Wednesday,15 August, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1238, (19 - 25 March 2015)
Wednesday,15 August, 2018
Issue 1238, (19 - 25 March 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Workers of the world, make art

Rania Khallaf enjoyed an industrial dreamland

Workers of the world, make art
Workers of the world, make art
Al-Ahram Weekly

Is art supposed to have a direct message? How far can an artist go with a single issue through his lifetime’s career? Should art be the mouthpiece of certain group of people? Many questions jumped into my mind at the new solo exhibition by Fathi Afifi, which opened this week at Gallery Misr in Zamalek.

Entitled “The Industrious”, this exhibition is typical of the artist’s work. Born in 1950, Afifi is the product of the Nasserist ethos, and his work reflects both its proto-socialist national projects and its terrible disappointments. After earning a middle education degree in industry, Afifi graduated from the Faculty of Fine Arts in the 1970s.

“By the end of 1970s,” he says, “Egypt had enjoyed a special cultural atmosphere, there was a renaissance in theatre, cinema and fine art, and our generation was completely involved. I worked for 20 years in the military plant in Maadi, and it was normal for a group of workers to attend a play or visit a new exhibition after their working hours.”

He remembers his factory years as the best time of his life. “The factory had the most up-to-date technology and was the most powerful in the region, it had monopolised the arms industry in Africa at the time. Ever since the signing of the Camp David treaty, the military industry started to lose its edge. It was one of the treaty’s conditions to diminish this industry.”

Born in the working-class neighbourhood of Al Sayyeda Zainab, Afifi grew up among the people, and by the 1970s he had started contributing to Ministry of Culture exhibitions. His work, however, was still classicist and unrelated to his life. It was the late artist Ragheb Ayyad who encouraged him to find inspiration in his workplace and living quarters. “This,” he says, “was actually the turning point in my career, and I haven’t stopped depicting the working class environment in my paintings since.”

Here as elsewhere Afifi’s paintings focus on factory workers, whom he is able to represent in art as no other. He shows the relations between workers and their bosses, the details of their daily life, their aspirations, celebrations and their leisure time, moments of joy and despair...

Giving me a tour of the exhibition, Afifi pointed out a “Hasaballa” brass band as one of his favourite paintings. “I remember the day when I was six years old when I followed a Hassaballa procession, and I was so excited that I lost my way home. I didn’t return for two months. The purpose of the procession,” he recalled, “was to announce the late singer and actor Abdel Haleem Hafez’s new movie Shari’ Al Hobb (Love Street), a tradition that was popular at the time.”

Afifi never quite left the factory, but his career was frequently interrupted by ministry scholarships, especially under Nasser’s best known culture minister Tharwat Okasha. At one point the artist Hussein Bikar wrote of Afifi that he was “the true representation of the Egyptian environment”, pushing his career even further ahead.

In 1997, Afifi was chosen to participate in the Cairo International Biennale for Fine Arts, where he received the jury prize. “When I first started my work at the military factory, I felt that I had turned into a robot,” he smiled. “The first lesson I learned there was to forget my name, to remember only my number on the clock-in board. This was very harsh for me, as I wanted to work as an artist, but I got used to the rigid system after a short while. Yet I refused to be just a number, and I resorted to spontaneous meditation on the machines and their mechanisms, registering all the details.”

For Afifi, it is naive to depict workers with “chunky muscles holding large metal objects in their hands”. The voice of the working class is mute, he argued, and they are hardly represented by fine artists today. “Nowadays national prizes go to artists with postmodern techniques, and then most artists follow this trend. This leaves little space for authentic artworks, especially those depicting people of the street,” he added.

But how can an artist survive and develop while working on the same themes over and over again? “This,” Afifi countered, “is my 15th exhibition, and while it is true that they all have the same theme one way or another, this is me. You cannot blame me for being immersed in my beliefs and the environment I was born in. Besides, life at the factory was so rich that I can can still generate ideas to this day.”

One amazing oil painting in the predominant expressionist-realist style  depicts a worker in a blue suit running out of the tram, holding the daily newspaper in his hand. The swift movement of the worker reveals his connection both with his workplace, which he is rushing to reach in time, and for the tram as a sign of industrial life – and the better tomorrow it augurs.”

His huge paintings, usually 2 metres by 1.5 meters, reflect his aspirations as a member of the 1970s generation. “I was born in a popular area, with small houses and narrow alleyways, and I worked in a factory where the building was huge but full of machines,” Afif explains. “I needed to feel free, with a large enough canvases. It is kind of compensation.”

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