Monday,27 May, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1266, (15 - 21 October 2015)
Monday,27 May, 2019
Issue 1266, (15 - 21 October 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Painting music

Rania Khallaf attended a silent concert

Painting music
Painting music
Al-Ahram Weekly

We only see musicians during concerts, when they look focused and stern, greeting us with faint smiles on flushed faces. We usually forget about them and concentrate on the sound of the music. With “The Musicians”, a unique exhibition celebrating the Opera House’s 27th anniversary, Khaled El-Samahy has allowed musicians more space to exist and show their faces.

Last year El-Samahy’s exhibition of oil portraits, “The Passers-by” – also held at the Cairo Opera House – beautifully showcased marginal and everyday people. “The idea of the current show was not mine,” El-Samahy says now. “One of the paintings in the last exhibition featured a violin player, and a friend of mine who works at the Opera House said it would be wonderful to dedicate a whole exhibition to musicians. I liked the idea, and here we are.”

In the two-floor space, it feels as if you are in a real rehearsal with some 30 paintings in oil and pastel as well as sketches in charcoal and graphite showing the heroes of the Opera in action. Huge 2 x 3 m-paintings are inescapable on the first floor, while the second floor is allocated to smaller paintings and sketches.

The artist was keen on portraying the musicians in their rehearsal positions, not on stage, since stage lights, he explained, give artificial effects. Some paintings portray musicians in their daily routines. One features a young girl practicing at home, intimately holding her oud while her family is gathered around her, enjoying the music. Another is a monochrome oil portrait of Ghassan Youssef, a Syrian oud player who performs at the Opera House, stressing the harmony between the musician and the instrument. This sketch-like painting represents a sort of transformation in El-Samahy’s portraiture since, unlike other paintings in the exhibition, it was completed in few minutes. One huge painting shows a rehearsal room with a full orchestra, imparting a high dose of energy. Although it only focuses on three musicians, reducing the rest to spots in the background, while you stand in front of the painting you keep expecting to hear the music flow out of it.

Most paintings focus on the psychological aspect, the musicians’ unique way of practicing, their characters at once sophisticated and simple. “Painting these huge canvases is a challenge for me. The whole exhibition was one of the biggest challenges in my artistic career, especially those paintings which portray a composition of different musicians. It was kind of stressful. I started this unique experiment about ten months ago. I joined the musicians at their rehearsals, and I attended many of their concerts as an audience member. I had this amazing chance to get closer to the magic world of music and to understand the character of the musicians,” El-Samahy says. “I even made friends with some of them. After a few months some musicians such as the oud player Dina Abdel-Hamid started visiting my studio, giving me a more space to paint her portrait live, away from the stress of the rehearsal space…”

Born in 1970, El-Samahy studied painting at the Faculty of Fine Arts, Helwan University. It was his exhibition “Cairo Portraits” that established him as one of the most prolific artists of his generation, and one of a handful in Egypt who excel at portraiture. “The Musicians”, however, required a new plan of action:

“I studied the order of the instruments on stage, their materials, history and development, and the difference between them, as each instrument requires a different posture even within the same  section of the orchestra. At the beginning I made a lot of sketches, and took a few pictures, just of the whole orchestra. The first time I entered the rehearsal space, I felt as if I were in paradise. Do you know how it feels? The harmony of the orchestra, and this marvellous gathering of musicians from different countries took me straight to heaven. My previous exhibitions focused on people or places, yes, but this was a kind of artistic confrontation: one artist facing another. It was a truly exciting experience; sometimes we had interesting conversations. The artistic nature of their characters inspired me a great deal…”

El-Samahy focused on Opera House (and the Cairo Symphony Orchestra) as opposed other musicians, he says, because of his love of classical music. “It is a great source of inspiration to me as a fine artist. I also do believe that the most sublime music is the classical music presented in Cairo by the Cairo Orchestra Symphony, featuring a wide variety of instruments.” He agrees that, while most of the time artists in different media never meet, this exhibition is a chance for them to see each other. “Artists from different fields should be more courageous about mixing and understanding each other’s professional experiences.”

El-Samahy will miss the musicians but he has other plans for the future: “I am planning for a part two of ‘The Train Station’, one of my most beloved shows, which was held in 2003. It was a unique experiences. The theme was based on my graduation project of 1993, the time when I used to spend all night at the Upper Egypt Train Station to portray the hazy movement of passengers and their luggage. I want to have another exhibition on the same theme. The idea still haunts me.”

The exhibition is on show until 19 October

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