Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
9 - 15 September 1999
Issue No. 446
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Issues navigation Current Issue Previous Issue Back Issues

Abdel-Ghafar Shedid

Abdel-Ghafar Shedid:

A great many secrets

Profile by George Bahgory

The very model of a modern Champollion? Well hieroglyphs hold no mystery for him, and a great many other things besides

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Like Sisyphus, he vowed to carry his burden uphill, though the burden in question, the history of his ancestors, their philosophy and faith as expressed in engravings or sculpted in stone, has proved perhaps not much of a burden at all, at least for Abdel-Ghafar Shedid. And certainly, whenever his load rolled downhill, he would happily lift it to resume his journey. Endowed with the artistic abilities and intellectual spark of his ancestors, perpetrating their traditions became his mission.

Such, in a nutshell, has been the life of Abdel-Ghafar Shedid. The tasks he set himself were early defined, and with them in mind he left for Munich to study Egyptology. His, though, was the sensibility of the artist, and he looked always on Egyptian art with the eyes of a son. Once focused on his target, he pursued it with passion, returning to the western bank in Luxor, to the very source of ancient culture, to study and excavate the 18th dynasty tomb of the nobleman Ozenhat. He spent two months at the site, surveying the monument, the research that would form the core of his dissertation presented in Munich. He returned from Germany to Egypt at regular intervals, for further observation and study of the tomb, returning to Munich with his photographs, drawings and papers to document his findings. Shedid then continued his research, eventually gaining his doctorate with the highest honours.

His head is that of a young man at fifty five, though in many ways he appears timeless. The delicacy of his neck lends him the appearance of a rare tree, its branch bearing some exotic fruit. In drawing him I avoided the eyes, which invariably contain a sparkle, concentrating instead on the more general aspects of a head that has seemed to me always to embody the spirit of intelligent enquiry.

Normally, I must confess, I tend to avoid his gaze and when we talk it is only with the greatest difficulty that I raise my eyes to meet his. When he speaks to me, his expression has always seemed to imply that he weighs every word, every phrase, with the utmost care. Nothing is rushed: he pauses in thought, and displays only consideration for his listeners.

His sensibility, I believe, has always been the sensibility of an artist, the sensibility of one trained to observe, and to sympathise with whatever is before him. And whenever we meet, I wonder always how I might rise to the demands he makes, how I might absorb all that he has to offer and benefit from his great sympathy with the art and lives of the ancients. Sometimes it seems that Shedid knows every stone, every line engraved, every bas-relief and text in every monument, such is the degree of his empathy with his ancestors. And of course, like Champollion, he reads hieroglyphics, feeling the same sense of discovery, I suppose, as must have been felt by the man who deciphered the Rosetta stone.

Hussein Bicar, the fine art teacher under whom we both studied, described Shedid's own artistic output as "soft murmurs of silent sorrow, silent as the desert, eternal silence." And indeed sighs of sadness do seem to accumulate in the corners of his best paintings, a lamentation, perhaps, for the degradation of our own civilisation compared to the great achievements of the past that he has spent so much of his life studying. Western archeologists, for their part -- including his own teacher in Germany -- characterised him as a leading representative of a new generation of Egyptian archaeologists, one whose scholarship was tempered by an almost mystical understanding of the concerns of his ancient forebears.

Shedid Shedid
I first met Abdel-Ghafar Shedid in 1966. I had left the offices of Rose El-Youssef well after midnight, and was, as is still my habit, strolling absentmindedly in the refreshing breeze so typical of the Cairene summer evenings. Suddenly, a car stopped at my side. Just as I was trying to shift my mind back into focus, away from the work I had done during the day -- the caricatures and cartoons that I supplied the press daily -- a head popped out of the window of this car. So it was by the light from a street lamp on Qasr al-Aini, close to Midan Al-Tahrir, that I saw him: his head, bald at the top, reflecting the light. He stopped the engine of his car and called out to me.

"I have been following your work in the press and at exhibitions. Let me give you a lift to wherever you are going... I am Abdel-Ghafar Shedid."

