Thursday,21 June, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1300, (16 - 22 June 2016)
Thursday,21 June, 2018
Issue 1300, (16 - 22 June 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Story to tell

Rania Khallaf interviews Wael Hamdan, a promising new presence on the local art scene

Story to tell
Story to tell
Al-Ahram Weekly

In “Three Stories”, Wael Hamdan makes his debut alongside Ahmed Abdel-Rahman and Fathi Ali. The exhibition opened on 30 May at the Greek Campus Gallery, where Hamdan’s 19 paintings dated 2012-2016. Because this is his first exhibition, he says, he chose to show a range of styles and media: “In a debut exhibition, a theme is not necessary for an artist to show his views. What matters is whether or not the paintings manage to grab the viewer’s attention.”

The nephew of the celebrated social historian Gamal Hamdan – also an amateur water colour painter – Wael graduated from the Faculty of Art Education, Helwan University, in 1994; before “Three Stories”, he participated in collective exhibitions in Egypt and Kuwait. “I still remember the water colour paintings my uncle displayed in his office, featuring birds and nature. Also, my first encounter with visual arts took place when I was a little boy, encouraged by my father Mohammed Hamdan, a writer and editor of historical books, who had a huge precious library.” 

A photographer, graphic designer and one-time cartoonist, when he travelled to Kuwait to work as a graphic designer – also making portraits of cultural figures as part of his job – Hamdan placed his own creative work on hold for many years. On his permanent return to Egypt in 2015, Hamdan decided to be a full-time painter, however. He attended workshops by Wagih Yassa and Khaled El Samahy. 

He is especially good at the human face and figure, conveying suffering and aspiration with equal ease. Portraits of a peasant, women and – notably – a trumpet player underline this talent. A close-up in soft pastel that focuses only on the musician’s bust, the latter conveys cheerfulness in loose lines and bright colours. The product of a one-day pastel painting workshop with painter Hala El Shafie, the portrait evokes a sense of cheer, testifying to the cartoonist’s spirit. “Most of my pastel paintings are mere sketches,” Hamdan explains. “This one is a speed sketch, an impression of a trumpet player. I finished it in just few minutes. Pastel is an easy material, so spontaneous it doesn’t usually require toning.”

As a teenager, Hamdan developed a passion for 18th-century Orientalist painters like David Roberts. “I have always wanted to live in the Mameluke era. It was a fascinating period in Egypt’s history; I loved their architecture and fashion. The Orientalists’ paintings of Egypt evoking this period were amazing. I wonder how they created such fine paintings with such primitive tools? I have learned a lot from this legacy by drawing replicas of the paintings on paper, and it was never an easy task.” Indeed this was how his interest in landscape painting developed. 

Another masterpiece in “Three Stories” is a 70 cm x 70 cm acrylic painting of a Nubian landscape, with the houses rendered impressionistically against a deep purple sky, giving a dreamy impression of paradise. Together with a smaller pastel painting of Nubian houses in grey and blue juxtaposed like human figures converging, this painting is a product of a trip to Nubia earlier this year. 

“It was my first encounter with this virgin place; I fell in love with Nubian culture; the inspiring houses, musicians, the kind people. The blend of colours is amazing. Also in many villages, especially at Gharb Suheil, the sight of brownish rocks which take human forms, and their reflection on the Nile, granting it an ochre colour, with flying birds, and then the white sailing boats and the fishermen – all this is incredibly inspiring.”

Here as elsewhere in landscape Hamdan is inspired by Van Gogh and John Constable. “I still have a lot to offer in this rich genre,” he says. “I need to visit places and try different materials and techniques. I am totally open to experimentation. I believe the artist would die if he limited himself to one single style or subject. Changing techniques and subjects is what makes an exciting experience out of every new exhibition.” And maybe this explains the artificial, almost ostentatious quality of two paintings of boats on the Nile.

Five pastel paintings feature tannoura whirling dancers – despite its commercial bent, an increasingly recurrent theme in contemporary Egyptian painting. The most successful piece is a 50 cm x 70 cm scene of two dancers in slow motion, their lighted faces almost concealed, with spaces of white and red heightening the Sufi mystery. “All five,” Hamdan says, “are painted from a single picture I took on one of my frequent visits to Al Ghouris in 2005. For each single painting, I would go back to the picture to ponder the details of the dancers and reinvent the scene. Unlike videos, pictures freeze not only motion, but emotions, ideas and unspoken words. It is wonderful to release your imagination.” 

Hamdan’s next project will feature the streets of downtownCairo: people, transportation and architecture. With his telephoto lens, he has been roaming around Islamic Cairo to documents the unique flow of people. Hamdan will participate in a group exhibition in November on Nubia. “There are still a lot of beautiful scenes from Nubia that I haven’t done yet.” It is all for his own pleasure, he says. “Certainly, giving viewers pleasure is another gain, and this is what drives me.”

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