Saturday,22 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1137, 28 February - 6 March 2013
Saturday,22 September, 2018
Issue 1137, 28 February - 6 March 2013

Ahram Weekly

‘You cannot imprison my soul’

Imprisoned artist Mohsen Shaalan has documented his ordeal in prison in a series of black cat drawings, writes Nagwa

Shaalan's paintings
Al-Ahram Weekly

Mohsen Shaalan, former head of the Fine Arts Department at the Ministry of Culture, has had a view of a world few artists of his stature get to experience firsthand. Imprisoned in connection with the theft of Van Gogh’s Poppy Flowers from a museum in Cairo, Shaalan spent months behind bars, first at the Dokki police station in Cairo and then at the notorious Tora Prison.
Shaalan has now spoken out about his incarceration, not out of some eccentric desire to document his unusual experience, but rather out of a need to maintain his sanity in the face of what he considers to be a gross miscarriage of justice. Art functioned as his lifeline at a time when hope seemed to have vanished into thin air.
Shaalan asked his son to bring him a sketch book and pens to his prison cell, not out of a wish to create great art, but rather as a way of regaining a hold on reality. Held in a tiny detention cell in Dokki with common criminals, Shaalan strove to restore a sense of normality to his life. Crouching on the damp floor of the cell, Shaalan did what he does best: pen and paper in hand, he turned his cellmates into models, thus regaining the artists’ sense of control that was otherwise fast slipping from his fingers.
As conviction followed accusation and incarceration followed detention, Shaalan was moved to the Tora Prison, where he became a cellmate of some of the most powerful men from the former regime, some of whom became his friends and confidants. He shared his feelings of victimhood with them, and in the scenes Shaalan drew from prison men such as Ahmed Nazif, Alaa Mubarak, Mounir Thabet, Amin Abaza and Ibrahim Kamel can be seen, killing time, talking, and grappling with their own reversal of fortune.
Shaalan turned the days and nights spent in the Tora Prison into works of art, and he has also written extensively about his impressions of the prison. His accounts of life in Tora, published in the newspaper Al-Tahrir, are just as candid and unembellished as his paintings.
In his depictions of prison life, Shaalan introduces us to the “black cat,” a pictorial symbol of injustice which keeps sneaking up on him, snaring him, and gnawing at his flesh. He draws himself in shackles, making sure that these are always on his left hand, leaving the right hand free to draw. Prison, he was determined to ensure, could enchain his body, but it could never imprison his soul.
In a work entitled Black Cat: a Prison Experience, Shaalan lays his heart bare for all to see, allowing the outrage simmering beneath his calm surface to break free and permitting the hurt he felt to morph into counter-accusations and an indictment of those who had had him locked away.
The case of the stolen Van Gogh painting, as a result of which Shaalan spent a year in prison, was the last major case of its kind before the 25 January Revolution. It signalled the widespread corruption at the Ministry of Culture at the time, run for 24 years by one man. In some of his paintings, Shaalan seems to be accusing this man, former minister of culture Farouk Hosni, of involvement in the theft, or at least of having him framed to save himself.
In one painting, Shaalan creates a creature that seems to be a cross between Hosni and the imaginary black cat. In another, we see Hosni and the black cat keeping an eye on Shaalan’s prison cell. Hosni also appears in court to help seal Shaalan’s fate. The former minister is shown in another painting minus a hand, the absence of which translates into theft in traditional Islamic practice.
In prison, inmates often write on the walls of their cells. Their invocations of justice, their supplications, and their assertions of innocence also become art in Shaalan’s hands. Most of all, in his work he confronts his accusers, pointing the finger at those who defamed him and transforming his pain – like the indictment and conviction that launched it – into a highly public affair.

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