Al-Ahram Weekly Online   4 - 10 February 2010
Issue No. 984
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Post-Orientalism in new hues

The humanist aspect of artist Adel El-Siwi's new exhibition will work magic in the market and gallery alike. The painter pours his heart out to Gamal Nkrumah

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The visitor is greeted with On the Strain of Carrying Roses, mixed media on fabriano paper. The delightful painting -- a riot of colour -- is by no means Adel El-Siwi's chef d'oeuvre. And, it might not fetch the top dollar, but is one of his stand-out exhibits at the Horizon One, at the Mahmoud Khalil Museum, Giza. The exhibition runs to well over 100 works, well selected to complement each other, bandied as El-Siwi's most provocative to date. It piles up layers of visual culture peculiar to Egypt.

El-Siwi's latest exhibition is marvellous -- each painting engages the intellect and pleases the eye. In some compositions the paint-work is almost worn away by the constant fine touches that echo the Egypt of yesteryear, but the figures are also reminiscent of Africa.

Africa, also mixed media on fabriano paper, is a dark and mysterious figure of a veiled woman, I believe. It is as if a bolt from the blue strikes her. She has her back to the wall. Her face is a cross between a traditional African mask and the map of the African continent. I sense an undercurrent of misogyny. Maybe I am mistaken.

El-Siwi's name quickens the pulse of dealers and collectors in Cairo and overseas. His nudes mock and tease. However, these are not erotic etchings. Even El-Bit Zooba, his adolescent paramour, tells more of El-Siwi than he lets on. He glares fondly at her. She was the kind of bad girl that boys love to hate. She flirted with all the young fellows of the neighbourhood, and permitted more than a few to fondle her, I presume. "I can still picture her on the rooftop parading her sex appeal, scantily clad and full of self-confidence. In those days we did not have the hang-ups that we have today and girls openly displayed their femininity without the slightest feelings of guilt or inhibition."

Zooba is the kind of girl who attracts a whistle of appreciation before her admirers move on to fresh entertainment -- the candy-coated, the pure innocent little things that men eventually wed. In short, Zooba is not the marriageable maiden.

She is at once explicit and intrinsically non-athletic. Her sagging, though far from broad hips, ill-fitting underwear -- or is it a bikini -- sharply contrast with her powerful thighs, colossal calves and swollen ankles. The flat-footed beauty is peremptorily unaware of the shapeless vulgarity of her pectoral area.

The figure of the hard-working peasant, with her bulging biceps and Herculean shoulders, comes across as the very antithesis of the contemporary size zero model. Her protruding lips, swarthy complexion and unkempt hair suggest an untamed primitivism. But then most of El-Siwi's women go considerably further than counter-pointing contemporary standards and ideals of beauty.

" Seated Woman, a nude in ochre, black and white, was sold before the exhibition," El-Siwi remarks with a glint of mischief in his eyes. "You see many Egyptians secretly collect nudes," he chuckles.

The Belly Dancer and the Tabla Player (Drummer), mixed media on wood, is of a different phylum altogether. The broad-hipped bellydancer is actually physically not unattractive; Zooba's very antithesis. She strikes a Pharaonic pose with her hands brushing her hips. She is the type that dances in seedy nightclubs in Downtown Cairo. She makes the most of her femininity, but there are telltale signs of the hard life she leads and the indignities she endures to eke out a living. The drummer, too, is a type. Black man, Nubian his features suggest, sporting an eye-catching shirt with all shades of blue ranging from Prussian to turquoise and cerulean and showing off a matching sapphire ring, perhaps to ward off the evil eye. His eyes are hazel and hers a darker chestnut tint of brown.

He stands on a box. Is he shorter than she is? His feet are smaller than hers are. Yet he is all man, even as she is all woman.

Kharti (Gigolo) is another anomaly: A common figure in contemporary Egypt, the kharti chases wealthy Western women, mostly of the more mature variety -- although if he is lucky he might find himself with a younger girl. This particular blonde is callow, with green eyes and short- cropped hair -- a pitifully colorless figure in a black strapless top and bare-waisted, but no belly button. Her skin has unsightly blotches of russet and leprous white. Skin cancer perhaps? Or perhaps she is just badly burnt by the pitiless scorch of the Egyptian sun?

The kharti is big, burly and brown, obviously proud of his catch. He is no big fish, though. He has acquired some European passport, you can tell from the triumphant glee in his eye. He sports a red wrist band and she holds a bowl with "Felfela" -- the famous tourist haunt in the heart of Cairo -- inscribed on it in burgundy slip.

