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

Flesh with a point

Last week Rania Khallaf visited one of the bloodiest exhibitions ever, and wonders how beauty can be spurred out of cruelty

Click to view caption
Some of the exhibited paintings by Samir Fouad

Wandering the rooms of the Picasso Art Gallery in Zamalek one cannot help but sense the harsh contrast between the gory sight of red, slaughtered flesh, the background of most if the paintings in the show, and the lively portraits of young people in the foreground.

Called simply "Flesh", this is an exceptional exhibition in Samir Fouad's artistic career. Fouad, 66, is distinguished among his generation of painters for his neo-classical style and use of oil paints and colour.

"The idea of depicting flesh came to my mind some years ago when I first saw pictures of the tortures practised on prisoners at Abu Ghraib," Fouad told Al-Ahram Weekly, his eyes brimming with emotion.

When I took a first look at the show I was instantly flooded by a mix of emotions: fear and disgust, concern and surprise. I turned to Fouad in confusion as I tried to sort out the thoughts that were tumbling through my mind. When Fouad asked me what might have been a simple question: "So, what do you think?" I could not phrase my impressions into a direct answer.

While "Flesh" is not a common theme in plastic art today in Egypt, the theme has been tackled before in literature. In 1971 novelist Youssef Idris wrote his famous short story House o f Flesh, which looked at the problem of marriage in Egyptian society. The story was adapted into a feature film of the same name directed by Samir Abdelbaqi and released in 1991. Another film was Cheap Flesh, directed by Inas El-Dighidi and starring Ilham Shahine and Kamal El-Shenawi. This film, which was released in 2004, tackled the scandal of young girls who in some of Egyptian villages are traded as sex objects to rich Egyptian and Arab men.

Fouad, a brilliant representative of the middle generation of artists, was a student of the influential artist Hassan Suleiman. I was first introduced to his world last year at the same gallery, where he was holding another intriguing exhibition, "The Fugitive Moment". I was taken by his highly thematic portraits of women, most of them with ugly faces, in various bizarre situations. A portrait of a woman chasing a fly with her fly swatter, while her black cat runs off in a double movement as water spills from a nearby glass, is still engraved in my mind.

This time, however, it was hard to become attached to a certain portrait. Most of them infuse in the viewer a fear of death, slaughter, agony, and perhaps sexual desire.

And so, in a shaky voice, I asked him: "What is this red flesh all about?"

It took Fouad several months before he decided to take on this subject. He was deeply influenced by the tortures practised on prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison, but he produced only two paintings, both enormous, that focused directly on the subject. The two paintings are very similar: they depict accumulated piles of human flesh, all naked and placed as if kneeling. You can see only their backs and sighs mingled together, but you cannot distinguish their limbs. Prison bars form the background. These two paintings held me in awe. It is a rare depiction of torture: it conveys the idea of human beings united even in fear, and in the wait for another torture session.

"I believe this experience has not completed yet, because after I finished these two large paintings I found myself taken with the idea of flesh in general; the suffering and pain of humans in general, not specifically the torment practised in Abu Ghraib. I realised that slaughtered flesh was an excellent thread that reveals this harsh contradiction between ecstasy and pain and between victim and executioner.

"Egypt is one of very few countries in the world today where you can find whole sheep hanging in butchers' shops, all over the place. To me, the slaughtered flesh is a symbol of sacrifice," he says.

Beside us is a beautiful painting of two young lovers embraced in a passionate kiss against a background of a row of slaughtered sheep ready for purchase. This harsh contradiction is revealed by Fouad's short statement: "Between kissing and devouring -- a thin line, and between making love and killing -- a crack."

One of the most fantastic paintings is one of a middle-aged woman gently taking off her clothes. With no bloody background this time, the sight of the woman is seductive and sensual and further suggests a positive meaning: a full awareness of the beauty of her body.

Next is a huge painting for of adjacent women in black underwear. They seem to be moving, but in a way they look as if they are one woman in different poses.

Although the exhibition is simply called "Flesh", there is no single portrait of a man or woman in complete nudity. Even the portraits depicting women in their underwear, or another of belly dancers, are made hazy with the stroke of the brush. Might this be a sign of internal censorship? "This haze is only here to reflect the passage of time," Fouad explains. "The whole planet is in constant movement. I am always obsessed with the idea of the succession of time and its impact on a character or place."

The portraits of ordinary people and their facial expressions of despair, joy or depression, with this background of slaughtered flesh, raise the question of the important relationship between killing and our daily acts of life: Have I today caused any pain to my lover, my neighbour, friend, or a member of my family? One should think this way, I guess.

Commenting on a painting depicting a girl in the full force of her teenage years, with a ferocious facial expression and riding a lion, Fouad says that sometimes people are more brutal than wild animals. "While animals kill one another to feed themselves and their families, I can find no reason why people now increasingly kill each other," he says.

The main setback to this exhibition is that the sight of red flesh will remain in your mind for a long time as a reminder of humanity's biggest sin: killing. The exhibition runs until 14 December.

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