Al-Ahram Weekly Online   15 - 21 March 2012
Issue No. 1089
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

The watchful clocks of Manhattan

Osama Kamal keeps an eye on the changing times of New York

Click to view caption
Clockwise from top: Grand Central; Herald Square; Con Edison

There is something exquisite about the art of Amir Wahib. Perhaps it is the uncanny ability to capture the soul of a building, to impart life on inanimate objects, or to explore daily objects that people rarely pause to contemplate. But I suspect it is more, for the still-life beauty that infuses his Manhattan-inspired buildings tells us something about the artist, his passion, and his view of the world.

I met Wahib at Gallery Nocchio on Andalus Street, not far from Roxy Square where he is currently exhibiting a collection of paintings about New York which he calls "The Architectural Visions of New York".

There is an ethereal quality about this collection, for somewhat Wahib manages to turn masterpieces of architecture into transparent objects, full of life and light, at times stately and majestic, at times rustic and wind-swept.

His genre of art is not often visited in this part of the world, except perhaps for the impressions of the streets of Paris that Iraqi artist Jawwad Salim painted in the 1940s.

Wahib, 42, studied interior design at the College of fine Arts in Cairo, and has worked as designer and cabinet maker. A prolific painter and photographer, he has held solo exhibitions in Egypt and abroad, including "Coptic Scenes" in the Picasso Gallery in 1996 and "Artists and the Sea" in Al-Shaqqa Hall in 1999. His work was shown in Rome in 2001 and New York in 2002 and has been curated by the Museum of Modern Art.

In 2002, Wahib showed in a collective exhibition in New York. The exhibition was about 9/11 and was attended by artists from all over the world, all seeking an answer to the pressing questions concerning cultural coexistence and the shared norms of humanity.

New York proved to be a revelation. "Since the exhibition, the images of new York stayed with me. Four years later, in 2005, I went to live in Manhattan for a while," Wahib says.

Manhattan took his breath away. Wahib calls it a magical place, an open museum, and a city of endless innovation. "Architects know that if they can make in Manhattan, they can make it anywhere," he notes.

New York is a city that keeps reinventing itself, Wahib tells me before elaborating on the history of that city. The Italian explorer who first landed in the harbour in 1524 called it New Angouleme in homage to his patron, King Francis I of France, who had been Count of Angouleme prior to his coronation. The Dutch seized it in 1614, and renamed it New Amsterdam, then in their turn the British took it in 1625 and gave it its current name.

Impressed by its history and by the city's uncanny ability always to seem fresh and up to date, Wahib walked every corner of the metropolis, admiring the buildings and basking in the endless energy of the city that never sleeps.

Wahib's fascination for New York prompted him to plan a full exhibition about it. "I walked around the city for three months, fascinated and elated and looking for a theme for my exhibitions," he says. "Then I hit upon the idea of clocks. I saw so many clocks gracing the facades of buildings in many different styles. So I chose 100 of these buildings and took photos of them. I kept photographing and sketching, and then I narrowed down the buildings to 21 before I began painting."

These 21 buildings form the bulk of the current exhibition. On the walls of Gallery Nocchio, viewers are treated to scenes of Grand Central, the Metropolitan, the New York Public Library, Paramount, the Clock Tower Building, the Trinity Church and Times Square.

In his earlier paintings Wahib, would draw clocks that had no hands, as he had a somewhat dismissive view of time. Time was there to be wasted, disrespected, robbed of its meaning. But in New York, time was king, and the clocks that towered over the city made sure that people were aware of its presence. In New York, every minute counted.

The clocks of Manhattan are not meaningless embellishments, but a participant in the city's life, Wahib says. The clocks, seen from Wahib's perspective, are charged with additional vigour. They are the soul of a fiery and seductive city, watchful dwellers of the city that never sleeps.

New York, Wahib says, is an amalgamation of different cultures, a melting pot for people of many lands. As of the16th century, the city was populated by the British, Germans, and Scandinavians. The Irish followed, then the Italians, with Eastern Europeans not far behind. In the 1920s many blacks moved into the city, and in the 1960s the Asians and Latin Americans arrived. "With every layer of new immigrants, the city changed shape, acquiring new styles and architectural shapes," he says.

Far from being architectural drawings, Wahib's impressions of New York buildings are fraught with interpretation. The buildings, although clearly identifiable, seem to whisper back to the viewers, tell them a bit about the city, about the people who live there, and those who are long gone. The lines are sensual, spontaneous, and dynamic. They lead us into a city that has depth behind its glitzy surface and soul behind its majestic stone facades. The clocks in Wahib's work keep not only time they keep record of things past and things yet to come.

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