Saturday,21 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1250, (11 - 17 June 2015)
Saturday,21 July, 2018
Issue 1250, (11 - 17 June 2015)

Ahram Weekly

The ghosts of Tayeb Saleh

How far north will you go during your season of migration? Rania Khallaf probes the intersection between a classic novel and a new exhibition

The ghosts of Tayeb Saleh
The ghosts of Tayeb Saleh
Al-Ahram Weekly

The Arab world is rife with taboos, yet few Arab artists focus on the forbidden, but the dual exhibition by Yasser Nabil and Weam Al-Masry which opened on 5 May at the Art Talks Gallery in Zamalek tackles this theme head on. Inspired by the late Sudanese novelist Tayeb Saleh’s landmark 1966 Season of Migration to the North, the two Egyptian artists deal with both overt and covert forms of authority in Arab society.

In the spacious hall the effect is instantly breathtaking. Layers of colour and symbol embody the chains holding Arabs down in Nabil’s five huge oil paintings, showing human beings in pain, chains and blood, while Al-Masry shows various the sexual excesses of Mustafa Said, Saleh’s protagonist, who settles in London with the object of conquering empire in the form of women – only to be undone by one eventually.

Itself frequently banned by the Islamist regime in Sudan, Season of Migration remains an eloquent comment not only on the forbidden but on the colonial experience, the lure of the unknown and the intersection of cultures. Told by an anonymous narrator who, on his own return from studying in England, meets Said, by now an unknown elderly villager, and moved by his story decides to retell it. Gripped by curiosity, depression and anger, the narrator must confront his own feelings about Europe and Africa, tradition and modernity, the sacred and the carnal.

Nabil and Al-Masry had been friends for many years before they decided to hold a dual exhibition. “Working on this particular theme started less than a year ago, when Weam and I were discussing how to introduce something new into the Cairo art scene,” Nabil recounts. “This is not only one of the richest novels in the history of Arabic literature, it is also full of confessions. Reading the novel is like hearing the confessions of a well-educated Arab citizen: a golden chance for excavating the troubles and illnesses of Arab society...”

The duplicity of values inherent to Mustafa Said, Nabil went on to explain, is one of the main reasons behind the slow pace of development: “The novel is like an interrogation chamber. The amazing thing about it is the protagonist’s decision to be frank, to tell all and to be a mirror of his community’s deep dark heart.”

Nabil was born in Kafr Al-Sheikh in 1970 and, having done post graduate work at the Fine Art College, where he excelled at oil painting, he taught for 10 years before moving to Lausanne, Switzerland, where he now lives and works. He has participated in several Ministry of Culture Youth and General Salons, exhibiting widely in Europe. Al-Masry had long admired his work.

“It was Nabil who suggested the novel,” she says, “and I thought it would be great not just to work on a shared concept, but a concept taken from a legendary novel which is very rich with its inspirational vocabulary and quotes.”

Born in 1976, the Cairo-based Al-Masry is a Faculty of Applied Arts graduate who, having specialised in multi media, has received numerous awards and scholarship. She works in photography and animation as well as installation and painting, and her work has been featured in, among other places, the fifth Beijing International Art Biennale (2012), the Egyptian Museum of Contemporary Art and the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, as well as in private collections in Egypt, Germany, the USA and Spain.

“When I decided to work on the novel, I read it carefully and picked out the quotes that bewildered me the most,” she says. “I worked on those quotes, analysing them for code words and researching those words to see where they would lead me. One of the most mysterious scenes in the novel is when Hosna, the protagonist’s wife, is killed. I wanted to do the opposite, so I painted a sheep-headed woman killing a man. Actually this is the way women were often in ancient Egypt – as killers.”

In her mixed media paintings, Al-Masry uses mainly glass colours on canvas, aiming for “a transparent look”: “I chose glass colours so as to form a kind of visual diary on the surface of canvas. I wanted every detail to look clear and bright.”

Both artists focused on women, a subject that was not new to either. “I worked on women suffering pain in all its aspects,” Nabil says. “Women are the basis of the society, and their voices should be heard.” They appear as prisoners bearing the yoke of society, with the seal of approval symbolising society’s control being the most recurrent motif. “It is a way to criticise the need for approval, to criticise the system, the stereotypes.” Seal of Approval shows a naked woman standing proudly with her back to the viewer, her arms tied with a white cloth, her legs shackled. The seal is located at the bottom of the painting to the left.

Unlike Nabil’s, Al-Masry’s works are quite different from each other. There are enough subjects there for many different exhibitions, but it is the artist’s eagerness to analyse situations arising from the quotes she selected. “The most interesting aspect of the novel for me is the protagonist’s obscenity and maltreatment of his women,” she says, “coupled by constant self-criticism.” One interesting quote is the one from which Al-Masry derived the title for one painting: “I slept with the whole harem simultaneously.”

Linked with the term haram – meaning “forbidden” – Harem shows a group of women and men who share the same hair as they lie together. “A pattern of superficial sexual relationships,” as the artist puts it. The full quote is appended to the frame: “So that when I slept with a woman, it was as if I slept with the whole harem simultaneously.”

Though regularly parcticed by such artists as Khaled Hafez, Shady El Noshoqaty and Wael Shawki, conceptual art of this kind may not be as attractive to viewers here in Egypt. But this is the whole point. “Our aim was to present the audience with different and good art,” Al-Masry said. “Whether it meets with appraisal or acceptance on the part of collectors is not an issue, but so far the feedback is good,” she smiled. Nabil added, “Our next project will be more daring. We are going to work on the issue of free speech.”

The exhibition is open until 5 June.

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