Friday,20 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1295, (12 - 18 May 2016)
Friday,20 July, 2018
Issue 1295, (12 - 18 May 2016)

Ahram Weekly

We all need a break

Rania Khallaf relishes the opportunity to stand still for a moment

Al-Ahram Weekly

Do you remember the last time you needed a break from life’s overlapping circles? Time out is a precious commodity, according to artist Wael Darwish.

Darwish is multi-talented, doing photography and video as well as painting. He has been featured in numerous prestigious events, including Christie’s 2013 contemporary art auction and the 55th Venice Biennale. He has won many awards, the latest being the Slovenia Contemporary Arts Museum prize for 2010.

With paintings so different from each other as to suggest different artists, “Intermezzo”, Darwish’s latest exhibition at the Zamalek Art Gallery, proved initially confusing. The more symbolic paintings exercised my brain, as if to prepare me for the abstracts – in which, tired, you could take a break.

Darwish graduated from the Faculty of Art Education in 1998, and was immediately appointed a painting teacher. He also participated in the Youth Salon, then chaired by artist Ahmed Fouad Selim, winning the painting prize. He contributed to the salon every year for nine years, winning the grand prix for his installation The Banquet in 2001. A giant table surrounded by crooked wheelchairs, it was a powerful sarcastic statement. Here as elsewhere he used his technical mastery and awQaœareness of art history to say something he felt needed saying.

“Most of my exhibitions’ themes,” he told me, “are derived from social issues or incidents that happen on the streets. My art is like a long movie, divided into separate scenes or chapters. I always look for new ways to express my themes, and this might take the form of an installation, painting, photography or all of these together. In brief, my art is based on real issues, refracted through my own style, my own dream.”

In some paintings, animals have a powerful presence. One acrylic on canvas, 2 x 2.30 metres, depicts the face of a man, huge, surrounded by dozens of small cats. The cats, which look wild, are moving in different directions. Are they, as they often have been in art, a symbol of sexuality and the evil spirit?

“Animals are sometimes more human than people” is what he has to say.  “I view animals as heroes who star in a movie. And when a shot is complete, then I can transfer it onto an independent painting.” He is expert at depicting animals, in other words: their expressions and gestures, their relations with people.

The artist is also keen on analysing political issues, dealing with the impact of politics on daily life. “Politics put people in a state of continuous anxiety, and they force us to feel inhuman. I always find my themes in a certain area: the impact of political life on people and on myself, because in the end I am a living human being; being an artist shouldn’t mean that I live in space.” It is in this spirit that he uses mixed media.

Gold sheets, for example: “Gold is both holy and eternal, but it too vanishes like any other element. It is like memory and forgetfulness. To add and to subtract.” He also uses photos taken for a specific purpose but treated to artistic ends. This he sees as realism, a kind of documentation of life.

Held at the  ArtSawa Gallery in Dubai in June 2010, his exhibition “Shrouded Memories”, comprising 34 huge paintings, did not attract as many viewers as he had expected because – he realises in retrospect – it prophesied the revolution that was to break out within six months on 25 January 2011.

“Since 2011, political events have progressed at an accelerated pace – so fast that you cannot assimilate what is going on. Events are cramming into memory, waiting for a pause to figure out what is really happening.”

In 2015, “The Joke” – also at ArtSawa – mocked the situation in Egypt, reflecting dreams that would never be realised. This time Darwish has gone straight for the break, the need for a pause in life: “Every one of us will have experienced a significant break in their life, which helps them understand their situation or make a significant decision...” An action painter, as he calls himself, opting for the swift brusg stroke and the dramatic bent, Darwish makes no sketches.

The small abstract acrylic on paper paintings were made in Belgrade in September 2015. “It was a scholarship, and it was an excellent intermezzo that allowed me to look into myself from afar.” Other, larger paintings were completed later. In one, a giant ox undermines a seated man looking desperate while he sits on a thread holding a red balloon, which will fly away if he gets up. With the ox’s horns painted so gently they look like the man’s moustache, the balance in elements and colours is powerful, so is the sense of movement and scale.

It’s an image that will stay with me for a long time.

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