Friday,20 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1236, (5 - 11 March 2015)
Friday,20 October, 2017
Issue 1236, (5 - 11 March 2015)

Ahram Weekly

The art of the bean

Rania Khallaf devours an artistic meal of sorts

The art of the bean
The art of the bean
Al-Ahram Weekly

When I first heard of an exhibition called “Fulography” by the young artist Mostafa Sleem, I thought, “Hmm, this must be folk-inspired.” I was not interested. But when Sleem started to post his paintings on Facebook, days before the exhibition, the exotic bright colours surrounding vague figures proved too tempting.

Sleem graduated from the Faculty of Fine Arts in Minya in 2003. He was born and brought up in that beautiful city of Middle Egypt, and his vision, he says, has developed in dramatic new ways since he came to Cairo. “The turning point happened when I was introduced to Samir Fouad and other well-known artists at the Wagih Yassa Art Salon in Rehab,” Sleem says, “not to mention Yassa himself,” who inaugurated the exhibition last week at the Zamalek Art Corner Gallery. “It was there that I learned...”

Sleem’s 31 paintings are all variations on a single theme: the science and art of eating ful (or broad beans) in Egypt. “Fulography” combines ful with glyph in reference to hieroglyphs. Each painting was a letter in Sleem’s artistic alphabet. Nothing in Egypt could be more traditional or pervasive than ful, yet Sleem manages to show just how rich and variable such a simple trope could be. The staple breakfast in any country, Sleem says, is after all a reflection of its culture and history.

“Eating foul differs from one place to another,” Sleem says, smiling. “It is one thing when you eat it at home with friends, another on the street, and still another in a restaurant. The most rich and amazing custom of all is having breakfast at a pushcart in a densely populated area like Shubra, which is famous for this tradition. It is there that you meet people from different walks of life, hear the early morning news along with humming, all kinds of drivel and joking. You can feel the rhythm of the street.”

One huge painting in acrylic features a ful man serving ful out of the distinctive huge pot with its long-necked ladle. The painting achieves an extraordinary sense of intimacy between man and pot. Other paintings show different aspects of the paraphernalia of ful – the donkeys that drag the pushcarts, the bread, the consumers – and reflect the full gamut of scenes and the associated emotions: joy, belonging, distress... The figures always appear in harmony, bleeding into each other. They have no borders to separate them. Abstract and expressionist techniques are combined in a new way.

“I didn’t start out with the idea but after completing two paintings on the same theme I felt that other scenes could be fished out of my head, and I loved the challenge of channelling my own emotions and ideas derived into this intimate tradition on canvas. The subject itself is less important than the technique, the relations between the figures and the general composition of each painting. Motion and speed are important: the ful man’s arm taking the hot stew out of the pot and placing it in bread, in a plastic bag or on a plate. He does this with incredible speed while talking to his customers and shouting jokes at the passers by. It’s incredible.”

This focus on speed, together with the caricature-like lines, gives the painting a remarkable light-hearted spirit. Sleem is also a cartoonist. “One of my cartoons,” he recalls, “was published only one day before 25 January Revolution – and it predicted its outbreak in its way. It was of a billiards table with two balls that have just collided. One looks like the Tunisian flag, the other like the Egyptian.” But, even though these are acrylic paintings on canvas, Sleem’s works are as much pop art as cartoon. They are very much in this spirit, and they are executed with such speed they resemble sketches; Sleem confirms this impression: he rarely makes sketches before he starts. With the smallest painting being 50 cm tall and 70 cm wide, Sleem gives himself ample space for details and treatments, exploring the same view from a range of angles.

The traditional ful pot and the curves of the female figure have something in common, and Sleem’s figures all benefit from this, with the pots at times recalling breasts and the female galabiyas echoing pots. But all the figures are the same: it is never clear whether they are male or female. Inanimate objects take on human form, humans take on the poise of the inanimate. A sense of physical intimacy pervades everything, with Sleem’s fantastic balance of warm and cool colours adding to the conversation. Sleem says he restricted his palette to orange, purple, blue and white to create unity, but the variety is still astonishing.

“Fulgraphy” is Sleem’s fifth solo exhibition. Last year’s exhibition, called “Protein” and also held at the Art Corner Gallery, was inaugurated by the celebrated novelist Sonallah Ibrahim. Sleem contributed work to exhibitions at the Mattress Factory Museum of Contemporary Art in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 2012, and the NordArt Gallery in Germany in 2014. Sleem is also an occasional short story writer and poet, and a regular designer of book covers. In 2006, he designed a series of colouring books for children. He says it all feeds into his work. “This,” he points to a scene depicted from behind a window, “could be the seed of my next painting project: watching life through glass. Yes,” he smiles, “I have caught the thread.”

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