Sunday,19 August, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1281, (4 - 10 February 2016)
Sunday,19 August, 2018
Issue 1281, (4 - 10 February 2016)

Ahram Weekly

The magic brush

Rania Khallaf is enchanted by a new series of dolls

Al-Ahram Weekly

Based on the fairy tale Peter and the Magic Thread, Syrian artist  Souad Mardam-Bey’s new exhibition, currently on show at the Zamalek Art Gallery, is called “The Magic Thread”. The hero of “Peter” is a boy who doesn’t know how to enjoy his time. Rather than being in the moment, he constantly daydreams about the past or the future. One day he meets an elderly woman in the forest who gives him a golden thread – the thread of his life, which will transport him to the future instantly if he were to pull it. And he does, the moral of the story being that people should endeavour to be alive in the present so that the future can be meaningful.

On the large canvases that first greet the gallery goer, Mardam-Bey’s bold palette and strong brushstrokes testify to her magic skill. This and the overriding theme – dolls – makes it feel like a sequel to Mardam-Bey’s last show, “Playing with no toys”, in which dolls stood in for the tragedy of Syria’s displaced children in 20 paintings.

Mardam-Bey’s dolls are very distinctive. They have large heads and glittering eyes with the slightest insinuation of nose and mouth and thread-like limbs recalling Picasso’s figures in The Three Dancers and other paintings of that period. Fascinated with children’s stories and drawings, Mardam-Bey nonetheless says the present exhibition has nothing to do with the war in Syria. “The paintings merely express a different manifestation of the theme of dolls – and thread. You could say my fascination with dolls just did not fade after the last exhibition,” the artist explains with a smile.

Reflecting Mardam-Bey’s own, the dolls’ eyes are particularly remarkable. They recall Magritte’s The False Mirror, in which the sky turns into the iris of a huge eye without lashes. “The eye,” says Mardam-Bey, “is the key feature of the face. It is the mirror of the spirit. It is almost the same eye featured in my old portraits, you may notice. The iris may have a different colour, but the shape is the same. I paint it automatically.” As in the last exhibition, the eyes of the dolls, more astonished than sad, form a thread linking the 25 paintings on show, drawing the viewer through their own looking glass but also forming a sequence with one painting leading to another. “They are not sad,” Mardam-Bey says quietly. “They are confused, amazed by their current situation, and looking forward to future, waiting for something to happen.”

In Immortality Milan Kundera says that questions are the thread connecting the two sides of the creative process: painting and viewer. This is precisely what the case is with these paintings, with questions about time and destiny maintaining a taut connection between the viewer and the work of art. But the thread takes on material form too, with various games the dolls play together, holding hands or tied by rope or else fling birds and butterflies like kites, by a thread. “The thread,” Mardam-Bey, explains, “is a symbol for waiting. Time is too significant. And the future is always ambiguous. We shouldn’t, therefore, cry over the past. Playing on the idea of time is my message here, and I believe there is hope in the dolls’ eyes.”

An excellent portraitist who has proved herself in this department, most recently at the Safarkhan Gallery, Mardam-Bey says she found herself when she started doing portraits. “It is the pulse of the street that inspires me,” she says, “with all those faces you encounter while sitting in a café or aimlessly roaming the streets of Cairo is the main inspiration, a rich amalgam of rich and pour faces. Middle eastern features intrigue me most.” Larger-than-life portraits of individual dolls, sized 180 by 45 cm, stand passionately alongside the other paintings looking as if they want to talk to you personally, to tell you their stories of suffering. In these portraits, the dolls may hold a thread to which birds or flowers are tied. Their faces reflect both hope and anxiety. And their slim legs end with large, old-fashioned boots in some portraits, and elegant, feminine ones in others.

In almost all the oil and mixed media paintings, the background is distinguished by thick layers of colour, a technique adopted in almost all Mardam-Bey’s paintings, giving the impression of a mural painting, neutral and quiet. In some paintings, Mardam-Bey opted to ornament the dresses of the dolls with beautiful, glaring patterns.

The background is “neutral” to cast light on the characters, which are the key players in the paintings, she insists: “Ornamentation is an art. And I resorted to it to add some joy to my paintings.” In some paintings, lively creatures like cats and chickens are also included. They are peacefully and beautifully portrayed, though their connection with the dolls remains unclear. “They are the dolls’ friends,” Mardam-Bey says, there to show support and compassion. “Even dolls need friends, don’t they?” But there will be no part three to the doll theme, Mardam-Bey affirms with a faint smile as if of parting. She is hopeful that the future will bring good things to the Arab World.

Mardam-Bey was born in Syria but at the age of eight moved with her family to Beirut, where she studied philosophy at the Lebanese University and, for two years, visual art at the Beirut University. She started her career as an artist in 1982, and has given more than 20 exhibitions in various countries. She has lived in Cairo with her Egyptian husband since 2002.

The exhibition runs through 29 February.

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