Al-Ahram Weekly Online   13 - 19 May 2010
Issue No. 998
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Gamal Nkrumah

Fishing figuratively

Fish are a feast for the senses, the pinnacle of a painter's life, discovers Gamal Nkrumah

Trawling Zamalek galleries, I came across an exquisite exhibition with frenetic fishes in rose, lilac, azure and the occasional aquamarine, executed in a style that Cezanne would have called "entirely painting". Rough smudges alternated with smooth surfaces that evoke at once languor and elation.

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Luscious strokes summon forth fish and surging compositions in glorious colour. Sculpted heads and torsos kiss and hug fishes. Love, life, light, fish, fishermen and women, lifelong friendships, solitude and silence. As I stumbled about in the gallery -- SafarKhan, Zamalek, not knowing where I was going -- it felt a bit like Jesus walking on the waters of the Sea of Galilee.

The light is transcendent and provokes both thought and feeling. Nothing could be more stirring than water and the creatures that inhabit it, for water is life -- it is the beginning of life. The biblical Book of Genesis is essentially about the centrality of water and the word, light and life. And, light is the commencement of consciousness.

It is so bright that the eyes water. Oil and acrylic on canvas, with the fish glistening as if alive and kicking. Mustafa El-Razzaz -- painter, printmaker, sculptor and Art Consultant for the Bibliotheca Alexandrina -- is anything but an erratic artistic genius obsessed by the Nile and the people who ply its course. The Neptunian paintings are Nilotic in nature and do not leave much to the imagination. All this water led my thinking in a contrary direction.

In case you haven't noticed, El-Razzaz's high art does not amount to the damp squibs of contemporary Cairene riparian life. He defines the finest details of a bronze mould. His subjects are the masses' perception of the Nile and not the viewpoint of the intelligentsia.

El-Razzaz depicts "low" culture at its best. Bronze, harder and less brittle than wrought iron, is the metaphor for the perseverance and inner strength of the underdog.

The realisation isn't lost on the onlooker. The fins of the fish look like the wings of birds about to take flight. But fish cannot fly, and the painful expressions on their faces are a grim reminder that they have nowhere to go but into the net. The corpulence of the Poseidon is worshipped only insofar as it is destined for the platter. The plumpness is comely only as the chef d'oeuvres. The sea creatures are merely combustibles.

The fishmongers in El-Razzaz's works, mostly women, smoothly negotiate the complexities of life on the river's edge. This remarkable artist dives deep into the riparian realities to arrive at the truth behind the stereotypes.

A fisherwoman, sporting a pistachio pinafore, with a pearl shroud for a veil, is collecting fish and wears the expression of a self-conscious classic beauty who's very phantasmagoric vision might even have a filter-down effect on global fashion collections. The sad truth is that she is stylish, and the fashion world doesn't even know it.

The fish, too, look uniformly defenceless and lackadaisical, struggling to make anything at all of their fateful significance. With fish, it seems as if imagery itself presents a predicament. They have nowhere to hide. And, every distinguishing characteristic of Nile fish has been pared away like a Bible parable that defies description.

The orphan fish cast in bronze and left on lips and the forlorn hope of finding their executioners, flesh on flesh, fastened to a dysfunctional kind of familiar environment, an inspirational way of life.

El-Razzaz muses on the mythic symbolism of fish and fishmongers. The fish is sacrifice, modesty and humility. The fisherwoman is a Greek goddess, Artemis herself, or the Roman deity Diana, protectress of women, goddess of the moon and hunting -- for the fisherwomen hunt for fish in the stillness of the moonlit river. His women are also reminiscent of Sekhmet of the ancient Egyptians.

So what to make of El-Razzaz's haunting images of fish and fishmongers? His fishing boats sail serenely along the Nile. There is the loneliness to this trade that comes across in the artists' works. He seems to be operating in two parallel universes -- a labour of love, loveliness, and the loud loneliness of an old fishing boat.

Is it a bit of both? And thus turning his works into meditations on life, labour and love. The whole lot is embellished in loveliness. There is no better place to meditate than by the riverside. His remarkable panoramic offerings explore the nature of the relationship between art, life and labour in a riparian setting. But perhaps most extraordinary is the bizarre omnipresence of bronze.

Bronze, like excrement and the contemporary colour of the polluted waters of the Nile, is traditionally associated with an unattractive drab brownish hue. But bronze, like the river, is versatile and kaleidoscopic as far as its colours are concerned.

The metallic brownish colour, customarily dismissed as drab, is also the attractive tan associated with people exposed to the sun. The fishermen and women, Egyptian and Nubian, depicted in El-Razzaz's paintings are sun- kissed, blessed with that bronzed colour. But as the artist so eloquently articulates in his works makes abundantly clear, bronze is any number of alloys having a considerable copper content.