After a day's work, I am usually possessed by an urge to get lost on Cairo's pavements. Yet I was more than happy to accept this offer, and thus began a relationship that has continued over the years. Our conversation, on that occasion, seemed to be attuned to the sound of the dilapidated car engine. We could not say much as the sound of the engine rose and fell and our phrases appeared open ended, scattered, staccato. Sentences simply broken off rather than being completed.

It was a spontaneous, almost stream of consciousness manner of conversing as we sat there in the car in the late hours of a September night, the cool breeze coming from the windows.

That night we sealed our friendship. Later Shedid went back to Munich and I to Paris, but we never broke ties. We continued to communicate through fax -- I sent him cartoons with ancient Egyptian characters. And I have never ceased to keep track of his intellectual development, voraciously reading the history books he writes. And whenever we meet in Munich, Paris or Cairo, we have no topic of conversation except the ancient history of Egypt.

He wrote a book about the Ramesside dynasty, covering the monuments at Deir Al-Medina and the development of art as reflected in the reliefs in the tombs of Beni Hassan which date from 1700 BC. He traced the evolution of artistic styles during the New Kingdom, starting from the Mortuary Temple of Hatshepsut until Thutmose IV. He has also produced seven other books, all of which are available in German translations.

In 1992 he was in Paris to display his other great passion, his art, exhibiting works that have been built on the foundations provided by his knowledge of ancient Egypt. His paintings maybe a blend of Western iconography and an Eastern eye, but what they speak of most powerfully is a desire to return to the tenets of the ancient civilisation that has so dominated his spiritual and aesthetic development.

Like the ancients of his native land he uses black to signify fertility: the fertility of the soil, and of the land of Osiris. In figure studies, he suggests the human form by outline, providing only enough detail to suggest corporeality.

Surrealist influences are also apparent in his art, and he has a strong tendency to use blue in order to open up a mystical space in his paintings, something that is again reminiscent of the ancient artist. The earth, then, becomes a black cipher, which meets the sky, a mystical, blue space, in a cryptogram for creation worthy of the creators of hieroglyphs.

Eventually Abdel-Ghafar Shedid responded favourably to repeated requests by the Faculty of Fine Arts to teach the history and art of Ancient Egypt at their faculty in Zamalek. The dean of the faculty was so delighted to have Shedid join the staff that he personally took care of the necessary, and often lengthy, bureaucratic formalities. And it was at this point that Shedid decided to spend most of the year in Cairo, returning to Munich only in the summer to stay with his wife Liza. Liza, a colleague from his student days in Munich, was a great support to him during the early days of his career and in this respect reminds me very much of Taha Hussein's wife, who was an enormous source of strength to her husband during his student days at the Sorbonne.

Over a falafel sandwich or a plate of kushari, in his atelier in Garden City, Shedid continues the conversations that have become such an important feature of my own life.

"The Sphinx," he insists, "is the symbol of the birth of the morning sun." It may not be orthodox Egyptology, but it makes perfect poetic sense.

"Horus is a bird that soars only to dominate the universe."

"A king is drawn with a tail because he is the symbol of fertility, potency and reproduction."

"For the Pharaohs, the falcon is the symbol of the king because it soars to great heights."

"Anubis, the god of mummification and the protector of tombs, records the doings of men while at the judgement of the deceased it is the god Thot, the ibis, that records the judgement."

"An artist is one who produces art that reflects the universe. The Ancient Egyptians were close to nature and they worshipped and venerated all its manifestations, which is why all living creatures under the sun were sacred. So much so that even the cobra, being a symbol of both sharpness and sensitivity, might be conceived of as beneficial and poison become a means to heal."

"The one constant secret of art is this, that when you paint the person you love, when you saw them the first time, be it on a balcony, or in a classroom, you are sure that the chances of this being unrequited are lessened."

The one constant secret. But Abdel-Ghafar Shedid appears to know a great many secrets. And at this point we sit back on our chairs, comfortable in the atelier, sipping tea and drawing on our waterpipes. It was during such a moment I once said: "One lecture in the amphitheatre of the Faculty of Fine Arts, I believe, is sufficient, doctor. Let us now turn to the lighter side of life."

And then he chuckled, for it was the first time I had ever addressed him as Dr Shedid.

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