Sunday,22 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1136, 21 - 27 February 2013
Sunday,22 October, 2017
Issue 1136, 21 - 27 February 2013

Ahram Weekly

The landscape of folklore

A recent exhibition by pioneering artist Hassan Abdel-Fattah casts light on the artist’s persistent quest for a unique Egyptian identity, writes Rania Khallaf

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Al-Ahram Weekly

Hassan Abdel Fattah is one of a handful of artists today who are preoccupied with Egypt’s ancient and modern history. His attempts to reflect the unique identity of Egypt is the recurrent feature in his work. In most of his work, Abdel Fattah attempts to create a space that merges elements from ancient Egyptian art with scenes from contemporary life. His paintings are therefore rich with vivid colors and strong strokes of the brush. Born in 1938 in Gharbiya, Abdel Fattah graduated from the painting department of Cairo’s Faculty of Fine Arts, in 1964. In 1984, he received his PhD from the department. Abdel Fattah has since worked as a visiting professor at Washington University (in 1992) and founded the Faculty of Fine Arts in Luxor, as a new asset of the University of South Valley, occupying the post of its dean for two consecutive terms.  
The vibrant paintings that adorn the walls of Picasso Gallery reflect the artist’s eagerness to make his own journey through Egyptian history. Many of the works on exhibit are rich with Islamic and calligraphic symbols. I stood in amazement in front of one of these huge works, large enough to make you feel you have been transported into one of Egypt’s typical popular alleys of the 1960s. However, with its bluish background, it is hard to tell whether the scene takes place at night or in the day. In a smart way, the artist manages to keep this scene in the viewer’s mind; whether the scene is old or contemporary, lost or found, it is engraved one the viewer’s mind like a beautiful dream. The painting illustrates a two floor-building, while grassroots elements fly pleasantly all over the space. Bicycles hang on the front door of a bicycle rent shop, birds pick seeds from ground, a woman carries a goose and a rooster on the roof are only some of the motifs in the busy scene. The painting induces in the viewer a cheerful mood; beautiful women with typical Egyptian features are the main element.
The alleyways of Al Hussein and Ghouriya, one particularly colourful part of Islamic Cairo where the artist was raised, are widely represented in the works. Abdel-Fattah studied art under the supervision of leading artists such as Hamed Nada and Abdel-Hadi Al-Gazar. “They influenced me greatly, especially since they both had this fascination with the alleys of old Cairo, with its magic and traditional celebrations like the zar and the moulid,” he says, which are also his inspiration. But he is equally interested in ancient Egypt:
“I spent 10 years of my life with ancient Egyptian history; the years I spent in Luxor were pivotal in my career.” Besides the motifs that the artist inserts into his works, the viewer can trace subtler elements:: “One of the things I learned from ancient Egyptian art and applied in my works is to place black lines around the drawings to determine the units of the painting. Aside from the artistic beauty of the Luxor and Aswan temples, where you can find amazing paintings 40 metres high, I travelled to the Eastern Desert and studied the fabulous drawings on the walls of the caves: a great lesson that should remind us that art is the origin and core of our civilisation; if they not continue to be creative, Egyptians will to perish. The sight of the Nile in Luxor is also an amazing source of inspiration to any artist. Setting at the shore, the reflection of the sun on the water at a certain moment generates this unbelievable golden colour. There on the surface of the tranquil waters, I saw the key of the Nile, the everlasting symbol, as if someone has just finished drawing it. It gave me the impression that its two arms resemble the arms of a human being, open wide to hope and love: it is here that great people were born and civilisation will continue to grow forever...”
This joyful spirit inhabits most of his paintings. But in a time of depression and mortal conflict among children of the motherland, where can such joy come from? A childish laugh burst out of his dark-skinned face in response. “I believe it has to do with my childhood,” he says. “I was raised in Al-Abbasiya, which is a few kilometres away from Islamic Cairo. In the 1940s and 1950s, relations between families and neighbours were very cordial. People were happy, honest and cooperative, and violence was at its lowest levels. Besides, my parents, unlike middle-class families of the time, used to encourage me to be an artist. This, I believe, is the origin of my joy: the love and tolerance it all nurtured in me.”
Abdel-Fattah tried out many art schools — abstract, symbolic and primitive art, for example — but it is still the landscape that he favours: not only alleyways but also shores. “Alexandria’s beaches, and Manzala Lake were among my favourite landscapes. The sea and boats are full of symbols; I see boats as the target, the medium, a romantic challenge.” Unlike painters who work from pictures in the studio, Abdel Fattah prefers to study the place, to coexist with its laws, working in the open air. Fascinated with landscape painting, he has travelled to many Arab countries which were “remarkable experiences”: Yemen, Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia. “My travels to Arab countries were an excellent opportunity to study the different kinds of natural landscape and architecture. Visiting Yemen was like a dream. I was stunned by their unique primitive architecture, with its botanical ornamentation. And given the unsophisticated nature of its people, Yemen is an excellent subject for landscape painters.” Abdel-Fattah even adapted the genre to his own styles: the landscapes in his work are buzzing with stories told in different times. People and houses are mingled, as if there were no borders between them. A spirit of ancient times emanates from a modern scene; it is evident in the look or the posture of a woman, which resembles that of women depicted on the walls of ancient temples. “Some of my landscape paintings are mixed with abstract elements. The two will coexist, yielding a new spirit that makes the viewer gaze at the painting and discover new messages.”
A few paintings in the exhibition represent the primitive art school. One painting depicts the bust of a woman with a bald head and extremely round breasts. With too many colors mixing on her bare body, the woman looks helpless, looking for a way out of the frame. “Primitive art requires strong, bold brush strokes, a revolutionary performance and excessive energy relying on the experience of the painter.” While primitive art is a purely western trend, Abdel-Fattah argues that abstract art is typically Arab and Islamic. “Botanical ornaments decorate the old mosques in Islamic Cairo. Studies have revealed that such abstract items help the mind to disengage from the surrounding environment, thus helping the faithful to focus on their prayers: a mode of connection between man and God.”
Abstract as Islamic and historical motifs reflect the critics’ “marriage of authenticity and modernity” — a somewhat forced concept. “I totally agree,” Abdel-Fatah tells me. “It is an odd concept, because any piece of art the artist produces is a contemporary work born of the current moment. It is just the artist’s background that might reflect some interest in history or the past. I don’t think there is any conflict between authenticity and modernity, nor does the co-existence of the two concepts necessarily make a good art.”

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