Wednesday,15 August, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1233, (12 - 18 February 2015)
Wednesday,15 August, 2018
Issue 1233, (12 - 18 February 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Owls, Utta and Skulls

Gamal Nkrumah reads the irrepressible in Salah Abdel-Kerim’s creatures

Al-Ahram Weekly

“Cry of the Beast” defies predictability in an artistic and social sense. In the Muslim context the beast is the boar. And, Sherwet Shafie, proprietor and curator of SafarKhan Gallery, Zamalek, instantly perceived the significance of the metaphor.

A consequence is that no culture can internalise contradictions like Egypt. The creature was created in iron. “As iron is eaten away by rust, so the envious are consumed by their own passion,” the ancient Greek philosopher Antisthenes construed. Shafie had to have her beast. Animals were always the key factor to safeguarding the authenticity of the art of Salah Abdel-Kerim. And, Shafie pleaded with his widow, Catherine, a personal friend and a Frenchwoman, to have the curious creature. Catherine dithered at first, and then she relented. “Sherwet, you can have the Beast”.

The bizarre boar is an outlandish specimen of ironwork and Shafie had a blast. “Everything has its limits, and iron ore cannot be educated into gold,” Mark Twain exhorted. But for Shafie, the iron was gold.

“The Christ”, another of Abdel-Kerim’s creations, is the Cry of the Beast’s antithesis. And, The Christ is also created of iron. Adorned with his crown of thorns, the Christ’s pathos is the very paradoxical converse of the Beast’s pathetic plaintiveness and pitiableness. Sherwet was ecstatic. Her new acquisition was sublime. Was it not Joseph Stalin who once remarked that “a sincere diplomat (read curator) is like dry water or wooden iron”? The affinity between Christ and Beast is simultaneously daunting and disheartening.

The Bronze Owl and Wooden Owl are arresting. Salah Abdel-Kerim was a genius. His haunting owls are eerily similar to pre-dynastic ancient Egyptian figurines, not of owls, but of individuals. Personally, I am not sure if the artist himself noted the analogy.

Noughts and crosses, the game known in the United States as tic-tac-toe, is an intriguing pastime for children. In much the same fashion, Abdel-Kerim’s creations are just as absorbing for adults. No other Egyptian artist knew how to stir passions such as the late Abdel-Kerim, and that is precisely why the current exhibition of a sample of his works in SafarKhan is such a joy. “Not only strike while the iron is hot, but make it hot by striking,” extrapolated Oliver Cromwell.

“Streets” is a monumental accomplishment of Abdel-Kerim. It captures the spirit of Cairo, and the essence of Egypt at a certain age.

Abdel-Kerim’s masterpieces are maudlin. He obtained his PhD in 1958 from the Centro Sperimentale di Cinematrografia, Italy. But, his inspiration was the mean streets, the animals and people he adored.

“The Skull”, also a sensational bronze, is in my humble opinion so allegorical to the present state of affairs in Egypt. There is a battle for the hearts and minds of Egyptians. Is the country heading for secularism or for religious bigotry and blind fanaticism? Even after a period of disorder, Egypt returns to a serene state of mind.

To his admirers, Salah Abdel-Kerim was staring unwaveringly at Egypt’s secret fears and apparent aspirations. He collaborated with the legendary Salah Jahine to produce “Cairo in the Millenium”. Jahine was a pioneer of colloquial Egyptian Arabic poetry, so Abdel-Kerim was the perfect partner of Jahine. Together they collaborated on subjects that carried a spiritual charge even if they mused on the mundane.

Salah Abdel-Kerim illustrated the interpretations of Jahine’s take on Nobel leaureate Naguib Mahfouz, Egypt’s most celebrated novelist and Tawfik Hakim, yet another of the country’s dramatists.

“Tombs” is supernatural, eerie and ghostly. The work is like a genie unfolding before my eyes. Most of all, it is a disquieting topic most of us prefer to ignore.  

Abdel-Kerim’s pursuit of perfection was not rooted in an inane humanity, rather it was forcefully expressive and yet poinantly relevant to the period in which he produced his illustrations.

Questions of conscious matter. His infatuation with life, with the implications of materialism produced marvels that speak of soul-searching.

“I want to try everything,” Shafie recounts what her friend Abdel-Kerim reiterated. He experimented with various mediums. Sculptor, sepia illustrator, oil painter, designer of logos, the list is endless.

Tackling intellectually weighty subjects in print is no easy matter. Shafie requested that Abdel-Kerim design a logo for the Egyptian Radio and Television Union. The then minister of information Safwat Sherif demanded a specific design that is as much as play with the heart as a tease as far as the intellect is concerned. Abdel-Kerim promptly produced ten versions for the minister to chose from. The minister preferred a certain masterpiece that to this day remains the emblem of the Egyptian Radio and Television Union.

“The Hyena” and “The Horse” are creations of Abdel-Kerim’s that put brakes on the nature of the beast in tormented humanity and communicate the artist’s genius. They convey a sense of outrage. The Horse is more a play about a beautiful subject than a depiction of the sturdy mammal.

Abdel-Kerim dramatically wrestles with deep emotions that draw on nature, on the innate animal instinct in everyone. Deep questions about what makes us what we are. “He loved animals and as a child was obsessed with insects and their anatomy,” his son Fares, a film director, told Al-Ahram Weekly.

There was no subject that Abdel-Kerim would willingly skirt. He was especially partial to an Egyptian narrative, and no other personifies the persona of Egypt at that particular period than Egypt’s most celebrated singer and composer the Alexandrian vocalist Sayed Darwish.

Darwish’s profile might at first not seem to match his zest for life. But with gusto and an amazing zeal he collaborated with Salah Jahine to project the sober assessment of a man that truly manifested Egypt.

“The Scarab” and “The Grasshopper” could hardly be more relevant to ancient Egypt. The creatures are not merely a work of awesome art, they are simultaneously an impressively thrilling scholarly attempt both to refocus the layman’s attention and to rethink the lessons of history. Profound symbols in our world of spiritual uncertainty and constrained political horizons. The grasshopper is a reminder of the Biblical plagues that afflicted the country when the then Pharaoh persecuted Moses and his people. As for the scarab, it is the very philosophy of the pharaohs incarnate.

“The Fish”, too is an ancient symbol of Christianity, long before the cross was. And, his “Ceasar” is a cat, the artist’s daughter Nevine assures me. He likewise illustrated “The Foetus”. I stood prefixed, entranced at the prodigy. I cannot tell the story behind it, it must be intensely personal.

And what about “Utta”? “I met her yearslater in life and she so wanted to possess her portrait. Utta was the daughter of a friend of my father,” Nevine extrapolated. And then, there is the dramatic portrait of the doorman’s daughter.

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