Sunday,23 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1248, (28 May - 3 June 2015)
Sunday,23 September, 2018
Issue 1248, (28 May - 3 June 2015)

Ahram Weekly

A maze of paintings

Rania Khallaf discovers artist Mohamed Khedr’s downtown Cairo

 A maze of paintings
A maze of paintings
Al-Ahram Weekly

Downtown Cairo was once inhabited by the urban elite but, now a mostly middle-class district, it had been overrun street vendors before recent efforts to beautify it bore fruit. With much of it pedestrianised, cleared of parking and cleaned up, the area is almost beautiful again.

The new plans preserved the murals painted in the wake of the 25 January Revolution, but with its unique buildings, layered architecture and numerous statues – the work of mostly French artists and architects commissioned by Khedive Ismail – downtown Cairo had always inspired painters and photographers anyway. “Downtown”, a 2013 group exhibition at Misr Gallery featuring a wide range of styles in sculpture, painting and video by young artists (Aya El Fallah, Kamal El Feky, Ibrahim Saad and Menna Genedy) demonstrated just to what extent.

Mohammed Khedr’s third solo exhibition, “The Horizons of Downtown” – which opened last week at the new Zamalek gallery Ubunto – includes 34 paintings of downtown architecture in soft pastel and acrylic colors, reflecting a unique vision of nighttime downtown Cairo.

A 1993 graduate of the set design department of the Faculty of Fine Arts, Khedr is an exceptional though not prolific voice of his generation. He worked in computer graphics, décor and creative design before he decided to dedicate his time to pure art.

“I have always been fascinated by the downtown streets. I have walked those streets millions time, and their charm has never departed my mind,” he told me. “I love strolling there especially at night, late night, with the approach of dawn. I feel then as if I was walking in a magical world or living out a scene from an interesting historical movie. During rush hour, the heavy traffic and the non-stop flow of pedestrians prevents us from looking up to notice the horizon of the city, and the lines where sky converges with buildings.

“I am in love with downtown. And my own studio is located there. One day, some six months ago, I happened to look up to the horizon and started following this very distinguished and amazing skyline, which changes from one place to another,” he smiled, adding in a quiet voice, “This is how I start the first painting: depicting this unique conjunction of buildings and the sky, and then one painting followed another. Many downtown domes and statues are not noticed by the passers-by. This is why I see my exhibition as an invitation for people to look up and enjoy the beauty.”

This exhibition marks a transition in the artist’s career, with Khedr adopting a new abstract style. His first two solo exhibitions had no specific themes. However, there is one thread joining all his work together: clarity.

“Abstraction,” he says, “is not my first priority.” He points out that the average viewer should not have to make an effort to understand the clues of a painting. “Experimentation in my artworks,” he clarified, “is obvious in the technique, the perspective or the colours.”

Khedr’s second solo exhibition was held in California in August 2014, when he participated in an international forum aimed at promoting Middle East art and culture. His contribution consisted mainly of his classical portraits of important Egyptian figures and places, in acrylics. Khedr’s first solo exhibition was an expressionist collection of portraits exhibited at the Ahmed Shawki Museum.

Early on the present project involved painting the AUC’s Greek Campus in Tahrir. “I was encouraged by some friends to continue the project. I started by sketching live in most places, except for the squares, in which it is hard enough to stand still, let alone do a sketch; so, in a few instances, I had to work from photographs.” The beautiful paintings give the impression of a documentary film. The colours of the paintings are mainly monochrome, and there is absolutely no glimpse of people.

“Downtown is more beautiful and has a special charm at night,” Khedr explained. “This is why I chose to take people out of the scenes.”

Pastel and acrylics are totally different media, but the artist manages to use them seamlessly, making them give almost the same impression.

On first impression the viewer sees monochrome paintings, only to discover colour within the huge scene. “It is kind of a trick,” Khedr smiled. “The use of many bright colors would have prevented me from portraying the skyline. This is why I opted for abstraction, even in colours.” he explained. The paintings utilise aspects of impressionism and expressionism as abstraction, yet they have the same unified tone and spirit, which gives the exhibition a kind of mysterious fascination.

“I believe there is a lot more to paint still. Downtown will remain my muse for a long time, I believe. I have finished this collection but I still feel as if I am drowning in a deep well. I have just covered a small area, around 500 meters, from Qasr Al Nil to Ibrahim Pasha Square. I haven’t portrayed Garden City or Zamalek yet.

“Downtown is a living creature,” he added. “There was a time when it was elegant as a young lady, and then there were times when it looked grumpy as a desperate old woman. Now, I believe, the lady is regaining her charm...”

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