The romance of newsprint
visits an unusual exhibition where the media -- and especially newspapers -- follow a patriotic thread
was not a pleasant prospect for a senior writer who has spent more than 20 years immersed in the newspaper business to come face to face with an outside view of the media, a view that was sometimes loud and in-your-face and at others gentle and reflective. Contrary to my expectations, however, I was caught up in the mood to the point of enjoyment at an exhibition held recently. It was the first Cairo solo exhibition for artist Yasser Shehata, and closed last week after two weeks at the Cairo Atelier.
Shehata, 58, is an established Egyptian artist who has shown in more than 50 exhibitions in Germany and in European capitals since he emigrated to Germany some 28 years ago.
Some of the works on show were completed before the 25 January Revolution, while others were reactions to its events. "I am not a political artist, but the theme of the revolution was behind most of my paintings," he told Al-Ahram Weekly.
Shehata is besotted with newspapers; he believes they have "a specific charm by their own nature" as a surface that includes words, graphics, and pictures. "It is a very rich element, with its areas of light and shadow," he says. His last exhibition in Germany in 2006 was entitled "Language of Papers".
"Newspapers, documents and books have been my favourite theme since I was a student at the faculty of fine arts," he says. "While some painters opt for traditional Egyptian themes like jars, mashrabiya (decorative woodwork) and eyes, I found myself more infatuated with day-to-day objects like computers and newspapers, which are essential part of our daily life.
"Newspapers have always been one of the most integral parts of my personal life. They are an international symbol, and they have a strong influence on peoples' minds everywhere," he told the Weekly.
Commenting on a painting where newspapers are painted all in blue, Shehata said: "After the revolution I started to visualise newspapers as chaotic vortexes, as if they were sunk in the sea."
In another painting, entitled The Road, the artist has built a world of newspapers; they form the street, and the buildings surrounding a man who is striding confidently along a road furnished with newspapers. Here is a complicated engagement of the man in a virtual world made up of newspapers. The man himself is a clear reference to the Egyptian people in the phase that followed the revolution, where peoples of all walks of life are overwhelmed by news analyses, news stories and photographs -- and this definitely created a new political awareness among the Egyptian public. In several of the paintings newspapers seem to be moving, running, revolting, or maybe in their own way denouncing the violent events of the revolution, of which Shehata was a keen participant.
Khaled Said and Mina Danyal , two significant martyrs who became symbols of the revolution are depicted in some of the paintings; their beautiful faces come into sight on newspapers, scattered across the paintings in such a way that they themselves formulate a revolution: newspapers here are not dealt with as still nature, but rather as living agents that can walk, talk, or shoot bullets if necessary.
"I really wanted to personify Mina Danyal, because he was one of the rare, true symbols of the revolution," Shehata says. "He was one of few martyrs who created the new history of Egypt." As an activist and avid protestor, Danyal asked his friends and relatives that his funeral should be held in Tahrir Square, not in church.
"We need to be aware, at this juncture, not to lose sight of the precise orientation of our revolutionary movement towards democracy and freedom. We can't just surrender to that parental political party [the Muslim Brotherhood], whose theory is completely outmoded," he says in an authoritative tone.
In other paintings, newspaper is the main subject, the hero; whether spread beside a young woman, sitting in a romantic pose on the floor, or thrown on a bed sheet beside a veiled girl who is busy browsing the Internet.
In a third painting, a girl in her nightdress is busy chatting on the Internet, while three scattered newspapers keep the balance of the scene, as if they are dear friends enjoying her company.
According to Shehata, one of the paintings that grabbed the attention of viewers was that featuring two young girls. One is almost half naked and relaxing on a sofa, while her friend, wearing a black niqab (veil), is setting on the ground reading a classic book, apparently a holy book. Many viewers, he said, have interpreted this painting in a traditional way; they thought that the woman in the niqab was reading verses from the Qur'an to cure the other girl. "This poor vision reveals how the majority of people view nakedness as a sin. On the contrary, nakedness is a sign of purity; to show your body simply means showing how honest you are," he explains. "Painting women wearing a veil is one way for me to discover the new synthesis of Egyptian society, now I consider myself a newcomer." He points out that the veil didn't exist in Egypt 25 years ago.
"We need to liberate the minds of fine arts school students in Egypt off the censorship imposed by the teachers," he adds. "Drawing nude models was an essential component in learning to draw when I was a student, but it was stopped years ago because of this unjustified, conservative religious trend that controlled Egyptian universities in the 1980s," he told the Weekly.
Other paintings were a mix of oil and collage, or oil with objects, where he used newspapers as a third dimensional object.
A main feature of Shehata's work is the play of light and shadow. Newspapers offer a space of light that invites one's eyes to relax and one's spirit to breathe. This paradoxical situation creates a romantic mood, although the subject is very realistic.
"Light is the element that constructs the world around us; without light, darkness prevails the scene, and as light creeps into the scene things start to appear," he smiles.
Paintings by Shehata have been shown in exhibitions in Germany, France, Syria and elsewhere. He returned to Egypt in 2007, and this is his first solo exhibition here.
"I am so proud of the fervent artistic scene in Egypt, if we look at the number of brilliant artists; however we lack a theory for art, or a school that defines the artistic trend in Egypt."
Shehata has adopted a new method of teaching art at The Art Academy, a school for amateur artists he established two years ago in Downtown Cairo to help them develop their artistic talents.
"I believe that everyone has an artist inside him. It is only a matter of how he discovers and develops this inherent artist," he says. He added that the school of the late Egyptian architect Wissa Wassef was an excellent example of how simple, uneducated people -- in Wissa's case the children of poor families -- could produce artistic masterpieces.
Shehata hopes that the spectrum of arts, including music, cinema, which have declined remarkably over the past ten years, will be growing wider owing to the impact of revolution not only on artists, but on most people in an audience that has drifted away from meaningful arts and resorted in desperation to low-level music productions.