Saturday,22 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1324, (15 - 21 December 2016)
Saturday,22 September, 2018
Issue 1324, (15 - 21 December 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Palettes in motion

Rania Khallaf watches the colours dance

Al-Ahram Weekly

Expressing movement through brush strokes is something artists from Bruegel to the present have aimed for and variously achieved. At the Opera House Musical Hall, under the title “Artistic Moods”, together with Gihan Maher and Suzanne Gebna (each of whom has a distinct vision), Hanan Youssef recently exhibited expressive paintings of female dancers in action which, using  oil, watercolour and pastel, instil a so much joy in the viewer they make you want to join in. Ballet, Oriental and contemporary dance are each depicted, the speed and confidence of the brush strokes giving the figures a unique freedom in space, with each painting telling a different story about the secrets of happiness. Herself a cheerful character, Youssef manages to transmit a sense of joy even when she’s depicting an unhappy face.

Youssef, who has been drawing since childhood, graduated from the architecture department of Cairo University’s Faculty of Engineering in 1991. Architecture gave her courage and knowledge of perspective and proportion, she says: “I am an architect, but I have always been a painter. There was no shift in my life from one field to another. All through my career as an architect, I never stopped painting,” she said passionately. She did participate in painting workshops in Egypt and Italy to polish up her painter’s toolbox, as it were. “And they were very useful, because when you interact with other artists, you’re forced to reassess your work.” A few years ago Youssef decided to give up architecture and devote herself to painting full-time.

“Landscapes, especially scenes of sailing boats in different parts of the country, have haunted me for years, but I am now more interested in portraying human figures; their movement, their brilliantly diverse facial expressions and their interaction with the surrounding environment.” In her first exhibition, held in 2012 at the Opera House Salah Taher Hall, Youssef exhibited some 40 paintings alongside two other artists’ work. Featuring landscapes, abstract figures and portraits in oil and pastel, they showcased her achievement up to 2011. “My debut was held in the aftermath of the 25 January Revolution. While most painters were focused on patriotic themes, I showed portraits of people in cheerful colours, with all the pain concentrated in their sad eyes. But I intentionally used happy colours for these works. I wanted optimism to prevail.” 

Youssef’s second exhibition, “Our Country’s Originality”, held at the Cairo Atelier in 2014, was made up of portraits of Bedouin women in traditional costumes. Although Youssef is celebrated as a watercolour painter – her mastery of the medium was demonstrated in “The Charm of Water”, her third exhibition, held in 2015 at the Doroub Gallery – she likes to experiment with other media: “I do not like to dwell in one domain.” One watercolour painting here shows a group of children with concealed facial features playing against a bare background: they are barefoot and have nothing in their hands to play with, but their happiness is palpable. 

“I have always had this passion for watercolour. It gives me a lot of freedom. When I throw watercolours over the sheet of paper, I feel the colours are painting along with me, taking different tracks from what I have planned. They always surprise me with unexpected figures, as if teaching me different modes of expression,” she said, recalling how it helped to attend weekly workshops with watercolour master Wagih Yassa. “When I use other media like oil or pastel, the colours just obey my orders, there is not much space for interplay, or improvisation.” 

In the present paintings, Youssef adopts a sketch technique, placing the dancer in the middle of a more or less blank background: a ballerina in a blue dress made up of intermingled circles, turning; a contemporary dancer in black jumping up in the air to look like a butterfly; Mevlevi dervishes looking like marionettes captured by a photographer; mimes at work… Almost all the paintings on show are works of expressionism with a tendency towards abstraction. 

“Before painting in any media,” Youssef explains, “I do a lot of sketches. Sketching is a daily routine. But I never make a plan on paper or canvas with pencil or charcoal. I just express the freedom of the moment when I start painting. I am keen on watching ballets and operas both in Egypt and abroad. And I always listen to music while I paint, almost all through the day.”

Though one of many emerging female artists, Youssef doesn’t feel she’s in competition with anyone. “Yes, there has been a sudden surge in the number of new artists, but how would I compete with a totally different person? Even if I tried, I would not be able to copy their styles or themes. I just like to develop my technique and please myself.” Youssef has nothing in particular in mind for her next project. Cheerfulness and hopefulness is her current – and default – mood. “My message is to convey hope and happiness to viewers,” she concluded.

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