Monday,18 December, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1370, (23-29 November 2017)
Monday,18 December, 2017
Issue 1370, (23-29 November 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Ancient rituals

Rania Khallaf reviews British artist Hannah Stevenson’s new exhibition 

Ancient rituals

The camel-back Mahmal, a richly embroidered box or cabin, the sight of which marked the ritual of transporting the Kaaba’s yearly kiswah or tapestry cover from Cairo to Mecca, was a tradition uninterrupted from 1266 to 1961. It is something in which Hannah Stevenson finds more inspiration than in any other subject. Her “Al Mahmal: A Second Look”, held at the Ubuntu Gallery from 1-18 November, she exhibited 30 paintings and 21 portraits. The paintings tell a chronological story, from early preparations to the camel caravan setting off. They show the beautiful landscape through the Cairo desert to Suez, the Red Sea and the Arabian sands.

Stevenson fell in love with the Middle East in 2005, and has held exhibitions (notably at the Safarkhan Gallery) since then. This show is in fact a collaboration with Farid Kioumgi, the publisher and specialist on literature and travel, who provided her with photographic and archival material to work from. “I am a researcher by default,” Kioumgi told me, “so I came across the subject of the hajj in the course of my researches. I amalgamated everything that related to the topic of pilgrimage: journeys, literature and photos. And when I met Hanna in 2005, I thought it was a great thing to work together on this unique subject. It has been a long journey, as long as Al Mahmal.” Stevenson worked from the photographs of Sadek Bey, Mohammed Ali Effendi Saudi, Ibrahim Rifat and Al Hussaini, notable documentarians of the hajj. Stevenson’s work, Kioumgi concedes, follows a long line of Orientalist painters including Gio Collucco and Pat Wilson; among Egyptian painters, only Ahmed Nagui tackled the hajj.


Ancient rituals

According to Stevenson, “movement and drama” are what her show has in common with previous depictions of the topic. “I was fascinated by the stories Farid told me about Al Mahmal, and the amazing pictures he showed me. In addition, I was also encouraged by this event from a historical point of view, my love for Egypt, the evocative emotions, and the amazing colours that the theme of Al Mahmal infers. Compositionally, work becomes exciting when I use figures and landscape, whether it is streets or desert. It is very enjoyable, and very lyrical.” Captions illuminate the itinerary and historical significance of the scenes. “We went through a very long process, and reviewed huge bundles of photographs, but I only started painting earlier this year. The preparatory stage was very significant, because we wanted the paintings themselves to tell a story, this is why I was keen on choosing the right compositions.”  

For Kioumgi – who co-authored a photography book on the subject with Robert Graham, A Photographer on the Hajj: the Travels of Muhammad Ali Effendi Saud (1904-1908), published in 2009 by the American University in Cairo Press – Al Mahmal is a “spiritual trip. Every man is a pilgrim in his own way, whatever his religion is. The event is a microcosm of Egyptian society; every stratum of the society at that time was involved and represented; we see the bourgeois, doctors, soldiers and poor people following the procession, and musicians, even though they were not welcomed by Wahhabis. We eve seen cats and dogs, escorted by their owners. One of the exhibition’s themes is to reckon the endurance of those pilgrims, especially the poor, going through such arduous circumstances both financially and physically.” 


Ancient rituals

Orientalist though her subject may be, Stevenson (who spent the last 28 years travelling with her husband) is clear about one thing: “As a painter, I did not see Al Mahmal as a fantasy or a legendary theme; on the contrary, I saw drama and reality in this historical event.” Since 2001, Stevenson has also painted the Al Hilw Travelling Cicrus in Luxor. Born in 1964, she was trained at Edinburgh College of Art, worked closely with the Leith School of Art, and exhibited in London, Geneva and Moscow. In an Impressionist style, she uses Lascaux paints for their saturation, employing a warm palette. Effendis in red fezzes, pilgrims in white robes, camel caravans in yellow and brown: many paintings seem to symbolise humanity’s quest for a mystical truth. One scene dating to the 16th century is of the festivities around the Sultan Hassan Mosque: it speaks of the Mahmal bringing power and the grassroots together.


Ancient rituals

The paintings are accompanied by 21 portraits painted in a simpler style. They depict such figures as the emir of the hajj and photographers like Saudi (a close friend of the celebrated reformist Mohamed Abdu, then Al-Azhar minister). Kioumgi is now working on a proposal for an exhibition in Vienna on pioneer photographers of the hajj, while Stevenson prepares for a different project – about Egyptian Museum antiquities. Yet the Mahmal stays with her, she says: “I am still haunted by the theme; I believe it is a lifetime project. It is a huge subject and there are many more aspects to be discovered. Once you start, you cannot stop.”

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