Al-Ahram Weekly Online   9 - 15 December 2010
Issue No. 1026
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

The multi-layered reality of Mohamed El-Nasser

Artist Mohamed El-Nasser's latest Cairo show places him in a distinguished tradition while at the same time exploring new ideas, writes Mohamed Mursi

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Much in the work of artist Mohamed El-Nasser reminds one of the work of Youssef Kamel, Mahmoud Said, Mohamed Nagui and other pioneers of Egyptian painting. There is the same interest in daily life and passion for identity, for example. Such hallmarks of the pioneers' generation are easily detectable in the 50 or so paintings El-Nasser recently exhibited at the Gallery Cordoba in Mohandessin in Cairo.

However, the documentary aspect of El-Nasser's work goes beyond sheer observation in order to find new layers of subtlety. The paintings fathom the unstated passions of Egyptian life, while at the same time retaining the flavour of the familiar bustle. It is this dedication to the ordinary, linked to a quest for the soulfulness within, that has guided Egypt's fine arts since their inception a century or so ago. The catalyst for the new, Western- inspired art came with the French expedition to Egypt in 1798-1800, which brought along with it modern European art practices.

It was up to the Mohamed Ali Dynasty, which ruled Egypt for the 150 years that followed, to take things from there. With their passion for European grandeur, members of the royal family sponsored the arts and encouraged the public to take an interest in them as well. A first exhibition of European orientalist paintings was held at the Cairo Opera House in 1891, and this was followed by a second in 1902. Both exhibitions were sponsored by members of the royal family.

The establishment of the country's first School of Fine Arts in 1908 gave another boost to modern Egyptian artists. The school was financed by Prince Youssef Kamal and run by French sculptor Guillaume Laplagne. Its early professors were all orientalists. Three years after the school's creation, its students, including Youssef Kamel, Mohamed Hassan and Ragheb Ayad, held their first exhibition. It was in this exhibition that famous Egyptian sculptor Mahmoud Mokhtar's work, including Ibn Al-Balad (Man of the Country), first drew public attention.

A further wave of pioneer artists followed, including figures who had studied with foreign artists in Alexandria or had travelled to Italy, France and other parts of Europe to learn modern European art at its source. Mahmoud Said and Mohamed Nagui were among the modern Egyptian artists who honed their skills outside the Cairo school's boundaries. Their influence can be seen in Mohamed El-Nasser's work, especially in his unfettered approach to structure and his tendency to challenge the confines of formal style.

In a recent exhibition entitled "Islamic Cairo", El-Nasser offered a highly individualised insight into life in the older parts of the city. His blend of documentary precision and rebellious intent brought forth a curious world of intensity and enchantment. El-Nasser works in oil, pastel and watercolours, while pursuing a variety of experimental ideas, and the overall effect is to leave viewers with a sense of beguiling enchantment.

Described by some critics as a realist artist, it is true that El-Nasser, who has spent time portraying the life and people of Nubia, can depict ordinary life and familiar figures in haunting compositions of blue, green and brown. However, these compositions also typically go beyond realism, venturing into symbolism while digging deeply into invisible layers of reality.

He also worked for a time in journalism, a field known to help painters hone their sense of realism. Just as Mounir Kanaan and Mustafa Hussein brought their journalist's eyes to their artistic careers, so El-Nasser has the uncanny ability to question reality without a moment's hesitation. Indeed, by illuminating the apparently most conventional of themes in unprecedented ways, El-Nasser's work may bear a resemblance to that of Mahmoud Said, Ragheb Ayad and Hosni El-Bannani, all of them Egyptian artists. Yet, he also invariably finds a new angle to reality and sees experiential opportunities in the most ordinary of daily happenings.

Mohamed El-Nasser, who graduated from the College of Fine Arts in Cairo with honours in 1979, has spent his career exploring the bonds that tie people to place. With dexterity, compassion, and a highly-developed eye for the extraordinary, he creates a mirror of reality that reflects older traditions while also venturing into the unknown.

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