Tuesday,25 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1329, (26 January - 1 February 2017)
Tuesday,25 September, 2018
Issue 1329, (26 January - 1 February 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Talking heads

Finding Souad Mardam Bey’s new show bewildering

Talking heads

“Let’s Talk” is the title of the new exhibition by the established Syrian artist Souad Mardam Bey, inaugurated last week at the prestigious Zamalek Art Gallery. Born in Syria, Mardam Bey lives between Cairo and Beirut and is a significant figure in Arab art. Her work is always intensely personal and evocative. “Talking” is the channel through which two or more people connect, a way to enhance survival, to find common ground and to overcome sadness. But Mardam Bey’s mixed media and oil canvases – most feature larger-than-life figures – actually suggest silence. Talking after all requires some kind of movement and facial expressions, which are nowhere in evidence.


Talking heads

One fascinating 150 x 150 oil and mixed media painting features a middle-aged woman, her arms crossed over her chest while she’s leaning on a small, comfortable white sofa adorned with red roses. She appears to be lonely and sad. Two light grey cats intrude on her solitude. One is close to her feet, looking up to her mistress, wondering why she is anguished. The other is walking by, ready to join the conversation. An intimate, silent talking: the background is blank white dotted with brown, the woman’s tears? Talking turns out to be less about conversation than hope and peace in among figures and viewers and about talking to oneself and to the universe: necessary therapeutic practises. A number of paintings reveal one figure, a woman in a silent conversation with the environment. In one, a 85 x 60 cm piece, a woman appears, meditating, with two slim trees in the background on whose trunks tiny cats are jumping in anticipation, perhaps waiting for the conversation to start. Another painting, 140 x 140 cm, features two women stuck together, each looking desperately in a different direction, as if searching for unspeakable words. Both are wearing brownish dresses, again with brown spots on a blank grey background looking like shreds of their own flesh, echoes of their agony. One of them is holding a tiny bowl with a very small fish in it. The fish out of water is perhaps a metaphor for death. The fish is a recurrent symbol in this exhibition, and a new element in Mardam Bey’s oeuvre. In addition, a butterfly is placed calmly on the woman’s chest. I found it somewhat irrelevant, since it does not play any role in this silent scene. 


Talking heads

The fish, by contrast, appeared as a symbol in art at least 14,000 years ago, being a common subject in primitive art in different cultures. It was also a common feature in ancient Egyptian artworks, and used as a decorative motif in the Greek and Roman periods. The greatest modern artists including Picasso, Matisse and Klee used the fish in different contexts. In Egypt, paintings by the established artist Helmy Al-Touny are teeming with this symbol, which usually refers to renewal and reproduction. In Mardam Bey’s paintings, however, the fish refers to a range of things: death, life, waiting and communication – talk. A glass basket full of fish and water in another painting looks more fascinating, and raises more questions than answers. Held by a woman with very short hair in a blouse and a long skirt, with an anxious look in her eyes, the fish plays the role of the medium between two individuals: one present (the woman herself) and the other soul who is absent, or rather expected to come. In Mardam Bey’s paintings, the fish induces a spiritual sense of calm. It is a message of peace. And it suggests a contradiction between the calmness it generates and the anguished faces of the figures it accompanies. 


Talking heads

Three women are walking aimlessly, nothing keeping them together. Or two women are coming forward while a third walks in the opposite direction. Their costumes are remarkably different and each is preoccupied with different thoughts. Here as elsewhere Mardam Bey always lives up to expectations. In each new exhibition, she impresses her audience with something new: new symbols, or an interesting theme. Only her technique remains the same. The artist has a unique way of blending different approaches. She is a great colourist. However, oil and mixed media are her sole media so far. She enjoys a profound feminine sense of mixing dyes and inventing her own streams of colours (hot colours are prevalent in the current collection) as well as furnishing the surface of her canvases with layers of colours. Mardam Bey’s way of decorating the costumes of her characters is iconic. The costumes are out of this world, mostly decorated with living items: for this collection flowers and fish, to give a more cheerful and lively spirit to the scene. The figures in this collection, which includes 23 pieces, recall the artist’s 2012 exhibition, “Veiled Reality”, in whcih she delved deep in her ideas. She then exhibited a collection of large-scale, outstanding portraits of male and female models illustrated wearing large dark sunglasses. The 2012 exhibition and the current show reflect a tendency towards pop art, a trend that is not so common in Egypt.


The exhibition runs until the end of the month.

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