Sunday,17 February, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1339, (6 - 12 April 2017)
Sunday,17 February, 2019
Issue 1339, (6 - 12 April 2017)

Ahram Weekly

The myth of the visage

Enjoying Hossam Sakr’s faces

Hossam Sakr
Hossam Sakr

“A face for every citizen” is the witty title of artist Hossam Sakr’s new exhibition, which opened on 19 March at Gallery Misr in Zamalek. This is Sakr’s 36th solo exhibition, whose work has been displayed in Europe, Africa and Asia. He graduated from he Faculty of Art Education, Helwan University, where he currently works as a professor of painting, in 1989. In 1992 he held his first exhibition.

The present show’s title has socialist connotations, and if you keep this in mind while touring the small, elegant gallery, you will notice the social-economic focus. Sakr’s faces reflect the widest range of expressions: amazement, amorousness, anxiety, melancholy, depression. Referring to the title, Sakr said that in the last 10 years, and especially after the 25 January Revolution, he has been concerned with the deformation that beset people’s faces.  

“Depression and violence permeated the faces of people in the streets, and you can trace this in some of the pieces that were made right before or after the revolution.”  

The 51 mixed media, expressionist paintings – which are in different sizes and date from different times, the oldest back to 1999 – look like primitive cave paintings, which adds to their power and their capacity to bewilder. To produce such beautiful paintings, the artist used a mixture of charcoal, oil and acrylic colours, pencil and different layers of paper. The features of the people, who seem to come from a remote point in the collective memory, may look vaguely African or Coptic, but they are not the people of today.  

Each has a story to tell, but their complex, indeterminate identity may have to do with the fact that Sakr himself lives between Cairo and Mayotte, an island between Mozambique and Madagascar, where his partner is permanently based.  He has also lived in Bahrain, and his interest in the Egyptian identity – whether it is Arab, African or Mediterranean – informed two exhibitions in Bahrain and Stuttgart, Germany in 2005-6, both called “Identity”. The exhibitions were against racism.  

“Although as Egyptians we tend to assume we are against racial discrimination,” Sakr says, “you can still clearly see racism against black Africans, in sports clubs in Cairo, for example.” Identity is also the title of 100 x 80 cm mixed media painting on canvas, dated 2010. It portrays multiple faces with joined bodies that take the shape of a single white and sky blue block.  

“Part of the aim of this show is to assert our mixed racial identity. I believe that the individual is the core of interest, the centre of the world, the nucleus around which you can make any good painting.”  

Sakr’s semi-abstract style is all the more effective combined with his unique mixed media technique, mixing drawing, painting and collage in almost every piece.

“I use whatever material I have to convey my ideas and emotions, even if I end up using my own fingers to scratch the painting.” He always finds himself building layer upon layer of colour or material over whatever surface he happens to be using: paper, canvas or wood.

The collection also reveals the artist’s fascination with African culture.  

“In 2013, I made one of my most interesting excursions to Sudan and Ethiopia. My target was simply to interact with people, listen to their music, languages and get closer to the different aspects of their culture. It was risky. I went by bus to the Ethiopian mountains. It was a great adventure, and I think it echoes powerfully in this exhibition.”  

The paintings also seemed to mimic a tribe, their sizes suggesting different ages. Some have only one person, others have couples or groups. One man’s profile is intercut by a fish, a symbol of the good as far as Sakr is concerned. Face, 2015, features a woman with a tool flying over her head: an intrusion that does not mar the portrait’s beauty. One man evokes the Fayoum mummy portraits, with a glob of dry paint on the edge. One woman’s hair becomes an ox’s horn, resonating with a lizard over her neck.

“I don’t actually draw people; I draw, rather, their emotions, their backgrounds, their warmth and their aspirations. And no taboos would hinder me from drawing. I would deal with issues of sex, religion and politics while painting a portrait,” Sakr says.  

A large 120 x 100 cm painting seems to be of the Virgin Mary and Jesus, both of whose faces show confusion and astonishment.  The boy’s right leg is painted in red and curved in what I took to be a reference to the spilling of blood in the name of religion. Two thin black crosses stem from the mother’s head and fly peacefully in the upper edge of the painting, a closer look at which reveals more transparent figures, as each face is doubled.  

“This visual trick, I mean the multiplicity of faces refers to the very different origins of Egyptians, ranging from South Sudan to the Mediterranean, and also to the cultural diversity that we currently enjoy,” Sakr said. “I have always been in love with Coptic icons, which have a very peculiar beauty compared to Russian icons. They show a lot about our anthropological and sociological background. I consider Coptic art as a very important source of culture and a legacy for everyone in Egypt.”  

In 2003, Sakr participated in a significant group exhibition in Washington DC entitled “Whispering from the Other Side of the Nile”. Sakr’s contribution was entitled “Silence Revealed in the Coptic Icons”, and he used wood to produce contemporary icons. Here too the palette can recall icons, but it can also be so light it gives a monochrome impression. Orange and blue recur.  

In one corner, a collection of nine sketches, black and white in A4 size, stands unique among other paintings. “But they are not sketches. They were performed on a trip to Sinai few years ago. A simple drawing should not necessarily be viewed as a sketch. It is just a different technique.”

The exhibition runs through 6 April.

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