Monday,18 December, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1344, (11 - 17 May 2017)
Monday,18 December, 2017
Issue 1344, (11 - 17 May 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Our disremembered kin

Rania Khallaf enjoyed the company of Adel El Siwi’s animals

Our disremembered kin

Adel El Siwi’s new exhibition, “In the Presence of the Animal”, opened simultaneously at three different spaces within walking distance of each other last week: the main Mashrabiya Gallery, its recently inaugurated annex and the artist’s studio. Mostly huge, the 280 pieces range from acrylic on wood or canvas to drawings and prints. There is a playful quality to El Siwi’s approach but – as is evident in his choice of word for “presence”: hadrat as opposed to hudour – there is a deep Sufi dimension to this work. The artist’s previous exhibition, “Stories”, was held in 2010; it included depictions of animals but they weren’t its principal subject. El Siwi spent six years meditating and working on this project. “Some paintings date back to 1998,” it’s true, but most were made during the last few years. And the subject has long resonated in El Siwi’s imagination.

“The word hadrat is more powerful than hudour,” El Siwi says. “It implies the influential presence of animals in my life. Animals are all around us, but we humans think we are the sole masters of this universe. Animals were not just created for our benefit. Our behaviour, as humans, is very similar to that of animals like cats, dogs and donkeys – to the extent that it can get confusing. I remember when we were young; we would point out a colleague, saying that his face has the look of a rat, or the shape of an elephant. Even when we look up at the clouds, we can always see the shapes of animals. This only underlines the influence of animals on our imagination. The amazing presence of animals definitely generates positive energy. Animals are enigmatic beings. Because their language is incomprehensible to us, you need to watch their behaviour, and contemplate their interesting diversity…”


Our disremembered kin

Although the paintings are full of potential symbolism, El Siwi says he is against symbols and obvious signs: a donkey in his paintings does not, as it does in everyday Arabic, denote stupidity. The difference between humans and animals, he argues, is that we have a history and a vision for the future. “But the ability of animals to adapt to different weather conditions and environments astonishes me. I believe that summoning animals into my studio was a great lesson in the meaning of life. We share the same place, the same earth with animals and plants, so let’s broaden our vision and understand that we are not alone.” The paintings certainly help us do so. El Siwi does not produce formulae or ideas of animals; he paints his astonishment with and love for the subject. El Siwi is a self-taught artist, who began drawing while in Italy in 1980, guided by a how-to-draw book by Paul Klee which privileged fish anatomy as a basic structure.

Born in 1952 in Beheira, El Siwi studied medicine at Cairo University before moving to Italy where he lived for a decade before returning to Egypt in 1990. He remembers spending inordinate hours sketching animals in Athens as well as Rome in his first five years abroad. “It was then that I got emotionally involved in this unique world. After this period, animals kept chasing me, and they literally imposed themselves on my thoughts. They later became an integral part of my painting. I just couldn’t get rid of them.” It may be that some Egyptians dislike and disrespect the inhabitants of the animal world, but according to El Siwi this is only because they repress an integral part of their psychic life, a part also reflected in the influence of African folk art on such paintings as The Mechanical Giraffe, which depicts a giraffe made of steel.


Our disremembered kin

Many paintings – including one of a happy and proud donkey surrounded by butterflies, and a series of 12 oxen paintings showing a range of expressions – are more akin to straightforward portraiture but no less powerful for being so. Others, however, contain a more complex message: a monkey carrying what looks like a globe walking below a huge chandelier who seems to reflect on politicians; seven “Goat Days” in which the goat dresses like a man, hands his mate flowers, visits a museum, relaxes on the beach and reads a book. “I wanted to create a character that combines human and animal features. I found the goat to be the closest animal to humans. And I wanted people to fall in love with this new creature. One viewer who really liked my goat-human commented that if she met such a creature in real life, she would ask him to be her dance partner.” And animals do become human partners in some paintings: a woman looking at her reflection in a lake, for example, is accompanied by a monkey who seems to offer her support.

El Siwi recalls that in the aftermath of 2011 Revolution, he was overwhelmed with news and was increasingly confused by the fast rhythm of political events. “Working on this project at that time gave me a perfect opportunity to relax and a way out of that political maze. It was a kind of salvation...”


The exhibition runs through 31 May.

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