“Al-Naddaha”, the Egyptian Siren, is what the veteran artist Samir Fouad has chosen to call his new exhibition, which opened on 19 February as the inaugural show of the Picasso Gallery’s new hall. The Nile Delta’s mysterious, supernatural beauty who used her seductive voice to lure men into the lake where they would drown or left them insane is the Egyptian variation on a theme that recurs. In Morocco, Aicha Kandeesha eats her male victims alive after having sex with them; in the UAE there is Um Eldewaiss; in Japan they have a slit-mouthed woman who preys on unsuspecting men. The notion of an uncontrollable sexual attraction takes on depth and meaning in Fouad’s dramatically rich interpretation.
Born in 1944, and raised in cosmopolitan Heliopolis, at a time when Greeks, Armenians and other minorities formed an essential part of the community, strange tales told by cleaners had a special attraction for Fouad as a boy. “I was a good listener,” he says. He was only six when he first made the acquaintance of this creature. Unlike the usual fairy tales about Al-Shatir Hassan and Sett Al-Hossn, the story of the Naddaha sounded real; it was told as a magical, unexplained incident, not an imaginative narrative. Fouad agrees that the Naddaha might serve as a metaphor for life itself, in which – called onto our paths by our parents – we are seduced by the mystery and end up dead. “Life enchants us with its pleasures,” he says, “and we unconsciously go on a mysterious journey until the end.”
The mysterious caller
A huge painting of a woman looking out of a green window greeted me as I entered; a powerful work, it is the key piece that leads the viewer into the details of the myth. Fouad’s captivating oil paintings are in a range of sizes, and each presents the myth in its own way. “The myth represents a connected circle of three sub-concepts,” the artist explains: “seduction, sex and death. Seduction is a precondition for having sex. Sex is equivalent to survival in life in its broad meaning. And death is the natural end for all beings.” Here as elsewhere in his work (the Flesh collection, which focused on Oriental dancers, for example) Fouad’s central subject is the female figure rebelling against patriarchy.
One Nadahha masterpiece is a 200 cm x 120 cm painting of a woman in a black dress, her hair covered with a yellow scarf. Her arm rests on a green windowpane where part of a Coca Cola ad can be seen. She stares into the distance with a mysterious, evil look in her eyes, as if calling someone silently or lurking in wait for a new victim. The green frame around her bust denotes life, while the ad represents the contemporary – global – setting, itself a seductive monster. Seduction, for Fouad, is deeper and less obvious than flirtation, “a vulgar way to trap someone”.
The mysterious caller
In many paintings the women’s faces are deliberately concealed or blurred to convey movement, as in the seated woman in a red dress desperately looking down, which was first shown last year in an exhibition named “Ramifications”: although not clearly a Naddaha, this woman’s unstable concern is of the same substance as other paintings in the exhibition. A young woman appears to be imperfectly reflected as if she were rethinking the theme of the Naddaha herself. Here as in many other paintings nostalgia is evident. Nostalgia is another typical aspect of Fouad’s work, as evidenced in an eponymous, semi-retrospective exhibition held in 2013 that featured belly dancers, still life compositions and, notably, swings. Some of the clothes and accessories in the present paintings are half a century old, Fouad acknowledges, but this, he says, is besides the point: “What matters here is the mood of Al-Naddaha as a concept, not the specific details.”
Another huge painting of a woman in a full black dress standing in a balcony, waiting impatiently and defiantly for her victim, surrounded by greenery and hazy shades of grey pigeons in flight, is another reified representation of the concept. This specific painting is “narrative”, as Fouad puts it. “It tells a story, and it is up to the viewer to read the hidden codes.” Here as elsewhere women are portrayed dramatically as tough and agonised creatures, not as tender beauties, and even for a Naddaha, in Fouad’s book, “Beauty comes from within. A woman can be a tool of seduction even if she is not beautiful.” In the belly dancer painting, the dancer represents seduction while her circular motion shows its influence on the victim.
The mysterious caller
The artist’s palette of colors remains the same, although the theme suggests darker colours. There are always balanced spaces of shadow and light. Fouad says he often adopts the anti-theme technique to generate questions and create spaces of meaningful light. But black is the only colour common to almost all the paintings, he points out. He should now: his paintings themselves are a powerful Nadahha, although they do not lead to death.
The exhibition runs through 18 March.