Thursday,23 May, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1426, (17 - 23 January 2019)
Thursday,23 May, 2019
Issue 1426, (17 - 23 January 2019)

Ahram Weekly

An intelligent weight

Rania Khallaf had a close encounter with some magic hay


Hay Carriers

A terrible heaviness and depression lies behind “Hay Carriers”, the celebrated artist Mohamed Abul-Naga’s latest exhibition (22 December to 7 January at the Townhouse Gallery). Consisting of 15 120cm by 170cm canvases and three smaller works in the form of printed rugs recalling Muslim prayer rugs that hang by strings from the ceiling, the exhibition also features a heap of hay underneath them. Abul-Naga teaches art at Cairo University’s Faculty of Specific Education, but he is better known as a contemporary artist with a global experimental vision.

Circles are crucial to Abul-Naga. His contribution to the recent Ostraka Art Festival in Sharm El-Sheikh was four huge oil paintings of circles, a kind of simplified universe. His last exhibition (6-15 November 2017 at Khan Al-Maghrabi Gallery) was called “The Circles and Us”, and featured circular paintings on paper hanging from the ceiling that recalled ancient Egyptian art. The artist’s treatment of surfaces is his very special skill. Since 1995, when he won a Japan Foundation scholarship to learn the skill in Japan, he has manufactured his own paper — and canvas. His 2014 exhibition “Faces of the Cinderella” (at London’s Gallery 8), based on snapshots of the late acting legend Soad Hosni, who had been adopted by the 25 January Revolution as a heroine of civil society, layered acrylic and tulle onto handmade canvas to convey a sense of Hosni’s multifaceted presence.

Hay Carriers

In the present exhibition photos of hay carriers are layered with papyrus and tulle. This is but a small part of an extended project about the Nile island of Geziret Al-Dahab, where there is a major hay depot, which Abul-Naga started in 2013 and has exhibited parts of at Ward Gallery in Dubai and elsewhere. “The whole project needs a spacious place, so I decided to start with this small collection,” he says. For long periods Abul-Naga worked closely with the carriers who bring the hay into the depot. Huge hay loads on the bent backs of poor, weak men is a dramatic scene repeated in almost every piece, with variations. The more you look at a carrier in action, the more he and his load become a single entity, Abul-Naga notes. In most cases the carrier is isolated from his environment and placed on a multilayered background. For me, this creates an imbalance remedied in those pieces where you can see a carrier’s bare feet in the soil. Both the earth and the sack of hay are brown, and the human figure is wedged between them.

No such symmetry can obscure the injustice of the situation, however. One of the ways Abul-Naga conveys the Egyptian people’s suffering symbolised by the hay carriers is to turn the background into a map of the United Arab Republic, proclaimed between Egypt and Syria in 1958 but dissolved in 1961. Since the end of that unrealistic dream of president Gamal Abdel-Nasser’s, Abul-Naga believes, Egyptians have been suffering. Another image features a large black spot that obscures the sack and the carrier’s torso against a gold background where an empty sack lies abandoned. Long, thin lines connect the spot to the soil, suggesting that the carrier is behind bars. Despite its sometimes undetectable presence, here as elsewhere the island — a rich and inspiring place nonetheless unknown to many Egyptians — is a focus for contemplation and empathy.

Hay Carriers

Abul-Naga’s current dream is to show “Streets of Cairo”, a mixed-media project featuring the January Revolution graffiti from Tahrir Square, which is presented through the image of four trees connecting soil and sky. Part of the project was shown at the AB Gallery in Switzerland in 2013, but it has never been on display in Egypt.

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