Monday,20 August, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1318, (3 - 9 November 2016)
Monday,20 August, 2018
Issue 1318, (3 - 9 November 2016)

Ahram Weekly

‪Amaranthine romance‬

‪Gamal Nkrumah is enamoured by a young Egyptian artist’s devotion to his lost love‬

Al-Ahram Weekly

‪Grief can be the garden of compassion. If you keep your heart open through everything, your pain can become your greatest ally in your life’s search for love and wisdom. — Rumi

Ibrahim Khattab’s calligraphy barely skims the surface of reasonable disclosure. He is a young artist who has emerged from a most distressing experience. It was a prolonged and painful death. The love of his life died of brain cancer and it was a devastating ordeal for him personally. Yet, he refused to live in a never ending now. The memory of creative representations provided this exceptionally sensitive artist with the unique ability to reflect on his painful past, nondescript present and brighter future. His memories, painful as they were, gave him the courage to navigate ahead.

The sort of person who inhabits his heart found her way into his paintings. She is not actually there, but the calligraphy tells the tale. I, personally, had to decipher his partially obliterated script.

His tendency to withhold information is deeply ingrained. Nevertheless, he shared some of his innermost feelings with me and I deeply appreciated the experience. Cancer, brain cancer that is, was the cause of the loss of his love, the love of his life. I repeat it deliberately for emphasis. The hippocampus, a scientific term, of a particular part of our brain that resembles a sea horse, plays a specific part in enhancing emotions. She was his life. He lost her even as he worked on some of his most poignant paintings.

The cerebrum lies in two hemispheres, left and right. The two parts of the cerebrum perform and control distinct functions. The left hemisphere processes language. The right is the domain of emotions and spatial cognition, and that is what I see is the dominant hemisphere in Khattab’s works. It prods him to explore the inner depths of self-knowledge. Visuospatial memory fuses the visual cortex and the spatial orientation. I was intrigued by the young man who had rearranged the memory of a most painful past, retrieving information that he may prefer to forget. He was redefining the concept of truth. And I admired his determination not to interfere with the beauty of the living. Amnesia, a psychosis of sorts, is a weakness; he absolutely refused to redefine the perceptive abilities of his own brain. He deployed his sensory receptors in a new way instead.  

Khattab’s retinas and his brain refuse to react to shades of grey. His colours are subdued, olive appears to be a special favourite, pale baby blue and nondescript.

Nevertheless, they are never grey. There are pinks of no recognised, definite or particular type or hue, but the impression they exude is that of sadness, and manipulation of context can alter perception. The onus is on hope.

Calligraphy came to the rescue. “Black represents the time when I lost my love,” he extrapolates. Black is blunt. I peer un-perceptively at the bold black streaks of Arabic calligraphy. Curiously enough, the metaphysical speculation begins to make sense. He graduated from Cairo University in 1984, and soon after experimented with street art, working with children. A touch of orange and turquoise provide a respite from the general feel of a marked lack of intensity of colour. It is as if the children come to life, bursting with energy, but then subdued joy prevails.

“Alive Memory”, the title of Khattab’s exhibition, is an odd mix of gaiety and sadness. He combined calligraphy with portraits at the early stage of his career, but felt that he provoked the religiously conservative mindset then prevalent in Egypt. Portraits are profane, and then his own personal preoccupation with his tragic despair and loss ended all earnestness to depict the human figure in his art except through the medium and symbolism of calligraphy.

Yet, there is no hint of psychological suffering. The Agha Khan’s project in Al-Darb Al-Ahmar, an impoverished quarter of Cairo, was an eye-opener as far as he was concerned. And, so, too, was his work with the children in Ard Al-Lewa, yet another derelict district of Cairo. Next he taught underprivileged children how to create dolls and puppets for entertainment in street theatre and then came a plum job with Egypt’s National Council of Childhood teaching how to educate disadvantaged children through art. It was a most rewarding endeavour.

One catches a glimpse of the pre-dynastic warships of ancient Egypt battling on the River Nile. The Workshop, Al-Warsha – the creation of Hassan Al-Geretly, who in 1993 produced the first fully Egyptian play Ghazir Al-Layl or “Tides of Night” – was yet another precious experience that matched Khattab’s melancholy mood. And then there was disaster in Doha, Qatar when his hard disk crashed and all his work was lost. Loss seems to be a recurrent theme on his personal odyssey, but he puts up a brave face and smiles.

Thuluth, a specific type of Arabic script, is considered scared calligraphy. He tried to find solace through his paintings and calligraphy. He explores his emotions with Diwani, too. Khattab was driven to his particular innovative art to be consoled. And, even though he was never placated, he was somewhat mollified.

The soft decorative lines exude a kind of peace and the dark contours add a sombre mood of sorts. Colour perceptions are critical and Khattab avoids, or perhaps shies away from the brazen primary colours of light: red, yellow and blue. Is it an expression of inconsolable bereavement, perhaps?

The vividness of his brushwork now turned, not thin, but toned down, a particularly effective application of acrylic. There is, indeed, a sacredness in tears as Washington Irving once mused. “They are not a mark of weakness, but of power. They speak more eloquently than ten thousand tongues. They are the messengers of overwhelming grief, of deep contrition and of unspeakable love.”

The Khattab exhibition runs through 10 November in Saffar Khan Gallery, Zamalek, Cairo

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