Rania Khallaf rediscovers Lewis Caroll on canvas
I was struck by the title of Riham El Sadany’s exhibition before I even saw reproductions of her paintings: “Lust in Wonderland”. Here was a truly bold woman artist willing to explore a potentially explosive topic, but also bringing imagination into it in a direct and challenging way way. Born in Cairo in 1978, I found out the El Sadany earned her PhD in performing arts from the Faculty of Fine Arts, Helwan University, in 2012.
At the Art Talks Gallery in Zamalek, where El Sadany had held one solo exhibition before, I was not disappointed. Inspired by Alice in Wonderland, El Sadany transposed notions of desire and the subconscious into a contemporary visual environment.
In (Im)possibilities, the largest of her oil on canvas paintings at 3 m by 4 m, looks like the world through the looking glass, opening up a wonderland of dreamy women who believe anything is possible. But the true hero is the setting itself, with the sea forming the background to all manner of characters and stories. Women appear in different positions, swimming or about to drown or else already lying peacefully on the seabed, where a wolf prowls. Only one male figure, floating, watches from afar. But along with the figures are easels with paintings showing women in different positions...
In other paintings lust plays out in a range of situations: swinging, singing, embracing parents or eating watermelons. It is not so much lust, in other words, as the fictional space where women are free and bold enough to express lust. It’s a world that El Sadany says psychology opened up to her, together with her observation of human behaviour.
“Whenever I talk to people,” she says, “I realise that I know very little about human beings. And it is so interesting to examine different reactions to the same issue or event. Love has always been something to argue about, but lust has no definite meaning. Despite what people might believe, I think that ‘lust’ doesn’t have to be a feeling generated by the opposite gender. It can be sparked by the memory of a rare moment. It has to do with one’s own feelings, nothing to do with one’s sexual partner. Lust should not be restricted to sex,” El Sadany stresses.
“The word ‘lust’ is a taboo in our societies, but I think it has rich connotations other than its direct sexual meaning. It is the same feeling that you have for intercourse, but it can be triggered by different things: success, money, travel and so on. Many artists feel lust when they paint. Generally speaking, you feel lust when you are passionate about something or someone, or when you do something creative, whether it’s art or cooking, medicine, whatever. Nobody gives you lust, it comes from within, it is the feeling that you get as a reward when you’ve done something perfectly.”
El Sadany has no qualms about setting out to break taboos.
“It is so wrong that we limit our imagination and the capacity of the word to just one meaning,” she said. “We tend to create taboos out of nothing. This word could be attributed to other meanings —“ such as the moment a woman holds her daughter’s hand, in There Is No Place Like No Other on Earth, while each is sitting in a stately armchair. The background, of course, is yet another fairy tale: huge buildings swaying towards each other. Both women are barefoot, their feet submerged in something blue.
Blue, the color of the sea and of life, is dominant in almost all the paintings. It enhances the concept of Wonderland but it is also El Sadany’s favourite colour. Another dominant motif is horns: they seem to stand for strength rather than evil. Many of the female figures wear them. Easels, paints and brushes are also dominant.
“Art makes up my world. I breathe art. My life is a series of sketches, which are a translation of the life I have lived. It is a very simple thing, and yet very complicated.”
There Is No Place Like No Other on Earth, El Sadany says, was the first painting in the exhibition she made. The girl resembles her own daughter. “Whenever I see my girl,” she explains, “I see a mini me. Of course she is way smarter than I was at her age. She is one of my best models,” she smiles.
The whole exhibition was completed in seven months, El Sadany reveals. “I started with the assumption that Wonderland is a world of unconnected items that resembles our world, and the desire to explore the many meanings of lust, and to break the lust taboo. I wanted to understand why we are scared of certain issues, and I found out it is simply because we tend to judge other people’s behaviour. After I started this one, I grew fascinated by wide spaces, the sizes of paintings, and I felt like challenging myself. Then one painting led to another.”
Notwithstanding her nearly all-female cast and her taboo-breaking tendencies, El Sadany says she is by no means a feminist artist. “I am not against masculinity,” she says, “and I can’t be. It depends on the culture; in some societies men are totally unfairly treated. Hence, I deal with people as individuals, and the gender issue marginal.”
In one overtly erotic painting, Taking a Break, a man is embracing the bare leg of an almost naked woman with two red horns, kissing her foot passionately, in a studio.
“But,” El Sadany says, “you can never tell which is the artist, which the model. Who is in control? You can never know. And it is super sarcastic,” she added. “Sarcasm is part of me, as I started my career as a cartoonist, shifting to painting a short while later. I am not a feminist, I am a female artist who sees things from a certain point of view.”
The show continues until mid-March