Tuesday,24 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1356, (10 - 16 August 2017)
Tuesday,24 October, 2017
Issue 1356, (10 - 16 August 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Big is beautiful

Rania Khallaf discovered the remarkable work of the young woman artist Esraa Zedan

Big is beautiful

In a world obsessed with slimness, dieting and weight loss, a passion for big women is an odd focus. But in her 33 large oil paintings — 22 of which were shown last May as part of the huge “Artists of Tomorrow” exhibition at Artsmart Gallery on the Cairo-Alexandria desert road, in which she was the youngest participant — Esraa Zedan presents big women who are both beautiful and happy.

An assistant lecturer at the Faculty of Applied Arts, Helwan University, Zedan graduated in 2012 with such remarkable grades she was immediately appointed a lecturer. Her 2016 MA thesis is on painting as an approach to anatomy. Her early portraits of Um Kolthoum had followed the rules of anatomy strictly, but when she broke the rules for these big women paintings last year, she says, she felt a sense of release. Zedan also recently participated in the Small Works exhibition at the brand-new Easel and Camera Gallery in 6 October. 


Big is beautiful

Executed in feverishly lucid colours, her joyful figures, elegant and shapely, recall 1920s beauties. In Amany is Free, a young woman in a red dress is up in the air on a swing, imparting a sense of ecstasy. Likewise Jumping Rope and Playful Sisters, the latter featuring two women on a seesaw. On My Way to Happiness features a cyclist with her long hair flying in a straight line behind her. The wheels are painted in think black lines. The balance between heaviness and lightness is amusing. Another painting is a scene from Haruki Muarakami’s Kafka on the Shore, showing a woman playing a flute with two black kittens. This collection is the first landmark in Zedan’s as yet short career.

Big women first appeared in a painting called Celebration in 2016, which featured two oud players in a nostalgic mood. Encouraged by her professors, she continued to paint women — as she calls them — like herself, choosing to be her own model. She even works from selfies, she says in a childlike tone: 


Big is beautiful

“I see myself in all these paintings. Even if my women do not look happy in one painting or another, they still make me feel happy. Happiness makes people look pretty. In many cases, women overburden themselves with unneeded responsibilities, and this alone can make them look depressed, even ugly. When I was working on this collection, there was one message in my mind I wanted to deliver to women, ‘You are free to do whatever you want, whatever makes you feel good’.”

There is no symbolism in Zedan’s paintings, only joy. Her lines are so firm her paintings, sketched with charcoal on canvas to start with, tend to look like drawings. One side effect of this is that the views are shallow. She was influenced by Van Gogh, Klimt and Michelangelo.

The swing is a recurrent motif in many great paintings, from the 18th-century work of Jean-Honoré Fragorand to that of the contemporary Egyptian Samir Fouad. Zedan’s swing is simple, though here as in other paintings the contrast between the figures’ weight and the lightness of what they’re unintentionally recalls caricature, something that Zedan has capitalised on — she is now illustrating children’s books.


Big is beautiful

The contradiction, rather, lies in the fact that, while she herself wears hijab, Zedan paints women in revealing clothes. This is also true of woman artists Weaam Al-Masry and Eman Osama, who paint nudes despite wearing the hijab

“I don’t see any contradiction,” she says. “I am happy wearing hijab. No one has imposed it on me. And I respect those free women as they are.” Anyway, now that all 22 paintings have been sold, Zedan plans on avoiding “the trap of repeating myself”. “My next project will intersect with literature. My aim is to transfer one of Naguib Mafouz’s novels into a collection of illustrations, whether for children or adults.”

Zedan is also working on her PhD on the figuration of Egyptian women in literature and their depiction on murals. One of her dreams is to paint murals all over Cairo’s squares and governmental buildings.

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