Thursday,21 February, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1358, (24 August - 6 September 2017)
Thursday,21 February, 2019
Issue 1358, (24 August - 6 September 2017)

Ahram Weekly

The folk motif

Rania Khallaf connects two ongoing exhibitions 


Folk-inspired works documenting the habits and beliefs of various parts of Egypt have been integral to the modern art movement, with early painters like Zakaria Al-Zeini (1932-1993) and Mounir Kanaan (1919-1999) making them a major focus of their work. Two exhibitions that opened last week depict folk themes: “Treasures of the Fourth Pyramid”, a selection murals from the Al-Ahram collection at the Al-Ahram Art Gallery sponsored by Al-Beit magazine Editor-in-Chief Sawsan Murad; and “Folk Tales”, showing work by Shaker Al-Edrissi and Shadi Farghali, at the Picasso Gallery in Zamalek.


The Al-Ahram exhibition affords a wealth of material. One piece by Kanaan — oil on canvas on hardboard, 255cm wide and 113cm tall — shows a pretty rural bride against a backdrop of figures and motifs from the countryside blended with ancient Egyptian imagery in perfect harmony. Another, oil on hardboard painting by Sayed Abdel-Rasoul (1917-1995), which like much of Abdel-Rasoul’s work also demonstrates the influence of Coptic and ancient art, shows fishing boats on the Nile. A piece by Omar Al-Nagdi (b. 1931), entitled A Folk Composition, depicts a popular celebration dominated by a tannoura dance and riddled with folk motifs.


In contrast to this work — perhaps due to the disappearance from daily life of all such habits and beliefs — the Picasso Gallery exhibition contains nothing descriptive or celebratory. Folk themes in the work of these two mid-career artists are rather improvised and impressionistic. Al-Edrissi’s mixed-media technique draws on his Dakhla Oasis heritage, while Farghali follows in the footsteps of his father artist Farghali Abdel-Hafez’s abstract expressionist work. Both artists are 2002 graduates of the Design and Painting Department at the Faculty of Art Education. 


Al-Edrissi obtained an MA in folk arts in 2007 and is currently pursuing a PhD in workshop management, exhibiting mostly in the last two years at such galleries as Art Corner, the Cairo Atelier, Al-Masar and Khan Al-Maghraby. His signature style combines layers of bright colours, especially the yellow of the sand dunes and the red of ripe dates, with handwritten poetry influenced by Arabic classics like Burdat Al-Busairi or the work of Cavafy, as in the 2015 “September Stories”. Recurrent motifs include the children’s cloth ball called a koraliya (literally “the little ball”) and the fabric doll. Sometimes inspiring fear rather than sympathy, as in the giant satyr depicting male virility, his work reveals a complicated world loaded with signifiers. 


“I am still in contact with my hometown,” Al-Edrissi tells me, “which remains one of my main sources of inspiration. How woman mourners wear white, not black, for example. Or how they ululate as people do in weddings if the coffin proves light, a sign that the deceased is destined for heaven. The folk tales of Dakhla are always with me… I work directly on the surface of the canvas with no preparatory sketches. And with the mixed-media technique, I have a boundless world in front of me.”


Abdel-Hafez’s work is less original, coming across more like tourist souvenirs. With children playing in popular neighbourhoods, Upper Egyptian stick fighting or card games in downtown cafes, he expresses a nostalgia, he says, for “typical and significant characters such as fishermen and popular dancers”. He draws not from life or to reflect personal experience but to provide his own take on stock images. 


Both exhibitions run through 30 August.

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