Tuesday,19 June, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1339, (6 - 12 April 2017)
Tuesday,19 June, 2018
Issue 1339, (6 - 12 April 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Nile and Norway

Northern lights, sunshine, frost and feeling are the hallmarks of Egypt-based Norwegian artist Britt Boutros Ghali, who bespeaks Gamal Nkrumah

#Britt Boutros Ghali # Britt Boutros Ghali #Britt Boutros Ghali
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Turn back the years? “No, I would not have it any other way,” the artist mused.

Britt Boutros Ghali is an artist of much daring, originality and beauty. She left her homeland to settle in Egypt and stepped into the limelight when she came to this country. I imagined a romantic Arctic scape descending into a Nilotic scape. Her range of Nordic abstracts and evanescent, down-to-earth and sensual women is dazzling. Nevertheless, her women are never carnal or lascivious.  

She does not paint brides from Hardanger in the traditional national Norwegian costumes. Her women are distinctly Egyptian and they come in all shades and colours. Hers are showy, symphonic paintings in bold primary hues, honeyed albeit harmonic. The emergence of social media has expanded her networks, enabling hers to market her marvels in a more professional manner. When she first came to Egypt she did not quite know what to expect. Certainly, there was the appeal of the exotic.

Yet, her own homeland was enticing and captivating too. She reminisces about mountainous wastelands whipped by snowstorms and wrapped in polar light.  Nevertheless, Egypt and not Norway is now her true home. She does not dispute her roots, though her hair is not as blindingly white as the blooming Arctic cotton grass. Rather, streaks of silver and gold radiate the magic of her native land. 

Born Britt Bang Paulsen, 1937 in Svolvaer, the Norwegian Arctic, she exudes a passion for work. She wakes up early and within a couple of hours she is busy at work in her atelier in a boat moated on the River Nile, Giza.

Her forefathers, the Vikings, were great artists. And, contrary to popular misconceptions, they were not just fierce fighters and adventurers, but had a highly refined aesthetic mindset. The looting of the monastery at Lindisfarne in Northeast England in 793 AD by Norse seafaring warriors has long been regarded as the event which marked the beginning of the Viking Age. “Our reputation has been sullied by the British. Historically, we were not as brutish as the British depict us,” Britt extrapolates.

As a matter of fact it was the British who attacked Denmark-Norway at the Battle of Copenhagen, entering into an alliance with Napoleon. The war led to catastrophic conditions and mass starvation in 1812. Norway was prone to periodic harvest failures that led to death and a mass exodus of much of the population. Perhaps, that was why the Vikings left their motherland for greener pastures overseas. The disastrous and devastating famine of 1695–96 killed roughly 10 per cent of Norway’s population.

Few people today know that Norway was actually one of the poorest nations for centuries and in 1536, the archbishopric in Trondheim in Norway was dissolved, and Norway for all intents and purposes lost its independence and effectually became a colony of Denmark, a sister Scandinavian state. Moreover, Norway was also a Swedish colony under terms of the Treaty of Kiel of 1814 when Denmark was coerced into ceding Norway to the king of Sweden, while the Norwegian provinces of Iceland, Greenland and the Faroe Islands remained with the Danish crown. But Britt assures me that the Norwegian collective national psyche is decidedly idealistic and typically on cloud nine.


You cannot rob me of free nature’s grace‬

‪You cannot shut the windows of the sky‬

‪Through which Aurora shows her brightening face,”‬

James Thomson, Castle of Indolence


“Norwegians are survivors,” she expounds. Her people were no noble savages who ravaged lands with warmer climes, she assures me. Adventurous, perhaps, they always were. Today Norway has the fourth-highest per capita income in the world according to the World Bank and International Monetary Fund statistics. Moreover, Norway has the highest Human Development Index ranking in the world. Yet, until very recently if you lived in Arctic northern Norway, you were in a constant battle with a harsh and unforgiving nature.

This artist leads a happy and fruitful life in Egypt, even after the passing two years ago of her husband Raouf Boutros Ghali. “It is an exceptionally beautiful country, both the sub-tropical climate and the warmth of its people.”

Britt Boutros Ghali, even if by her own admission, has had an eventful and most pleasurable life. But she is no stranger to adversity, though. In the autumn of 2005 some 46 oil paintings crafted by Britt Boutros-Ghali were stolen from a container in Harstad, northern Norway. The paintings were worth millions of dollars, and they had been dispatched from Cairo to be exhibited in Gallery North Norway in Harstad. Only five of the paintings were recovered after theft. Yet, she does not cry over spilt milk. For her, life goes on unabated.

