art galleries that were on his doorstep and how much research he undertook to understand those that were not remain unanswered questions.
Khalifa's latest exhibition has more to it than initially meets the eye. "We'll learn from this project and keep researching the possibilities," Shafei says. There was a forensic quality to the exhibition, a hint of public disputation. He was, after all, one of the first modern Egyptian artists to tear up the country's post World War II art scene's rule-book.
While this could make for a passionate, highly charged exhibition, Safar Khan's was a deliberately muted affair. Khalifa, too, was quiet, quick, sure of his eye, favouring the beautiful in an abstract yet far from detached form. I am fascinated by such re-inventions of tradition from personal perspectives.
The Portrait of Aicha, guache on paper, catches my attention. Aicha, Aicha -- who is she? "She was his housekeeper. She made his bed, prepared his meals, brewed his tea and was his model."
So far, so good. Aicha, the mysterious model, is often portrayed faceless. Women feature prominently, and so do doves. Protoplasmic impulses abound.
Khalifa's pawns are too impish and elegant to be crestfallen. Either the heads are held high, or the figures are headless.
Khalifa's secondary school education in provincial Tanta, a town in the heart of the Delta, and later at Cairo's prestigious Khedawiya Academy, established him as a loner. He skipped classes in order to lock himself up in a quite corner and experiment with clay, forging weird figurines.
Khalifa sculpted and painted in order to communicate a message, he eschewed art for commercial purposes and perhaps that is why he died a pauper.
Ironic or satirical humour is embedded in Khalifa's works. He is something of a legend in Egypt, as much for his headless nudes and gypsum sculptures as for his indigent end on a rooftop room. He learned early on how to turn Aicha into an icon. He was equally eloquent with his paintbrush.
Self-dramatisation is an endearing Egyptian characteristic. Khalifa was typically Egyptian in that respect. From the beginning, Khalifa concentrated on a restricted repertoire of gestures. Ironically, the cucumber- like protrusions were decidedly feminine, tumescent torsos.
Headless, often without limbs, but never shapeless, Khalifa's gypsum goddesses exude something uniquely Egyptian.
Gypsum sculptures prove that the truth, however, was more prosaic. Few subjects in contemporary Egyptian art could be more poignant and pertinent.
His female studies might well be bereft of the status and rank of Isis and Hathor, but not of presence commanding respect nor of nobility of deportment.
Shaped like cylinders, the reclining female figures are neither relaxed nor agitated. Their anatomical structures are neither sexy nor asexual. Their lack of adornment is eye-catching. His works are about a man who could not partake fully of the fun of the swinging sixties.
Among the many myths that have swirled around Khalifa is that his personal pain was reflected in his works. Elongated bodies are tortured. Naturalistic portrayals are arresting. Aesthetic characteristics, alluring.
The Pigeon, plaster, is heart-wrenching. Yet I sense, in the pigeon, a detachment that never comes across in works centred around Aicha. Whatever the secret of the dove's seductiveness might be, she does not tell. His sculptures locate the artist squarely within the concluding drift of his own history. That much is perfectly articulated.
Buying a bit of the past in Twins, guache on paper, or some other nameless painting in china ink, it is clear that his works are not devoid of metaphorical value.
Timeless is almost as apt a description for his showpieces as they are unique. The exhibition brought a welcome bit of nostalgia to Zamalek -- a welcome dose of wit. Historically, then, it was fascinating. Intellectually, it was stimulating. So after a quiet summer, there is more to Safar Khan than commercial opportunity, after all.