Wednesday,18 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1231, (29 January - 4 February 2015)
Wednesday,18 October, 2017
Issue 1231, (29 January - 4 February 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Bahgory’s nostalgia

Veteran Egyptian artist George Bahgory has a new exhibition at the Al-Masar Gallery in Zamalek, writes Nagwa El-Ashri

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Al-Ahram Weekly

A celebrated painter since the 1950s, the Egyptian artist George Bahgory has never run out of new ideas. His observations of Cairo, its streets and its people, are unique in their scope and sharpness.

Workingmen and women, places of worship, entertainment and toil all come to life on his canvases. Such subjects are as keenly felt as ever in his new exhibition at the Al-Masar Gallery in Zamalek.

While Bahgory has lived in Paris for the past 30 years, the new paintings make it seem as if he never left Egypt. His eye for detail is still evident in his work, which chronicles who we are and how we react to things.

“I sit in street cafés in downtown Cairo and draw life, attempting to portray a new phase in the country’s history in all its hopes and disappointments,” says Bahgory. “I capture a man walking slightly ahead of his wife and children. I paint businessmen and workers.

“I try to notice the faces of those playing dominos or cards in a café. I depict the tragedies of the present period and the fact that people haven’t lost the smiles on their faces, despite their troubles.”

Bahgory began his career in the 1950s, depicting members of the working classes, the struggling Egyptian family and the colour and closeness of family life. Then came the socialist 1960s, and Bahgory did not miss a beat, documenting the industrialisation of the country and commenting on the links between man and machine.

In the 1970s, Bahgory saw a nation desperate to put food on the table. His canvases show crowded scenes, a look of exhaustion on the faces of the people, a life that is hectic, a little chaotic, but with a feeling of togetherness that gives Egypt its inimitable self-assurance.

By the 1980s, one begins to see greater individualism in his paintings. His subjects are people who are living on the edge and don’t fit in. In the 2000s there is a switch from the material to the spiritual, as the nation tried once again to find its bearings in a new and somewhat perplexing world.

Bahgory started out working as a cartoonist for Egyptian magazines, an art form that brought him nationwide recognition. But he also continued to paint street scenes. Children playing, girls skipping, the ironing man and the bicycle shop owner are all recurring themes in his work.

Moving to Paris, his work acquired an international appeal that saw him experimenting with different shapes, colours and styles. Sometimes his canvases are thick with paint, applied in paste form and looking fiercely assertive. Sometimes he goes for subtlety, using softer colours and offering minimalist interpretations of reality.

On every visit to Egypt, this prolific artist must have a new show, in order to meet friends, to discuss art, to shine in the glow of the city he has brought to life in thousands of images and, finally, simply to be himself.

One of his passions, seen in the present exhibition, is one-line drawing, in which the whole drawing is done without the pen leaving the paper. Some of his loveliest portrayals of ordinary people and celebrities are executed in this style, which he always makes look so easy.

The singer Um Kalthoum is a powerful presence in his collection of portraits. He transforms her into an almost mythical figure, her features exaggerated to fit her larger-than-life legacy. There is something about her in his portraits that also makes her look like a reflection of the country — the yearning for beauty, the craving for excellence, that still today remain Egyptian passions.

Bahgory says he often paints Um Kalthoum and Abdel-Halim Hafez, another iconic singer of the 1950s and 60s, out of sheer nostalgia. “Um Kalthoum was loved by all, the elite and the ordinary people,” he says.

 Sitting in Café Riche in downtown Cairo, with old friends like author Youssef Al-Qaed, actor Ezzat Al-Alayli and journalist Samir Iskandar, Bahgory draws pictures of the singers as his friends discuss contemporary politics and culture. Around him, the walls are covered with some of his older paintings, portraits of life and people and images of a country that changes fast but sometimes refuses to change at all.

Some people have criticised Bahgory for visiting Jerusalem to call for peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians, saying that he wanted to “normalise” ties with Israel. However, as the novelist Edwar Al-Kharrat has said about him, “George can combine the joy of living with its sadness, and the ecstasy of life with its sorrow, all of which are profound components of the Egyptian psyche.”

In his current exhibition, Bahgory shows himself to be willing to push experimentation to its limits, reinterpreting famous paintings by European artists like Renoir, Manet, Van Gogh, Picasso and Cézanne, as well as works of Egyptian painters like Abdel-Hadi Al-Gazzar and Rateb Siddiq. His Mona Lisa, unlike the original by Leonardo da Vinci, does not sit still, but seems to be gesturing.

 “Life favours motion — that’s what people do,” he says. In order to work on these paintings, he often seeks inspiration for weeks. “I would place a picture in front of me and keep looking at it until I got hooked. That’s when I would start working,” he says.

Despite having lived abroad for decades, Bahgory still thinks of Cairo as his home. “My love for Egypt only increases with the years. I still reject the word emigration and find it frightening,” he says.

Bahgory may have made his name as a cartoonist, but his painting career is perhaps unrivalled in this part of the world.

“I am a painter, and I am someone who is very committed to what is taking place,” he says. “However, I also believe that sometimes a small drawing or cartoon can be more influential than a long article.”

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