Al-Ahram Weekly Online   30 March - 5 April 2006
Issue No. 788
Books Supplement
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Shared momentum

Cairo Stencils, Chant Avedissian, London: Saqi Books, 2006. pp134

Chant Avedissian, the Egyptian- Armenian artist started making the stencils collected in this book in 1991 during the Gulf War, producing his designs on recycled cardboard. Drawing on a repertoire of images found in the magazines and newspapers of his childhood and youth in Cairo (he was born in Egypt in 1951), Avedissian has produced stencils of many of the leading figures of that time, particularly singer Umm Kalthoum, late Egyptian president Gamal Abdel-Nasser, and the then stars of stage and screen, including Faten Hamama, Abdel-Halim Hafez and Zaki Rostum. There are also images of sports stars and of political and social events of the period, such as the redistribution of the land to the peasantry and Soviet-Egyptian cooperation.

Of Avedissian's work, Rose Issa, the editor of this volume, comments that the artist's "iconography of Egypt" is not inward-looking, and nor does it resort to "a culturally exclusive 'Egyptianness'". On the contrary, Issa writes, Avedissian "has a fascination for cultural differences, affinities and similarities, as well as an ability to translate pharaonic, Nubian, Arab, Eastern and Western sources into new visions," which he does in "brave, unconventional ways." Avedisssian, she says, takes as his themes "the bygone era of romance and glamour, musicals and melodramas, revolutions and ideals, beloved childhood scenes -- stars, divas and leaders, the famous and anonymous people of the Egyptian socialist propaganda machine and urban and rural daily scenes."

Avedissian, Issa writes, has been influenced by his mentor Egyptian architect Hassan Fathy to pay attention to the overlooked and to look at "traditional local specifications for what was particular to a nation," as well as at its sometimes forgotten image sphere. Too often unexamined by other artists, Avedissian's portfolio contains "more than 200 portraits and images taken mostly from the covers of Egyptian photo magazines of past decades, such as al-Musawwar, Akher Saa, al-Gil, Bena al-Watan and al-Kawakeb, which he carefully archives and sources." Avedissian is fond of everyday objects, such as cooking utensils and fly whisks, animals and birds, including parrots, donkeys and stray dogs, and Egyptian streetscapes and people. All these items, together with familiar brands, such as the Bimbo biscuit and Ika chewing gum, appear in Avedissian's stencils.

Chant Avedissian has dedicated this book to "the editors, writers, photographers and designers of the Egyptian newspapers and magazines whose portrayal of the Nasser era inspired much of this work" and to "the men and women whose high hopes for their recently independent country and belief in their progressive future created a buzz and momentum that was shared in most of the developing world."

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