Explorer and an Indigenous Girl, yet another mixed media on wood, is again a variation of the man and woman theme. Here the woman is the local indigene, the man a dandy explorer. He has an effeminate, knock- kneed posture and dainty hands, noticeably smaller than those of his native belle. She wears a python for a necklace, anklets and bangles, and egg-shaped earrings. And, horrors of horrors, in sharp contrast to his disheveled black hair and bushy beard, her head is clean-shaven.

The indigenous girl wears lipstick, a curious anomaly. Her eyes are the same sorry sorrel -- the unnatural reddish-brown eyes bespeak of artificially-coloured contact lenses. And in much the same vein, no wild native wears roan lipstick. The pointed, pubescent breasts are authentic enough. Explorer and an Indigenous Girl is a quirky piece of exotica -- the black girl is actually lighter in complexion than the white man. She is as frigid and dispassionate as he is impuissant and unmanly. The indigene wears something vaguely reminiscent of a chastity belt. Or, is it a sheath?

The Price of Happiness conveys a similar detachment between man and woman, accentuated by the blank space separating them. The woman is more ape-like than human. Her explicitly erect nipple is the most prominent pinch of her femininity. The man, a robotic-like Boer with a book -- presumably the Bible -- and a repulsive beer belly and love-handles, towers over his entrapped ape-woman whose slithering repulsion for her mentor is tempered by the erotic possibility of her disconcerted innate desire. The image is the very antithesis of Adam and Eve.

Is this creature being intellectually vacant? Her tight butt that looks anything but comely. It is tight in the sense of being contorted, perhaps with confusion.

Miss Abdeen is arguably the sexiest of the women on show. She wears something -- but one is not quite so sure what. Whatever that body- hugging garment is, it is transparent. Navel and nipples are clearly visible. Less obliquely, so to speak, one is left without clues as to whether below the belly button Miss Abdeen is flaunting her rear or her frontal private parts. If it is her posterior we are gaping at, then she is surely some puissant sorceress. The unnerving blotches of blood red staining her comely cleavage underscore this uncanny suspicion.

Miss Abdeen 's is a tale of navel-gazing. The cleft of her buttock, up front, is a profoundly political statement. It projects the image of a sexually liberated woman in bridal white who rejects the notion of her womanhood as merely a reproductive organ.

Up to now, politics has been all but forgotten. El-Siwi's political leanings, albeit with powerful humanistic undertones, have been brushed under the carpet. Khamis and Baqary is the mirage of a factory, an enormous 250x200cm frame. Khamis -- the elder and wiser of the two -- and Baqary cling haplessly to his mentor; Khamis is attired in the blue uniform of the factory worker -- literally the badge of his blue-collar job. Baqary is draped in a floral-patterned dark robe, like the limp, hanging wing of a fallen angel.

Here El-Siwi bends history to his political purpose. Yet the exhibition goes considerably further than an individual artist's political agenda. "Rules of abstract painting alone -- those laws devoid of core content and narrative fail to attract my attention," El-Siwi explains. He is far more interested in works with symbols and codes, forms and values, signs and narratives.

Visual aphorism aside, Archeologist and Unidentified King resonates with the mystique of ancient Egypt. Pre-dynastic Egypt, I hasten to add. The ancient ruler is shrouded in mystery. The golden hue gives the painting a royal air, the very heart of monarchy.

Abul-Seoud, mixed media on canvas, is culturally laden and not entirely in a complimentary sense. This is the symbol of an area in Fustat, the first Arab capital of Egypt. Today it is essentially a run down slum with potters and the piece looks a little like a potsherd. The rough surface accentuates the appearance of grubby fingers working deftly at their trade. It is like a wall that has been stripped down for replastering.

The Miracle of the Orient, in bold colours, is true to its name -- decidedly Orientalist. It is a study on how each generation chooses to preserve a different aspect of the past. The water is turquoise and the sky azure. Gold and vermilion contain elements of humour.

Abu Lamaa and Biju, mixed media on wood, is a nostalgic look at the idealistic past. Comic characters from the past represent an era when Egyptians of all faiths loved and respected one another. The Coptic icon and Islamic miniature represent national unity and tolerance of the other.

El-Siwi confounds us with the unexpected. Essam Mahrus and the Fortuneteller is another nostalgic piece oozing with drama. "Essam was a personal friend, my classmate, who decided to quit school and became a barber. He died, literally of grief." An epitaph for a lost era? Perhaps.

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