Wednesday,19 June, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1372, (7 - 13 December 2017)
Wednesday,19 June, 2019
Issue 1372, (7 - 13 December 2017)

Ahram Weekly

See no evil

Rania Khallaf is fascinated by the magician’s drama in Omar Al-Fayoumi’s latest exhibition

See no evil

I have followed Omar Al-Fayoumi’s work closely for ten years, but never have I witnessed such boldness and brightness as this exhibition’s. Held at the new Capital Gallery in Zamalek, “The Magician” presents – in bright oil and acrylic colours – uncannily engaging figures, showing just the right amount of distortion for the desired drama.

The untitled centrepiece shows a plump man in a formal black jacket and red tie, raising one finger as if threatening or conspiring against the viewer; his greenish-yellow hand contrasts with the heavenly blue background, and two tiny horns can be detected on his reddish bald head. It sets the tone for the 21 paintings on display, most of them medium sized, which reflect different stages of a “conspiracy” planned by these creatures: ordinary people with devilish horns or wings on their back, portrayed singularly or in pairs and small groups, chatting at a cafe, with blue or green as well as more realistically coloured faces. They are malicious but laughable, “amateur magicians”, as Al-Fayoumi puts it, “not very harmful”. 

Al-Fayoumi started working on this expressionist (almost magic realist) collection in 2012, in the middle of the bloody events of the 25 January Revolution. “I felt, as we all did, the need for some change. I was angry, hopeful and expecting some kind of social transformation,” he told me as we roamed the gallery. He started the collection with a 40 by 40 oil portrait of a screaming man. “It reflected my anger, not only towards politicians, but also commentators and media pundits who intentionally deluded people, fed on the martyrs’ blood… 

“As the patriotic spirit faded, I started to see distortion in each and every citizen: we are either magicians or victims of magicians. That’s why, instead of big dreams and national plans that never materialised, we only got illusions. It’s an epidemic; it is everywhere, not only in Egypt. Magicians rule the world.”

See no evil

Born in 1957, Al-Fayoumi graduated from the mural department of the Faculty of Fine Arts in 1981, earning his PhD in 1991 from the Russian city of Repin, where he lived from 1986 to 1991. His fascination with faces and cafes made him a master portrait painter, although he did not divulge his obsession with the Fayoum Funerary Portraits in artistic form until a 1997 exhibition at the Karim Francis Gallery.

“At a different level,” Al-Fayoumi went on, “the ‘magicians’ I mean are most of the leaders of the developed countries, who have all the cards in their hands: weapons, power and the media, while we can do nothing but watch their shows. Most people are now being led as herds of sheep by magicians, regardless of nationality.”

And, despite the sense of comedy, the longer one spends in the exhibition space the more danger is felt. Small details begin to manifest: lizards creeping on heads or tables, for example. “It is just a motif,” he says. “Maybe it references wicked thoughts leaping into one’s mind.” An absence of movement intensifies the feeling of evil.

See no evil

One powerful piece, 210 by 210 cm in oil, The Secret Show, shows seven figures in conference around a table. The central figures, with a reptilian face and earrings, looks like a bully; both he and the other are genderless. Likewise the hazy creatures in a piece inspired by Rublev’s Trinity… But in a separate room five classic, Fayoum-inspired portraits depict a state of depression.

“The concept of the magician has developed in such a way I now recognise that evil is in each one of us; it is human,” Al-Fayoumi says. “The portraits resemble the desperate victims of magicians, don’t they.”

Al-Fayoumi is currently working on two paintings to participate in a group exhibition at the Wekalet Bahna Gallery in Alexandria.  

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