The cerulean and aquamarine bespeaks of aged green. The sapphire attests to the watery promise of stars of the benighted blackness of the sky at night. But there is no night in the paintings of El-Razzaz, all is bronze, all alloys and colour. The sweetly raunchy colour code is radically different from that of nature. In contradistinction to the fruit of trees, green in bronze betokens age, and the red is raw.

Turquoise is the offspring of bronze. Casting bronze, the ageing process of the alloy, oxidation all change and transform the colour of bronze. And vermilion, too, is the brainchild of bronze.

Turquoise and vermilion are brilliant tones of bronze -- of blueness, redness and yellowness or fantastic combinations of two of these or three -- that are masterfully utilised by El-Razzaz in conveying the sounds and the silence of the Nile.

Son et Lumière, far from being a dated concept, is a living reality. El-Razzaz's paintings have a voice of sorts. It is the voiceless psyche and idiosyncrasy of the fishermen and women of the Nile that give his paintings character.

The sound of water is audible, the freshness of the fish tangible. The sounds reflected in ripples of Nile waters suggest a more modest means of illumination in the muddied banks of the polluted river. Yet there is no dimming of the city lights that dance on the surface of the water. The city is invisible, the fishermen and women live in a world that is a million miles away from the hustle and bustle of urban living.

The easy mastery of both betrays a long, hard-thinking engagement with the denizens of the deep and the men and women whose lives depend on catching the fish. El-Razzaz paints his fishermen as if they are sculptures in bronze. Bronze and its infinite and yet readily identifiable components inspire the strength of character conveyed in the paintings and the colour therein.

In 1997, El-Razzaz started work on the paintings and sculptures exhibited at SafarKhan Gallery, Zamalek. "I observed the fishermen at work, in their natural environs, at sunrise and sunset, noon and midnight. I painted essentially with two mediums, oil and acrylic on canvas. Oil and acrylic bring out the versatility of bronze and of the fishmongers themselves," El-Razzaz tells me. "Of course, I sculpted in bronze."

The fish are fresh, as if coming into being or sliding back into the Nile. "My fish are freshwater fish, Nile fish," he breaks into the gentlest and most effulgent smile.

He is, he says, more interested in fishermen and women than in the fish per se. "This labour of love is dedicated to the fishermen and women of the Nile," he muses.

Existentialist as well as sensualist, El-Razzaz's The Mermaid is a masterpiece. It is a circular symphony with the movement and the music entrancing the viewer. You can almost hear the mermaid murmuring sweet nothings. The sliver of silver amplifies that touch of esprit to her aristocratic bearing, a royal dugong. Is she Hathor?

The Mermaid is a cosmos crying out for recognition. It is an exquisite portrait of an enchantress, half fish and half human, reclining on what appears to be a chaise longue of reeds evocative of the ancient Egyptians, a princess on a palanquin. The Mermaid is an etching silhouetted and meticulously reworked with brush and brown -- or shall we say bronze -- wash.

The luminous and lustful trompe d'oeil seems to be subtly submerged in a shallow pool of water. The Net is so real. The End of the Day is stunning. At Rest is ravishing. River Spirit is awe-inspiring, wonderful.

Nap on Skiff is a wondrous rendition of aquarian serenity. El-Razzaz's aim is to render visible what is not seen, overlooked or difficult to see. Fish with their scales, and shiny surfaces illuminate his paintings. "In Egypt, there is an ancient myth, and the legend survives in peasant superstition, that fish are magical creatures," El-Razzaz chuckles mischievously.

His eye darts to one of the fisherwomen he painted. Her eye-catching vermilion dress, a simple peasant gown, tapers to its pale reflection in the olive Nile waters that in turn is transformed into fish.

"Unlike a sea fisherman, a river fisherman -- and often it is an independent fisherwoman rather than a man -- doesn't leave the confines of the small narrow boat. He and/or she lives and works on the boat. Grows up and marries there. It is where children are born. An entire social life is centred on the boat. Friends crowd in for celebrations or drop by for a glass of sweetened tea."

Quietly evangelical in his creations, he revels in The Nile Bather, a beautiful black woman, presumably Nubian, who appears to be undergoing some spiritual encounter -- a baptism, perhaps?

Solid, stoic, classical in conception, El-Razzaz's bronze sculptures look unfinished and yet they are perfectly formed. "I have been observing the Nile fishermen for years -- from Philae to Rosetta. And from my balcony in Manial which overlooks the river. They live in a unique world -- one that relies solely on the blessing of fate itself. Men, women and children live in slow, gentle rhythms in modest fishing skiffs that ply the heavy waters all day."

Fishing to El-Razzaz, and to most Egyptians and especially fishermen and fishmongers, is metaphorical of fortune -- rizq, in Arabic. Fishing is fortune, most often good fortune. Occasionally, however, it also metamorphoses into misfortune.

"It is a hard but mystical life with a serenity that is seldom found on the river banks where their boats come to rest when the dark night falls."

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