Al-Ahram Weekly Online   19 - 25 January 2012
Issue No. 1081
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

From print to brush and back

Rania Khallaf reads an inspiring new exhibition

Click to view caption
Paintings by Fouad and one of the poems by Haddad currently exhibited at Picasso gallery

"From Homeland to Paradise" is a joint artistic project between two leading figures: painter Samir Fouad (67) and Ammiya poet Amin Haddad (54). A unique collection of portraits by painter Fouad have joined up with subsections of Haddad's new collection of poems to go on show in the Picasso Gallery in Zamalek.

The idea is fairly new to today's art scene in Egypt. This unusual harmony between fine art and literature has the potential for a brilliant outcome, and in this case it achieves it -- with flying colours.

The project was first conceptualised when Haddad began to publish his patriotic poems on Facebook in the early days of the January Revolution. Fouad, who had embraced the revolutionary cause with enthusiasm and was already using it as an art subject, set out to produce awesome paintings to create this exhibition.

Prior to the show, which opened last week, the Dar Al-Shorouk publishing house brought out a collection of poetry by Haddad accompanied by Fouad's illustrations. The book, also entitled From Homeland to Paradise, was published in December.

The harmony between the two seems to be strong enough to endure years of collaboration, since this is not the first time these two leading artists have cooperated. Fouad designed the cover for Haddad's poetry collection In Death We Shall Live , published by Merit in 2005. In 2008 they worked together to produce a children's book, Cool Weather, published by the Children's Cultural Palace.

History has seen a few such examples of collaboration between two famous figures, such as poet Salah Jahin and painter Adam Henein, and poet Fouad Haddad and caricaturist Hegazi. Yet this exhibition is still innovative, as the two works -- the book of poems and the exhibition -- were created in parallel.

The oil and water colour portraits reveal a completely new spirit. Fouad's last exhibition in December 2010, also in the Picasso Gallery, was Flesh, a show gloomy enough to reflect the state of desperation that set the mood of most Egyptians before the outbreak of the revolution.

Visually speaking there is a harmony between poetry and portraiture; they both express a complete sympathy for the revolution, for the martyrs, and for the revolutionaries who allowed this historic change to happen.

The bright colours, the hidden joy in the faces of the portraits, along with the eloquent poems in the exhibition, transport the viewer to a romantic world. The theme of the exhibition, however, is very realistic.

"We wanted to make this a mixture of prose and fine art, so that art lovers will enjoy poetry and vice versa, because there is already a kind of detachment between art goers and poetry readers in our culture," Samir Fouad told Al-Ahram Weekly.

"This artistic experience has enriched my poetic experience since Fouad is one of my favourite painters, if only because he treats art as if he is rehearsing some kind of a play," Haddad told the Weekly.

Despite their age difference, Fouad and Haddad both share almost identical visual experiences and these have shaped their visual memory; for example the taste of life in the streets of Cairo in the 1960s, and pictures of soldiers in the 1967 defeat and the 1973 victory.

"Another point that I really find to be a mutual feature between us is that, just as my portraits can give the viewers positively different images and dimensions, so the reader of Haddad's poetry can delve into the poem and come up with multi-faceted features, facts and possibilities about human nature and life in contemporary Egypt," Fouad said.

Back to the title of the exhibition and the book; the notion of "homeland" is more a symbol that differs from one artist to another, so how did it differ before and after the revolution?

As the son of the Ammiya poet and nationalist figure Fouad Haddad, Amin has always had a great sense of patriotism. "The notion of homeland was always there in my poetry, but it has always referred to images or dear things in my own home -- such as the bathroom mirror or the toothbrush," Haddad said. "But the word 'Egypt' was never there in my poems until the 25 January Revolution broke out."

Fouad's notion of homeland is more abstract, however. "Homeland is the place where you can enjoy your dignity, where you can find justice, and where you feel like a human being," he says. "The image of the 'homeland' can really be seen in people's faces, and in their relationships with each other."

"'From homeland to paradise' is a direct reference to martyrs, as promised in our religion. I believe that the increasing number of martyrs during the year of the revolution has been the main force that helped the revolution to continue," Haddad said.

One of the most riveting portraits is of a middle-aged woman wearing a black head scarf. Her expression denotes pride, sorrow and self confidence. It is one of the exhibition's most popular pictures, and viewers refer to it as "the mother of the martyr".

The exhibition, which will last until 3 February, displays about 40 portraits of various sizes and in differing techniques. The painter used oil, gouache, and water colour. While most of the paintings are portraits of people in the street, in others the artist used collage to reveal a greater depth of figuration and symbolism of the revolution, such as newspapers clips.

As the visitor enters the gallery, he or she is immediately welcomed by portraits of people of his own homeland. The portraits depict faces ranging from familiar ones such as one might encounter in Downtown Cairo, to faces from Upper Egypt or, strangely enough, a portrait of an ancient mummy.

Beside this mummy portrait, a piece of poetry by Haddad hangs elegantly on a slim board, it reads: "I knew from well-informed sources that a mummy at the Egyptian Museum inhaled; had an audible voice; and that she moved her arms“ê¶"

After the warm welcome comes a stage of identification, when one delves deeper and deeper inside this unique exhibition. An attempt to identify poetry, people, and maybe life itself: Haddad, in his poem The Joy Of Beginnings, written on 20 August 2011, identifies poetry as a "white bird, like clouds, like cotton", and people as martyr s"who will never end". Just beside this poem is an awesome portrait of hazy faces in soft colours, apparently of the revolution's martyrs, with an inscribed line reading: "Glory to Martyrs".

Is this identification an outcome of the revolution's influence on you, I asked? "Yes, the revolution was a catalyst that unconsciously invoked an urge to redefine the world around me," Haddad commented. He added that although they did not deliberately set out to reflect the same idea, they found out when they began to curate the exhibition that there were many common features in their works

On a separate wall are twin portraits of young policemen. They look odd now, in that the whole exhibition is a celebration of the martyrs and protestors. "They represent the authority and the discord; and their job is to show the stark difference between the good and the bad," Fouad commented.

This is a discord that should now be underlined both in artistic and political life in Egypt so as to learn to differentiate between what is real and what is fake.

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