Saturday,22 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1286, (10 - 16 March 2016)
Saturday,22 September, 2018
Issue 1286, (10 - 16 March 2016)

Ahram Weekly

The silent concerto

Rania Khallaf discovers the exciting new work of Neamat Al-Diwany

Al-Ahram Weekly

Throughout art history birds have been a source of mystery and romance, an allegory for freedom and a symbol of femininity, beauty or companionship. In Neamat Al-Diwany’s debut exhibition, “The Dialogue Continues” – held at the Gezira Arts Centre in Zamalek – birds represent the soul of the artist’s father. Recently bereaved, Al-Diwany has produced over 70 oil paintings of different sizes in which she worked with only two elements: a woman and a bird.  The result is a dream series in which romantic monotony should not imply boredom.

A diplomat’s daughter, Al-Diwany was born in Havana, Cuba, and studied business administration and art history at John Cabot University in Rome, where as much as in Florence, Sienna, Russia and Paris she spent much time in museums and galleries. Shortly after her graduation in 1984, she came back to Cairo, where she developed a successful career in business. But in 2011 she decided to quit her job and devote her time to art, and a year later joined the established artist Mustafa Al-Razaz’s workshop and studio, going back to Italy for two art courses at the Accademia d’Arte di Firenze.

Al-Razaz had taught her basic technique as well as expressionism, cubism and surrealism. In Florence she learned nude model painting and mixed media. “The study of the nude model is the core of art, I believe,” she says. “I am thankful for the huge experience I got from studying at the academy, because the nude body has it all: the figure, the feeling, the composition, literally everything you want to learn about art.”

She was particularly influenced by Amedeo Modigliani: “I loved every piece he painted. His paintings of nudes and models, his elongation of faces and figures is peerless. I might have been subconsciously influenced by this particular feature, that is why you usually find my women with long necks and noses.”   

As a little girl, Al-Diwany had been in love with drawing, but though encouraged by her father – a keen collector – she had never planned on studying art.  “I wanted my debut exhibition to be a thank-you message to my father,” she says. “Once I started painting with this idea in my head, I could not stop. There were so many messages of love and gratitude.”

And perhaps that is why the paintings make up an intimate dialogue or concerto between a young Arab-looking woman and the many different birds. Some paintings have a serious or tense mood, others are totally peaceful. But the painting that ends the series, as she points out, is the one with the woman holding a bird in her arms:  “It was like an endless process, and the more I painted, the more I felt serene.”

Al-Diwany depicts different types of bird, giving the viewers the space to meditate and grasp the ongoing conversation. Does this perhaps also reflect an interest in landscape?

“Well,” she responds, “I am definitely in love with landscapes. I have a special bond with nature, a source of happiness and endless inspiration but, actually the existence of birds in this collection refers to something else. It indicates  my complete loyalty to my own imaginative, virtual world, a world of purity away from our practical life. There is a continuous dialogue between the two characters, but it is also a dialogue between reality and the imagination, silence and movement, the earthly and heavenly beings.”

Only one painting shows a woman without a bird. She looks sad a confused. In another, the bird is hiding inside her thick braids. But the compassion is maintained in every painting: the different ways in which the bird regards the woman, with passion or admiration, as two children regard each other while playing or, in one case, as a baby regards its mother.

Al-Diwany’s palette is bright and warm, reflecting an intimate mood. She started with the earth colours, she says, the colours of nature, but as the process developed the palette became brighter and brighter. Almost always, the dialogue takes place near the edge, exercising the viewer’s imagination, and all that appears of the women who dominate the paintings are their faces, with the bust seldom appearing. But why such focus on the face, and why no body language?

“It is simply because it is a conversation of feelings,” she explains. “I chose to focus more on the language of the eyes. I was more interested in showing the different ways the woman looks at the bird, her many profiles, and the birds’ many movements. And I found it quite a challenge to work this same mood into so many different scenes.”  

Al-Diwany is among a number of bold and stimulating female artists who, encouraged by the emergence of workshops like Al-Razaz’s and the rising demand for art, have appeared on the scene in the last ten years, recalling the emergence of female prose poets in the 1990s.

“I am pleased to be part of this movement,” she says. “And I believe the women are coming. All female movements have been historically criticised by men, only because men feel threatened by them. It is a normal feature of male-dominated societies. But female artists are driven by their passion for art, not by a mere desire of competition.”

As an artist, the messages Al-Diwany wants to deliver are messages of love, peace and tolerance, she says: “I want these values to be felt and appreciated by people, to fill people so that they might make a change in their way of life. That is generally one of the basic targets of art, to make people more beautiful, isn’t it?”

The exhibition is open until 16 March.

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