Tuesday,17 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1292, (21 - 27 April 2016)
Tuesday,17 October, 2017
Issue 1292, (21 - 27 April 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Circles of view

Rania Khallaf is thrilled with a pair of painters

Circles of view
Circles of view
Al-Ahram Weekly

The way we perceive the visual arts tends to be indicative of the way we look at life in general. Visual artists too have their own viewpoints, which at times are vague and at other times can be easily traced in their works. But the purpose of art remains to raise more questions, and to offer possibilities of different approaches to understanding life.

“Points of view” is the title of a unique group exhibition that did just that. Held recently at the progressive Ubuntu Gallery in Zamalek, it featured paintings by two artists of different generations, who have different approaches, but are nonetheless clearly bound. Although the two artists had never met before the opening, the viewer could immediately grasp the connection between their works, which were not exhibited separately but coexisted in three small rooms. Sarcasm and an interest in modernism link the two artists’ worlds and make for an intellectual collision as the viewer moves from one painting to another. The exhibition made up a brilliant and courageous invitation by Ahmed El Dab’aa, the owner of the gallery, for the audience to indulge in a very new artistic experience.

Said Abu Raya, a retired professor at the Faculty of Art Education, is not a keen participant in the art scene. Compared with other big names, his exhibitions are few and far between. This is partly due to the fact that he is equally interested in other fields such as the puppet making. Previous exhibitions included “My homeland and my infancy” held at Cairo Atelier in 2003 and “Scenes from imagination” in 2009 at the Foreign Diplomats Gallery in Zamalek. The artist worked as a lecturer at the Faculty of Art Education as of 1978. Despite his love of drawing, he was first appointed an instructor in the traditional arts section, and was supervised by the great artist Saad Al-Khadem, under whose supervision whom he earned his Masters and PhD in puppet theatre. In 1984, Abu Raya made an effort to establish a section for the design and animation of traditional dolls and puppets at the faculty. 

From 1988 to 2009, alongside his painting career, Abu Raya made inroads into puppet theatre, presenting notable plays with some big names including Samir Al-Asfoury. For ten years, Abu Raya, now 60, worked as a visiting professor at Arab and foreign universities, settling in Cairo again in 2013. With all these layers of experience, Abu Raya’s paintings have a unique look, with the characters sometimes looking as if they have come out of a caricature or comic book. In almost all his works, however, the place is the hero.

“It is any place I’ve lived in, which became a part of myself, my own history,” Abu Raya noted. And perhaps that’s why in nearly all the paintings on show, Abu Raya shows a room with the fourth wall missing: a view into his bizarre world. “It is true that my career in puppet theatre has influenced my approach in painting. Theatre is a replica of life and its conflicts. This is why I unintentionally draw theatre or stage as an equivalent of life.” The artist also reveals a fascination with furniture and people’s belongings, evident in this work. “The houses I lived in, my studio, my friends’ studios – they are full of weird stuff, sheer inspiration.”

Representing a period in the artist’s career from 1988 to 2005, the 19 paintings on show, which use a wide range of media – oil, acrylic, pastel and watercolour – form a homogeneous whole. Many of them seem to recall The Artist’s Room by Vincent Van Gogh, with bright colours and vivid lines. Abu Raya made a point of choosing paintings reflecting the same philosophy. 

“Despite the differences in social or economic status, Egyptian houses all look more or less the same from inside. We all tend to leave clothes on a chair, leave travel suitcases above wardrobes or under the bed, as if we are ready to move at any minute,” he smiled. “I am really taken by such untidiness, the spirit of chaos and instability. I wanted to paint this mood.”

And the mix of surrealism, expressionism and realism reflects this love of instability. Some of his characters take weird shapes, as if people can turn to animals with harsh features, unmerciful eyes and sharp jaws. This recalls the great Egyptian pioneer painter Abdel-Hady Al-Gazzar, an influence Abu Raya readily acknowledges. As well as testifying to both affinities, distortion reflects the system of study employed at the Faculty of Art Education, which stresses experimentation and the imaginative approach. Equally important to Abu Raya’s work, he insists, is his response to politics, religion and the conflicts of life. 

The Football Court, a pencil on paper sketch first exhibited in 2003, features the footballers, the audience and the coach on a high chair overlooking the game – a figure of authority. The characters look like caricatures, it is lighthearted and comic, but the underlying, profound message about authority and meaninglessness is unmistakable. 

“The football court is a very significant place,” Abu Raya says, “loaded with meaningful symbols. Across the ages, authority has given negative performances. All forms of authority are negative, including the parental. All the hopes and ambitions of my generation have come to nothing, and this is why my paintings speak of the puzzling contradictions of Egyptian society.” 

Aside from Van Gogh and Al-Gazzar, Henri Daumier – the realist French artist – is one of the Abu Raya’s significant models. “Daumier was known for his harsh satire of political figures and he always dealt with corruption in his works. He was imprisoned more than once for his opposition and sarcasm of the misuse of political power on the part of the government during the second half of the 19th century,” Abu Raya noted. “I am completely pro socialist values: justice, the fair distribution of wealth. And I try to reflect these values in my works.” 

The Basement Room, a 120 cm by 90 cm oil on canvas, features three interlocking spaces showing a mother and her infant child, a government bureau crammed with citizens and dossiers and a court room where the judges seem ready to utter their sentence to no one in particular. With a blue-dominated palette, the artist is dreaming of a better world. 

***

Alongside Abu Raya, Hakeem Abu Kila – one of the newest but also the most talented artists on the scene – exhibits paintings that make use of caricature, surrealism and expressionism. Abu Kila graduated from Alexandria’s Faculty of Fine Arts’ design department in 2012, and his work exhibits a remarkable propensity for geometric shapes flying about in the air, distorted and abstracted. It is profoundly new work that induces an instant joy and astonishment, forcing you to contemplate its chaos of people, machines and other creatures.

“I dedicated my last two academic years at university to experimentation,” Abu Kila says. “I tried different materials, mixing different materials together, until I reached the moment when I felt I was in control of my tools.” His graduation project was a series of views of Adam and Eve from different perspectives, and his first solo exhibition reflected the same adventurous spirit. His present collection is the product of a conceptual process: choosing items from a friend’s belongings such as a plant, a bone or a fishing tool and then constructing a visual vision after brainstorming and meditation. “After these sessions, I decided to work on certain themes such as patience and justice and I felt the themes have some connections with the rhythm of the street and the political scene. I also wanted to say that both good and evil coexist.”

Another of Abu Kila’s messages is the importance of meditation and thinking, surpassing the biological functions. “It is meditation that makes my paintings look different. And again I wanted my audience to make an effort to understand my viewpoints according to their own background and knowledge.” He paints on both canvas and paper; sometimes he pours colours over the surface and then outlines the characters and shapes with an ink brush. The absolute freedom with which he proceeds makes his paintings look like brilliant sketches.  

One acrylic on canvas painting features one big high chair in the middle with weird materials flying in the air on both sides of it. “You can find this chair in a prison, at a café or a court room. It is the way you control the ideas that come into your mind while sitting that determines your character. It is how you resist the influence of the chair, and make your thoughts fresh and ripe, not tied or imprisoned to the place you are sitting in,” he says. Likewise the distorted bicycle with stuff breaking out of it and flying into the air – “looking like a balance with two circular weights, and its distortion indicates that it is not a fair balance” – it stands for justice.


The exhibition also included abstract paintings by Rawda Nour, another young artist from Alexandria, so small and abstract it is hard to see the viewpoint that gave rise to them.  

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