For centuries, the Arctic has had a special significance for Scandinavia. The artist still visits Norway regularly for nostalgic reasons. Her obsession with the Arctic has not waned, and yet she found herself in Egypt by sheer coincidence and instantly fell in love with her adopted country. She drew up grand designs in her abstract paintings reflecting the Northern lights. Painted in fast stabbing strokes, the very essence of auroras is captured in her exquisite abstracts. Her bacchanal is the beauty not only of Egypt but also of Norway’s Northern Lights.

Hers is a life journey that commences in the Arctic and finds its way to the southern reaches of the Tropic of Cancer.  


Aurora had but newly chased the night‬

‪And purpled over the sky with blushing light‬

John Dryden, Palamon and Arcite


‪“When I look at the Northern Lights, I see our ancestors dancing around a sacred fire, lighting the way for us when it’s time for us to cross over from this physical world and join them,” mused Molly Larkin, in “What do the Northern Lights mean for us?” ‬

And Britt Boutros Ghali’s works of art has nothing to do with the ornate wood-carvings of the Viking longboats, their once dreaded warships. Curiously enough, there are certain similarities between the ancient Egyptian burials of sun boats and the Oserberg ship-burial discovered by the Norwegian archaeologist Haakon Shetelig.

A lifetime’s experience on the banks of the River Nile, and occasionally on the shores of the Mediterranean, sustains such harmony between the ephemeral and the enduring. But Britt Boutros Ghali settled in Egypt precisely to escape the endless dreary winter nights of Norway, and in particular Arctic northern Norway. In her delightful abstract paintings, she recollects the auroras chasing the endless nights.


Tumultuous streams of glory gushed‬

‪Ten thousand thousand rainbows rushed‬

‪And revelled through the boundless sky‬

‪In jousting, flashing radiancy‬

‪Careering around the welkin’s brim‬

‪Like bright embattled Seraphim‬

‪Or soaring up to the dome of Night‬

‪Flooding the Milky-way with light‬

‪Or streaming down on the mountain peaks‬

‪On the muirland wastes, and the heather brakes‬

‪On lake and river, on tower and tree‬

‪Showering a sky-born galaxy‬

‪Like a storm of pearls and diamonds driven‬

‪Imbued with the gorgeous hues of heaven!‬

David Vedder, “The Aurora Borealis”


Britt Boutros Ghali’s abstracts echo the words of Vedder. And her artworks are remarkably reminiscent of Philip Pulman’s notions of the aura of the aurora in “The Golden Compass”:  

“‪The sight filled the northern sky; the immensity of it was scarcely conceivable. As if from Heaven itself, great curtains of delicate light hung and trembled. Pale green and rose-pink, and as transparent as the most fragile fabric, and at the bottom edge a profound fiery crimson like the fires of Hell, they swung and shimmered loosely with more grace than the like the most skilful dancer‬.”

Britt Boutros Ghali and Edvard Munch, 1863–1944, were the only two Norwegian nationals to be awarded Saint Olavs Order in 1996 and her award was presented by King Harald of Norway, the highest honour received by a Norwegian artist promoting Norway abroad.    

Britt Boutros Ghali, like Munch, started her artistic career in Paris. Munch arrived in Paris during the festivities of the Exposition Universelle (1889) and roomed with two fellow Norwegian artists. Britt, too, mingled artists, and not just Scandinavian. She met Picasso in Paris, but was not influenced by him.

Her art is unique and inextricably intertwined with her native Norway, her abstracts, and Egypt, her portraits of women. Munch was aware of the danger of an art of this sort for a neurotic humanist like himself. “My condition was verging on madness, it was touch and go,” Munch mused.    

He had a horror of insanity, which had afflicted his sister Laura, but Britt does not fear madness, she is a very sensible person who describes herself as an abstract expressionist with a touch of impressionism.

The Scream, perhaps Munch’s most famous painting, posthumously honoured as the 1895 pastel-on-board version of the painting was sold at Sotheby’s for a record $120 million at auction on 2 May 2012.

The previous record for the most expensive work of art sold at auction had been held by Pablo Picasso’s Nude, Green Leaves and Bust, which went for $106.5 million at Christie’s two years prior on 4 May 2010. Not so with Britt Boutros-Ghali, her art is regrettably undervalued. “I want Egyptians to buy my paintings,” she extrapolated.

“My father was temperamentally nervous and obsessively religious, to the point of psychoneurosis. From him I inherited the seeds of madness,” Munch cogitated.

Not so with Britt-Boutros Ghali. It was in Egypt that she defined her style. With a variety of brushstroke techniques and color palettes, she paints incessantly, for she indeed is a prolific painter. Her women are her dearest creations. “They come to me in dreams and visions, and ask me to paint them. Perhaps they are ghosts.”

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