Tuesday,21 May, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1285, (3 - 9 March 2016)
Tuesday,21 May, 2019
Issue 1285, (3 - 9 March 2016)

Ahram Weekly

No, not Nu

The ebullient Egyptian curator Sherwet Shafie has once again brought a promising youthful effervescent talent to the fore of her SafarKhan Gallery, chimes Gamal Nkrumah

No, not Nu
No, not Nu
Al-Ahram Weekly


he bewitching somnambulist who wanders zombie-like through Cairo’s monumental landmarks is beautiful. The artist, Karim Abd Elmalak, has her squared away in geometric squares as she angles off towards the light and crouches beneath the statue of Mostafa Kamel that graces downtown Cairo. His saying “No despair with Life and no Life with despair” epitomizes the allure of the artist’s enchanting heroine. She is seen careening about with the mood of every architectural masterpiece she encounters. And, she is no Nu. 

Personally, if I come across Henri Matisse’s nude Nu (Carmelita), 1904, person to person, I’d pass out cold. Seriously, is the consideration of the ugly a religious obligation? Hell, no. Consider the grotesque The Green Stripe (La Raie Verte), also known as Portrait of Madame Matisse. He must have detested the poor dear. 

Perhaps she sat morosely contemplating why he disfigured her with that macabre green brushstroke. It was the unkindest cut of all. The most toned in musculature of the morphemes of Matisse’s artistic language was the mannish facial expression of his wife coupled with the absolute absence of boyish charm, far from fresh faced.  

Matisse portrayed a culture that structured its discourse about beauty in an idiom other than ugliness. Small wonder, Matisse’s wife Amélie, who rightly surmised that he was having an affair with her young Russian emigre companion, Lydia Delectorskaya, ended their 41-year marriage. Karim Abd Elmalak hails from a domiciliary neither Amélie, Lydia nor Henri could have conjured up. 

Metaphors are dangerous. “Love begins with a metaphor. Which is to say, love begins at the point when a woman enters her first word into our poetic memory,” Milan Kundera cogitates on calf love. One of the most alluring developments comes in the wake of this shift of metaphor.

The amorous intensity of the letters his father, Ibrahim Abd Elmalak, an accomplished artist himself, who passed away five years ago were nothing like the love letters, the projectiles of Matisse’s passions. Two of Karim Abd Elmalak’s paintings in his exhibition “Soul” are set off against the background of his father’s handwritten loving letters to his mother. They feature a beauty that may not be intelligible to Matisse. 

Like Lydia either Karim Abd Elmalak, or his mother, nevertheless, kept meticulous records of the letters and the young artist put them to good use. Do not expect Matisse’s Madras Rouge, The Red Turban, 1907. Nor contemplate The Open Window, Collioure(1905) either. That would be saying too much.

“There is nothing more difficult for a truly creative painter than to paint a rose, because before he can do so he has first to forget all the roses that were painted,” Matisse mused.

The rose is at once an abstraction and a metaphor of a woman’s womb. Instinctively, I eye the young woman with a roseate rose caressing her chestnut hair. 

The coitus between architectural grandeur and lethargic albeit orgasmic smile was an ingenious way of breaking all the rules without doing anything wrong, so to speak. 

I presume it was sensational because it was so terrifically clever. The womb crowning her head was set against the labyrinthine interior of the Baron Empain’s Palace, the Palais Hindou, Qasr Al-Baron. The palace was inspired by the distinctive Khmer architecture of Angkor Wat, Cambodia, and the Hindu temples of the Indian state of Orissa. The palace was constructed and named after the Belgian engineer, entrepreneur and financier who virtually founded the modern Cairo suburb of Heliopolis. Leisure and luxury were the hallmark of the Belgian Baron. 

Abd Elmalak ingeniously uses gold leaf for dramatic effect and to highlight the brilliant colours that become even richer and his brush strokes more pronounced. 

Her fingertips dart like flames and she always sports turquoise earrings. Turquoise has a mystical symbolism in Egypt, for it is the colour of good fortune and wards off the evil eye.

Abd Elmalak’s works burst with vivid colour. He is obviously partial to gold, turquoise and a touch of crimson here and there. The scarlet lies in the lips. And, the seductiveness is clearly visible in the mostly in the protruding full lips of his paramour.  

What the budding artist said about the character, concerns and captivating charm of contemporary Egyptian women completely eludes me. His women, or shall I say, woman, is sensuous, sexy and seductive. The intriguing intermingling of the young woman and the Sphinx of Giza is perplexing. He is her head, literally. Or, is the Sphinx on her mind? I can’t make heads or tails of it. 

The overall picture is striking: So who is the young artist’s preferred master? Without hesitation, he remarked nonchalantly that Rembrandt was his all-time favourite artist. The characteristic line of demarcation between brightly illuminated and shadowy areas of Rembrandt’s paintings spring to mind.  

The unsurpassed master of the Golden Dutch Age of Painting is Abd Elmalak’s idol.  But, don’t imagine Abd Elmalak’s bewitching beauty, a veritable ripe peach for plucking, to be Saskia van Uylenburgh the wife of Rambrandt. The painter was fond of painting portraits of his wife. And, Abd Elmalak is infatuated with this beauty. “Yes, she is the same person,” he told me. “Is she someone special?” “Yes, but, I can’t go any further”. He desperately searches his heart and soul for meaning. What is it like to be a woman?

The significance of the works of Abd Elmalek is intelligible only in the light of Rembrandt’s empathy for the human condition.

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