Saturday,18 August, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1229, (15 -21 January 2015)
Saturday,18 August, 2018
Issue 1229, (15 -21 January 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Who’s afraid of 70?

Rania Khallaf met with the esteemed artist Samir Fouad to celebrate his birthday and to talk about art

Who’s afraid of 70?
Who’s afraid of 70?
Al-Ahram Weekly

“35 x 2” was the simple title of the latest exhibition by the prolific artist Samir Fouad, which closed last Thursday at Ubuntu Gallery, a new outlet in Zamalek. A symbolic celebration of Fouad’s 70th birthday, the show gathers together the most common themes found in his more than 20 years of work.

I met with Fouad near the exhibition venue at the Diwan Bookshop, where — vibrant and energetic as a 20-year-old, despite enjoying the wisdom of age — he gave me an hour of his time.

“There are two sides to turning 70,” he said in response to my first question, “a positive and a negative side. Five years ago, I could have easily painted a two-metre canvas. I cannot do that now, except rarely, and definitely not in winter. On the other hand, my ability to imagine and create is as powerful as ever.

“I am still full of ideas. There are actually more ideas than all that has turned up through my career. I still feel I have done less than I wished to do. I still have paintings which are incomplete, and projects that never materialised.”

As it turns out, the title of the exhibition is taken from a remark made by the late writer Anis Mansour. It was the seventieth birthday of the major literary figure Abbas Al-Aqqad. Mansour said to the older man, “You have reached the age of 35 twice.” It was a reference to Al-Aqqad’s constant and lively contributions to the cultural scene.

Fouad was taken to Al-Aqqad’s weekly cultural salon, held every Friday in Heliopolis, by his French teacher, who happened to be a regular. At first, as he recalls, he found Al-Aqqad a little intimidating.

“I was very young when I started reading and attending Al-Aqqad’s cultural salon,” Fouad said. [I was] the youngest member, I believe. I was very lucky to have this unique opportunity to attend the rich debates and discussions, and to be able to argue with the great thinker himself on certain thorny topics.

“In addition to benefiting from the vibrant intellectual atmosphere, I also enjoyed Al-Aqqad’s wit, and I also benefited from his view of the visual arts movement at the time, since he was also a distinguished art critic.

“I kept the habit of going to his salon until he died in 1964, when I was a university student. He had greatly influenced my way of thinking. I was equally, if not more, influenced by the thinking of Taha Hussein, however. I admired his scepticism and free-spiritedness.”

On the walls of the Ubuntu Gallery’s narrow, intersecting halls were some 35 of Fouad’s paintings. The one theme that recurs in almost all of them is time. Fouad: “I was stimulated by the concept of time at an early age. I have always been interested in art, music and in physics, most specifically in astronomy. I own a large telescope that is placed in my King Mariout residence, and I watch the stars on a regular basis.

“Time has always puzzled me. I read the latest theories on time. Now I know, for example, that time is reversible. It is physically possible to go back in time. But the truth is, we always live in the past. By the time you look at something, registering its existence, it is already in the past. This is the amazing thing about time.”

Intimations of time first appeared in Fouad’s still lifes in 1997. “When I started painting still lifes I did not actually want them to look still. And I started to inject life into paintings of eggplants and green peppers, for example.”

Looking at his painting of black eggplants, included in the exhibition, one instantly admires its spiral motion. A number of black eggplants are placed together, moving like dancers in a spiral towards an unseen point above the frame. Fouad mentioned the Sufi symbolism of the painting: an upward motion towards the absolute power of the Almighty.

Such still-life motion was followed by blurry portraits, also conveying a sense of time. Like Marcel du Champ, Gerhard Richter and others, Fouad reveals that he was influenced by the 19th-century photographic work of Eadweard Muybridge, whose studies of motion were groundbreaking.

Another recurrent theme is the sea, focusing on landscapes in an abstract style. You can almost feel the creatures quivering in its waves. “This is my tendency to experiment,” Fouad said. “One of my new and as yet uncompleted projects is a new, bird’s-eye-view treatment of landscapes. When you see things in this way you eliminate perspective and things become flat.

“So I can generate connections unrelated to space. Egypt is an ideal place for this. If you go to Upper Egypt you can clearly see the boundaries between sand, greenery and the bluish water of the Nile. If I had aimed for the colours of our national flag, I would have chosen ochre, blue and green,” Fouad explains with a smile.

One unique painting features two monkeys moving cheerfully to the right. Above them are red arrows pointing in the same direction. This is another frequent trope of Fouad’s, featured in four of the paintings that made up his last exhibition, “Tonalities”, a reference to his sense of visual music, which was shown at the Picasso Gallery last May.

One of the four paintings shows a flautist in action, with red scratches staining his blue shirt; another shows a gloomy drummer, with the arrows pointing in the opposite direction. The dynamic figures of the musicians counterbalance the plain severity of the background, with the whole forming the visual equivalent of a jazz improvisation.

Likewise, the monkey moving alongside red arrows in this latest exhibition. “It is maybe because the monkeys mimic us human beings,” he laughs. “It is part of an incomplete project that I started in 2011, an attempt to debate the notion of following orders, and define the thin line between personal freedom and abiding by the law,” he explained.

Samir Fouad’s female models are almost all portrayed in agony, appearing to suffer from anxiety and even depression. He has always portrayed simple and marginalised women. “My models are from poor social and economic backgrounds, and they struggle to win their wages. They represent at least 40 per cent of Egyptian people.

“Yes, we are struggling all the time. And I choose my models from this social stratum, to show that we are struggling, most of us. This might seem like a negative thing, but I do portray pain, hoping that better things will come.”
Regarding the Egyptian art scene in general, Fouad had this to say: “There are a few positive signs, but also many negative ones. The few things are accomplished by individuals. There is absolutely no common ideology governing the art movement now. The Ministry of Culture is not playing its pioneering role.

“Some notable national galleries are not even open, such as Al-Gazira Gallery. When I was 17 years old I enjoyed going to a central library that specialised in modern art, located in Qasr Al-Nile Street. The Modern Art Museum, now located at the Cairo Opera House, used to have a good library and a rare collection of works by Orientalist artists. God knows where they are now!

“Original works by famous, pioneering artists should be available to new generations. The Internet is no use in this respect. It is a fake world, because it flattens the painting. When you see original paintings you can feel the texture, the dimensions of the painting, and in other visual arts, such as cinema, the same deterioration in experience takes place.

“For example, how it came to be that a pioneering country like Egypt has no museum to document the art of cinema is beyond me. I cannot really digest the fact that countries like Qatar and Turkey now have better art collections from all over the world,” he said, his voice taking on a sad tone.

“It is pathetic. How does the government hope to have a new generation of artists and writers without a concrete foundation? On the other hand, I greatly admire young artists who attempt to build their own careers on their own personal initiative, without any support.”

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