Saturday,23 February, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1378, (25 -31 January 2018)
Saturday,23 February, 2019
Issue 1378, (25 -31 January 2018)

Ahram Weekly

Adam reloaded

Rania Khallaf is fascinated by Souad Mardem Bey’s latest exhibition

Souad Mardem Bey

Thinking of Creation in art, I can only recall the famous Michelangelo image in which God stretches his finger to give Adam life. It is a venerable Christian tradition to illustrate the Bible, but Souad Mardem Bey, the Cairo-based Syrian painter, is among a handful of contemporary artists to broach Creation. Her exhibition “Adam” — concluded at the Zamalek Art Gallery, where it is the first to take up two halls — features 31 oil and mixed-media paintings, most larger-than-life.

Telling the story of Creation from a contemporary and contrary perspective, the paintings bring up social and gender issues, showing humans uncontaminated by religious and political influences. A 2mx2m portrait of Adam in dark blue focuses on his face — expressive eyes burdened with a look of nostalgia — while next to it a slightly smaller one with a light brown background shows a standing Eve — naked and pregnant — in profile, with smaller female figures beautifully scattered all around recalling ancient Egyptian deities. It is a powerful image, and an invitation to meditate on the power of women in prehistoric times.

“Women are naturally equal to men; equality was present in prehistory,” Mardem Bey told Al-Ahram Weekly, “and the times of Mexican and ancient Egyptian civilisations, where goddesses were worshiped, makes that clear.” She was inspired by a Mohamed Al-Magout poem in which the great Syrian poet declares he will name his child Adam, not Mohamed or Jesus or Ali or Omar or David or George, since such names — through their sectarian and political affiliations: terrorist vs infidel, Sunni vs Shia, etc — are indictments. In the current political climate the poem spoke to her.

“We are far behind the Middle Ages. For ages, we have been suffering from conflicts whose causes were irrational. Political regimes adopt policies aiming to erase our capacity for reason, which definitely affects man-woman relations as well. We live in a region known as the Gate of Civilisations,” she says, recalling how the Ottomans imposed Sunni Islam on all manner of ethnicities and religions, “so why should we limit ourselves to one aspect of it?” Layered and variegated, even at the physical level, her paintings emphasise the reality of and the need for ambiguity — multiplicity.

Mardam Bey started her career in 1982, when she participated in group exhibitions first in Syria then in Washington and Paris. She has since given over 20 exhibitions all over the world. A globetrotter, she prefers to be known as a Syrian rather than a Syrian woman artist. “In art,” she says, “gender has no meaningful influence.” And, perhaps belying this statement, the exhibition — named “Adam” — demonstrates the superiority of Eve. As warrior, prince and paramour, Adam’s boundless lust for hegemony reflects Al-Maghout’s statement that girls still face infanticide and subjugation.

Souad Mardem Bey

“Men have started almost all the wars since the dawn of history,” Mardem Bey says. But no war or violence is in evidence, only relations, emotions and instincts. Yet here as elsewhere in Mardem Bey’s paintings, the squat expressive figures are confusingly androgynous or hermaphroditic. “I have no idea why I always do this, unless it’s my belief in equality.” Recalling Paul Klee, letters and symbols hang from women’s heads and mark men’s chests. “They symbolise Adam’s discovery of knowledge. The apple tree was the first to invoke in him the desire for discovery. And then his offspring invented writing. But knowledge did not make Adam happy.”

The paintings in Mardem Bey’s last exhibition, “Let’s talk”, invited viewers to human conversations and debates. And here too relations are paramount. Figures appear in couples, groups or solitarily in different positions. A man caresses a small group of women standing in a semicircle, for example, with a black cat leaping over his leg denoting the need for him to be careful, as it were, since such women — waiting in turn as they might — will not be easily deceived.

In almost all the paintings, the background is light brown or white, giving the impression that figures are floating in a void. These images evoke impressions of life in a different time or, maybe, before time was invented. A 140cm by 75cm painting demonstrates this. It features a small child in a long robe with a tiny crown over his head, looking down on miniature black and blue birds and flowers in a beautiful milieu that evokes heaven, while trees loaded with tiny red apples make up the background. “It refers to the age of innocence,” Mardem Bey says, “when Adam was still a child, before he became involved in all those horrible challenges here on earth.”

The exhibition closed on 24 January.

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