Sunday,24 February, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1391, (26 April - 2 May 2018)
Sunday,24 February, 2019
Issue 1391, (26 April - 2 May 2018)

Ahram Weekly

The unbearable lightness of the soul

Rania Khallaf talks to a nature-loving artist

The unbearable lightness of the soul

“The unbearable lightness of the soul” would have been a better title for Xavier Puigmarti’s latest exhibition, “Landscapes”, which closed at the Mashrabiya Art Gallery on 5 April. The highly sophisticated oil and acrylic collection is a beautiful mental game between the artist, nature and the viewer. After a quick tour of the vast gallery, I revisited the show to meet with Puigmarti, a Spanish artist who has lived in Fayoum for many years. 

In 1982, after a short visit to a photographer friend from Barcelona who lived in Cairo, Puigmarti fell in love with the city. “I was fascinated, and still am, with Cairo’s marvellous intersecting artistic levels; Islamic, Coptic and ancient Egyptian museums, and religious manifestations,” he says as we sit on the wooden bench in the gallery. “You can visit Islamic architecture sites in many other countries, like Iran, Morocco or Afghanistan. But ancient Egyptian art cannot be found in any other spot. What I like about this art is not just the marvellous monuments, but the ancient Egyptians’ spirit, their philosophy of life and death and the road to paradise.” 

This helps to explain why his tiny human figures are executed using  such a special technique: simply outlined, with no flesh inside. “Humans, who appear in my paintings like light creatures or skeletons, at some point, are not the focal element in the universe; there are other important beings,” he noted. And indeed one of the show’s most captivating paintings features huge mountains and sand dunes that seem to live, with a tiny human lost in the middle. The joy felt by the visitor on seeing Puigmarti’s paintings stems from this rare simplicity, which takes you to a higher mental level, pushes you to rethink your relationship with Mother Nature, liberates your soul and motivates your imagination. 

Another masterpiece is entitled Fossil Collector, and it features a huge, bare landscape, with the blue sky taking up half of the painting. On the lower half, an outlined male figure relaxes on the sand, while a tree grows out of his crotch. Parallel to this is a even lighter male figure, busy collecting fossils from the bright yellow sand. It is very symbolic: life cycles are embodied perfectly. It is also sarcastic, if we view it from the perspective of time: how long can even the most powerful man live, compared to those fragile fossils, which actually date back millions of years. 

The unbearable lightness of the soul

Puigmarti’s Arabic is fair, but with some effort he can express himself. Sometimes during the hour-long interview I struggled to keep track of his speech; however, this could be attributed to the long hours of solitude at his studio in Fayoum, roaming Wadi Al-Hitan (where the skeletons of ancient whales survive), or meditating in the bare, beautiful desert surrounding his house. So, what does he like most about nature in Fayoum? 

“It is definitely that peaceful co-existence between the desert and Lake Qarun, its matchless beauty and spirituality,” he says lovingly. “The landscape of the desert is full of life. The lake in the middle of the desert is a big cosmic mirror where everything looks clearer.” He should know. “If we ever metamorphose,” he writes in the exhibition statement, “we will walk on the soft sand because the fossils, the meteorites and the stars will have pulverised.” 

In the 1980s, there was no running water or electricity in Fayoum, he told me, but pottery was famous there. He ultimately decided to live between Barcelona and Fayoum. However, his stay in Fayoum has affected his fame in his home country. “The artist needs to stay in one place, to be more recognised by the galleries, to maintain relations, otherwise his popularity fades in time.” Lately he purchased a land to build up a huge studio, which he describes as his “dreamland”. Although he is in love with nature, he never paints in the open air. He climbs mountains and relaxes on the lake shore, endless meditation sessions. He makes sketches, takes pictures, but then he goes back to his studio. “I wonder why people here do not respect nature. Although Fayoum is now becoming a tourist destination, I notice people’s bad behaviour towards nature,” he says. “It is very sad.” 

The unbearable lightness of the soul

His palette is distinct: different degrees of light blue, green, yellow and brown; the colours of nature. “Memoirs are not for sale” is the title of Puigmarti’s last exhibition, held in 2017, also at the Mashrabiya Gallery. The show featured very unique paintings and reflected his passion for ancient Egyptian art and history. One of the best pieces, a mixed media on canvas painting, depicts many tiny figures lined up on horizontal rows. The figures, mostly, raise their arms with flowers, black cats or lizards – a common posture in some ancient Egyptian drawings. The background is yellowish, and designed to give the impression of papyrus. 

“Landscape” is the artist’s tenth solo exhibition in Cairo. His early works were greatly influenced by maps of the Nile and ancient Egyptian art. Some paintings in the present exhibition reveal the influence of mythology, too: the fox, having failed to reach the grapes at the top of the tree, claiming they are not ripe anyway. Other than smart foxes, tiny hoopoes, snails, insects and black cats are occasionally seen in his symbolic and expressionist paintings. 

The unbearable lightness of the soul

Dialogue 1 and 2 are two captivating mixed media paintings, 20 by 30 cm, made in 2012. The first features two humans standing face to face, holding loudspeakers, and talking. In one corner is the drawing of a world map, from which straight lines are dispersed in different directions. Dialogue 2 features the same two figures now standing with their backs to each other, also holding loudspeakers, from which brown stains and black dots spread out. They might refer to the state of chaos and lack of transparency that prevailed in Egypt in the aftermath of the 2011 Revolution.   

In another exhibition, “Constellation”, held at the Mashrabiya in 2003, oil paintings dealt directly with the political sphere. Palestine, Solidarity, and Explosion were among the titles of his cosmic, symbolic, maps-like paintings.

Puigmarti did not start painting until he was in his twenties. He studied economics in Barcelona, graduating in the mid-1970s, and later studying art. In addition to his solo exhibitions in Spain, Puigmarti has participated in many group exhibitions in the USA, Germany, Spain, Switzerland and France. As a novel reader who loves Ernest Hemingway and cites Joan Míro’s The Farm as among his favourites, he provides The Poet: a man lying on a floating cloud, meditating, while he holds a kind of telescope. 

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