Sunday,23 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1280, (28 January - 3 February 2016)
Sunday,23 September, 2018
Issue 1280, (28 January - 3 February 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Friendly nudes

Rania Khallaf finds out all about body language — the language of the body

Al-Ahram Weekly

“Spectrum” is the title artist Rasha Soliman has chosen for her new exhibition, currently held at the Art Lounge Gallery in Zamalek.

As you enter the gallery you find yourself instantly surrounded by nudity in its many different guises. Every painting illustrates a different situation or position that reveals the beauty of a female nude. Although the colours tend to be dark in most of the paintings, light emanates from the heart of the canvases.

Rasha Soliman started her career over 20 years ago, but was partly excluded from the art scene at the beginning of her career because of her passion for nudity. “In the first two or three years, my nude paintings were denied from participation in group exhibitions such as the Youth Salon. I was only able to exhibit my paintings at the French Cultural Centre’s Heliorama event, which exhibited artworks by visual artists who lived at the time in Heliopolis,” she told me in a still defiant tone.   

In 1997, a few years after her graduation from the Faculty of Fine Arts in Zamalek, she won second prize for a painting from Heliorama.

In that same year, she also happened to meet the veteran painter Hussein Bikar, who encouraged her and inaugurated her first solo exhibition, entitled “Body Language” at the Al Shona Art Centre in Alexandria.

This coincidental meeting with Bikar opened the doors wide to her. After her first solo, she was asked to participate in many private and government venues. This, indeed, is her tenth solo exhibition. And liberty obviously remains the broadest line running through her oeuvre.

“The freedom of the human body is supposedly an imbedded component in anyone. However, in our society it is not. It is not there simply because of this stupid social heritage, which stop women and men alike from feeling free with their own bodies,” she argues.  “It is the language of the body that reveals the scope of freedom of a woman or a man, their inner feelings and ways of interaction with the outside world,” she says.

Soliman adds that, at a particular stage in her career, she used to illustrate the human body without the head. “It is because we are trained to control our facial expressions. We are trained to cheat, lie and hide our emotions,” she explains. “Sometimes, faces say something, and bodies act in a totally different way. Bodies are truer anyway. And as a woman, I find myself, normally, defending the freedom of female bodies.”

Soliman’s portraits of human bodies developed both in technique and concept over her career, however. “In the beginning, I was focusing on different ways to reflect the expressions of the body. I took hundreds of sketches, and busied my mind wherever I went with this one thing: body language.”

Soliman goes on, “I also used to hire models at home. Because, as fine arts students, you know, we were deprived of drawing nude models at the faculty.” Banning nude painting at the faculty following religious pressures has been a widely decried move.

“This greatly provoked me and made me insist on drawing nudes all the more. The funniest thing is that they used to bring us the section’s female cleaner to be portrayed as a model. You know what this meant? Heaps of black galabeyas over her already large body,” she laughs, pointing out that her father – a graduate of the architecture department of the same college, back in the 1940s – had studied nude painting. “What a degradation in cultural taste.”

In her own work, however, portraying nudes went into a new stage when she began concerning herself with “the composition of several bodies, and the interaction of one body with another. In this exhibition,” Soliman announces summarily, “I got rid of all adherence to the rules of anatomy.”

The exhibited paintings feature liberated lines, not simply bodies. They give the impression of sketches, though Soliman insists that the resemblance – which is present in all her paintings – is merely superficial. She seems to agree to be placed within a group of highly talented middle-aged painters whose main focus is nudity and language. It includes Riham Al Saadany, Weam Al Masry and Yasser Nabil.

While Al Masry and Nabil in their latest group exhibition focused on the human body in its association with literary and philosophical concepts, Soliman’s nude figuration merely celebrates female freedom. “I always try to be free and feel free while I am painting,” she commented, “and that’s it.”

The exhibition certainly does come across like the album of a specific woman showing her most intimate moments. At the entrance, a huge black and white painting is actually three small paintings, each features the same woman in a different situation: dancing, showing off her body and playing music. The lines are bold. And the features of the woman are all the same. She looks like someone immersed in her own world, careless of anything else.

For me, however, all these perfect nudes seem to be locked in, striving to break the walls. But this is not how Soliman sees it. “But they are free, enjoying their freedom in different ways,” she insists, laughing.

All paintings are in acrylics with bold charcoal outlines, which in a way belies the smoothness of a female body. In some paintings, Soliman adds a music instrument, or shows the nude woman singing with a microphone she holds in her firm fist. But, again, they do not look excited or cheerful. There is sadness in the depth. Or, it might be their sheer loneliness.

Soliman doesn’t identify a specific central influence. She likes works by Picasso, Egon Schiele, Sobhy Girguis, a few others. “My paintings speak for Egyptian women who struggle for a small bit of freedom. It is the expression of woman’s value against the intentional degradation of her role in society.” And to this end, even in this painting of a bathing nude, she must to some extent exclude her subjects’ sexuality. Nudity means simply freedom. “Like when you get rid of all responsibilities and loads and feel free,” she says, “like a kid swimming in the sea without a swimming suit.”

Soliman added in a proud tone that what has made her happiest about this exhibition is how news of it has spread by word of mouth, with short messages between women hailing it as “significant event, mirroring a bold and expressive artistic spirit,” she laughed. “People, especially women, would instantly get ‘freedom of female body’ as the major message of my exhibitions. And this in itself is a great triumph.”

Apart from her fascination with the concept of the body, Soliman is also interested in landscape painting. In 2015 she held an exhibition entitled “My Tracks” at the Cordoba Gallery, where she illustrated her travels and joyful encounters with people and places in Nubia, Siwa and other places in Egypt. “I tried to feature the human effect on nature. The environmental architecture was my focus. It was a brilliant experience.”

“The Language of Silence” was her 1999 exhibition at the Cairo Atelier, which feature still life. “I have this passion for collecting old objects like lanterns. I believe they have a special magnificence. And a special language as well. Every item has a history. Drawing cactus is also another great passion. When, as a kid, I was asked at primary school about my mentors in life, I would answer, ‘The Tree!’ I have always loved trees as a symbol for life’s renewal.”

Soliman’s next project is a sculpture exhibition. Encouraged by the late sculptor Abdel-Hady Al Weshahy, who wanted her to study sculpture rather than painting, she makes sculptures in various mediums including wire, clay and mixed media, but has never yet exhibited a piece. Yet Some of Soliman’s paintings already seem like sculptures with their strong black outlines.

“I still haven’t figured out the subject of my next exhibition. While I was painting this collection, I was wholeheartedly busy thinking of sculpture, and I made a few pieces of stone, one of which is a funny donkey’s head...”

“Spectrum” is open until 29 January

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