Wednesday,26 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1144, 18 - 24 April 2013
Wednesday,26 September, 2018
Issue 1144, 18 - 24 April 2013

Ahram Weekly

Of women and horses

Speaking to the veteran artist Helmy El Touni, Rania Khallaf finds out about the motives behind his latest exhibition

Al-Ahram Weekly

“Too feminine” may be the right description for Helmy El Touni’s new exhibition, which closed on 12 April held at the Picasso Gallery and included some 30 oil paintings. Here as elsewhere woman is always present in El Touni’s paintings. Child, young or old, she has almost the same figure: skinny, with long black hair and wide sad eyes.

“This is definitely intentional. These are the features of the model that I chose to work with a long time ago,” Helmy El Touny says. “My women have Oriental characteristics, always with black hair and wide black eyes, sometimes with a faint reflection of color. My works are symbolic, as you know, so women should also be symbolic; they cannot be identifiable. My model is a symbol of sadness, hardship; she is a dramatic representation of woman’s suffering in life in general.”

The secret behind the frequent presentation of women in El Touni’s work is the perfect relationship the artist had with his mother: “My mother was an ordinary woman, not formally educated, but the fact that she lived in Birmingham, England while my father was studying engineering helped to shape her as a tolerant, wise and open-minded woman, unlike other parents of the day. And she was really encouraging, when it came to choosing my career as an artist. Women have suffered a great deal in our society, and now they are even more intentionally humiliated and abused. So it is only normal that their suffering and grief should be reflected in my new exhibition.”

Fish, hoopoes and eggs were frequently used by the artist as motifs accompanying women in previous exhibitions. This time, horses rule. “Actually, with the current messy political and social events, I felt I needed a stronger symbol, one that would restore woman’s dignity and challenge the cruel attack on women’s positive participation in life. The horse alone could offer all this. Horses have been portrayed all through the history of art; the most interesting portrayals are the ones depicted on the walls of ancient Egypt. Second to this are the Persian miniatures in which the horse is characterised by slim legs and a long neck. The horse as a motif is evident in all ages, even in pre-historic times, when it was depicted on the walls of ancient caves in Spain and France.”

El Touni visualises his horse as a ballet dancer, who shares with women the dance of life. “I am deeply fascinated by the beauty of horses and I enjoy drawing horses, as much as I enjoy drawing women.” Most paintings portray horses in such a way as to give women power and courage, and to create an artistic dialogue; there is a kind of contrast between the smoothness of women’s limbs, and the elegant stiffness of the horses’, between woman’s hair and horse’s tail, as El Touni explains. “It took me a year and a half to finish this exhibition; it started just a few months after the 25 January revolution. However, I am not entirely satisfied with this work. The horses still haunt me,” he smiles.

Horses are, in addition, a reflection of the courage and revolutionary spirit revealed by young people, and women specifically, during the revolution’s events. “Horses are living symbols of courage, revolution, toughness, and you can also find all these characteristics in women today.” But, in some paintings, why do women look so much smaller than horses? “In most cases, it has to do with my view of the composition, or setting the scene for a short play on paper,” El Touni explains. It’s true, too. Often the canvas is a sort of stage on which short, symbolic and funny plays are being performed. In one beautiful painting, a woman in a green dress sits beside a table on which a tiny light green horse is settled. This is not a toy-like horse. It is full of life, and obviously a secret or mute conversation is taking place between the two of them.

All the paintings in the exhibition were created in the artist’s studio in Zamalek. “It is essential for the artist to draw what he knows, not what he sees in nature,” El Touni insists. One aspect of El Touni’s work is that each exhibition takes up one theme. “This is an interesting observation,” he says, smilingly. “It is mainly because I believe that the exhibition is like a book, which should have one title but should nonetheless have different chapters.” El Touni is an established book cover designer. “However, sometimes I cannot resist conveying another persistent theme to paper during working in a totally different theme. This time, it was the classic mashrabiya that intruded,” he says.

“I was forced in 1973 to immigrate to Lebanon for 10 years for political reasons. During this long period I worked in the field of book design and publishing. I have designed over 3,000 covers. When I came back to Egypt in 1985, I had my first exhibition at the Arts Compound in Zamalek, and it was very successful. But, in my vision, it was too academic, and I was not satisfied,” he recalls. “Since then, I have been involved in the search for an artistic identity. I roamed the country until and I found my desired object in the folk arts, especially those motifs found on murals in different parts of Egypt. I learned a lot from the folk arts, especially from spontaneous drawings on the walls of small mud houses in rural areas and drawings on glass windows. In a way, I digested the vocabulary of the popular arts in Egypt, and reproduced them in a different way. They have always been a source of inspiration. Fish, horses, eggs have been partners throughout my career. It is true that I talk and breathe fish. It is one of important keys to grasping my art.”

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