Friday,26 April, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1334, (2 - 8 March 2017)
Friday,26 April, 2019
Issue 1334, (2 - 8 March 2017)

Ahram Weekly

The conference of cacti

Al-Ahram Weekly looks at the same hardy plant from three different angles

Rabab Nemr

Is it just a coincidence that I should end up seeing three exhibitions inspired by cactus in less than two months?

In “Patience Is A Virtue”, the Rabab Nemr exhibition which opened on 19 February at the Zamalek Art Gallery, the plant – whose Arabic name, sabbar, is derived from the word for “patience” – is a direct symbol.  Best-known for her rapidograph technique, the senior artist has often focused on fish, fishermen, boats and other themes specific to her hometown, Alexandria. But moving from the sea into the desert, Nemr says, was not unfamiliar to her.

“It’s true that most of my paintings reflect the beautiful scenery of my hometown. When I was the director of the Al-Anfushi’s Art Centre, every day I passed the boat-making workshops and the fish markets on my way to work. It was magical – my eternal fantasy. But I can only draw things that are part of my life, and I’ve always surrounded myself with different kinds of cactus in my home and my studio. Besides, there is a strong link between the life of the fisherman and the cactus: both endure a tough life, both have to be patient, both produce beauty.”

It took her three years to complete this collection of 30 paintings. Mostly larger-than-life, they are executed in pencil and rapidograph: as if to separate the human from the cactus world, colour is reserved for the cacti while other elements are rendered in black and white. In one painting, four black and white faces form the background of a pretty oval cactus, making it the life-giving force in an otherwise barren world. Since graduating from Alexandria University’s Faculty of Fine Arts in 1963, Nemr had worked exclusively in black-and-white until only a few years ago when she began to introduce colour pens as well. In this exhibition the contrast reflects a a silent conversation between human and cactus.

“But this is just the start. I am still knocking on the door. There are many themes that could be derived from the cactus. In my upcoming exhibition, I might create shapes that do not exist in real life. Contrary to the way people regard this thorny plant, growing it in graveyards only, I find that cactus gives me energy; its rich and diversified surfaces, curves and colours lead me to long meditation sessions.”

Mustafa Selim


In the 36 medium sized acrylic and pastel paintings that make up the Mustafa Selim exhibition which opened on 15 February at the Art Corner Gallery in Zamalek, cacti are an abstract expressionist motif. Entitled “Gymno”, a technical term for the top of the cactus plant, the exhibition portrays the cactus largely as swathes of vibrant colour. Only on closer inspection do vague figures begin to appear, suggesting erotic and emotional import.

The young artist says he did not use cactus as a symbol, but rather as a mirror of his thoughts and feelings while he had it. A 2003 graduate of the Faculty of Fine Arts at Minya University, he was introduced to the plant by his neighbour the artist Assem Abdel-Fattah, who has a whole garden full of different varieties, which Selim found inspiring.

“I had this unique opportunity to encounter a whole world of colourful cactus. It was a great source of thematic and emotional inspiration. And when I started growing cactus in my own small garden, that was another great experience that yielded different insights.”

In one, perfect painting, a primitively painted figure that looks as though at the end of a dream journey holds a phallic cactus in its hand like a glass while all around other kinds of cactus are scattered. Here as in his six previous solo exhibitions, Selim uses colour masterfully, setting the real world apart from the imagined one with – for example – the contrast between purple and green, and outlining figures with a pastel pencil.

In another painting the shadows of a man and a woman are involved in a discussion while the cacti – in faint colours flanked by pure white – symbolise the dream world. In a third, two small cactuses are facing each other above two interwoven human figures suggesting a romantic encounter. Though a professional draughtsman, here as elsewhere Selim abandons his technical proficiency in favour of this suggestive approach.

Sami Abul Azm


The Sami Abul Azm exhibition “Before Dawn”, which closed on 30 December at Al-Masar Gallery, also in Zamalek, features only two huge paintings in which cactus plants are the main subject; they embody waiting. Executed in oil in a realistic, expressionist style with bare backgrounds, other paintings feature a frustrated-looking middle-aged woman wearing a white night gown and sitting above weeds and pebbles like an extension of nature, in a cactus garden, with bales of hay behind her, resting her hand on the ground or in any number of scenes reflecting the theme of meditation – waiting.

Cactus is not a recurrent theme in this collection, but it is akin to a clue. Still-lifes reflect the same virtues as the plant. In one, a fish longs to break away form the canvas leaving another fish behind. Another features a pair of trousers hanging desperately from the wall. A third shows three suitcases by the shore, ready to leave without their bearers. In a companion painting, three women are sprawled about the shore wrapped in white clothes like shrouds, their luggage scattered about them, waiting.

Born in 1967, Abul Azm teaches painting at the Faculty of Art Education, Helwan University; he belongs to the generation of writers and artists who were deeply marked by Egypt’s 1967 defeat. This could be why his work expresses a state of depression and anguish, but the sense of patience and willingness to wait present a kind of counterpoint.

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