Al-Ahram Weekly Online   29 March - 4 April 2012
Issue No. 1091
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

The pulsating heart of Nubia

Osama Kamal explores the art of Ahmed Salim, whose upbringing in Upper Egypt has been pivotal to his work

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As a child, Ahmed Salim was enamoured with Nubia. The infinite magic of the land, the lively colours, that folk art that bordered fantasy were simply irresistible for a small boy.

Salim has already dedicated several of his solo exhibitions at home and abroad to Nubia. "Nubian Inspirations", his first exhibition on Nubia, was held in the hall of the College of Arts and Education at the University of Siegen in Germany. This was followed by "Nubian Images", held in the World of Arts in Maadi in 2006 and "Nubian Arts" at the San Stefano Hotel in Alexandria. His latest exhibition, "Nubian Hymns", was held few days ago at The World of Arts in Maadi.

Salim, who is an associate professor at Minya University's Fine Arts College, wrote his MA dissertation about the mural art in Kalabsha.

Salim was born in Aswan in 1968 to a family from the Jaafra clan that claims descent from Jaafar al-Sadek, a major figure in Shi'ite history. No Egyptian city is more Nubian than Aswan, and no city is closer to the art and culture of ancient Nubia.

"I learnt from my mother, who was an instinctive artist and covered the walls of our house with paintings. She had an uncanny ability to use fresh colour combinations," Salim recalls.

His house and every house in his neighbourhood looked like a museum gallery, Salim remarks. "I am the son of a city for whom art is a daily rite, a way of life," he adds.

In "Nubian Hymns", Salim takes us into a journey into Nubia, where the houses are artistic expressions and the people emanate prudence and calm. Occasionally he will zoom in on a house to offer a detailed view of embellishments that are simple yet magical, colourful yet relaxing.

Salim says that he has learned much from the pioneers of Nubian-inspired art who came before him, of whom Ragheb Ayyad (1892 ê"1982) was one.

"Many critics say I am a disciple of Ayyad, which is true in a sense. I took from Ayyad the commitment to exploring Egypt through the eyes of folk art. I also like the way he introduced a free movement of bodies, arms and legs, all of which he placed in epic formations that are almost alive."

Ayyad, Salim says, saw nature through Egyptian eyes, and thus resuscitated ancient aesthetics and reinterpreted pharaonaic-era murals into modern forms. Ayyad also revived the kind of imagery that one normally associates with Islamic pottery and porcelain painting.

In Salim's work there is a clear attempt to preserve the imagery of Nubia's societal rites. He seems to be quite at home with scenes of celebrations: weddings, children games, dancing horses, stick dancing, female dancers, horse racing and so on.

Salim's reliance on movement recalls that of Ayyad, so do his focus on dynamic formations and his ability to summon its vitality through strong, unhesitant, strokes. His cohesive formations seem melodic, and his crowd scenes so facile, almost transcendent in their ability to omit unnecessary detail and capture the essence of the moment.

Another of his favourite artists is Tahia Halim (1919 ê" 2003), who came to Nubia for the first time in 1961 as part of a delegation of Egyptian artists sent by the then Minister of Culture Tharwat Okasah to document the last days of Nubia prior to the flooding of major parts of that ancient land.

Halim was so impressed with Nubia that she dedicated much of her career to invoking its scenery and to the child-like motifs of Nubian decorative arts. What impressed Halim, and still impresses Salim, is not only the art of Nubia but the fact that Nubians see art as an integral part of their daily life.

Like Halim, Salim takes a great pleasure in experimenting with strong colours, which is a distinctive trait of Nubian art. Even when he paints Nubian figures, the colours remain exceptionally assertive, indelibly vivid.

Hussein Bikar (1913 ê" 2002) is another artist to whom Salim is indebted. Bikar's imagery, he says, brings forth the spirituality of Nubia and its mature sense of humanity.

Bikar brought into Nubian scenery the natural fluidity and elegance that were the hallmarks of his career. Salim says that Bikar, for all his attention to detail, was capable of maintaining a simplicity that bordered on the spiritual.

"I learnt from Bikar the art of simplicity and the need to find my own voice. Some of Bikar's paintings were unparalleled in their artistry. Formation from Nubia is one example. A Nubian Tune is another."

Salim aspires for the simplicity and clarity of Bikar's art, which -- considering the complexity and richness of Nubian culture -- is not always an easy task. And yet, in one painting after another, he manages to command this sense of childish wonder that Nubian art so seamlessly invokes.

Sayyed Abdel-Rasoul (1917 ê" 1995) is another of the masters to whom Salim gives credit for his contemporary work. "Abdel-Rasoul," says Salim, "explored the customs, rites, mythology and magic of folk art. From him I learnt to delve deeper into this unfathomable world of Nubia."

"Nubian Hymns" is homage to a land of ancient mystery, a culture of spirituality, a tradition of purity, and unbeatable, unsurpassable art.

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