Monday,18 December, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1182, (30 January - 5 February 2014)
Monday,18 December, 2017
Issue 1182, (30 January - 5 February 2014)

Ahram Weekly

The lithographic soul

Talking to artist Salah Al-Meligy, Rania Khallaf learns more about the magic of black and white

The lithographic soul
The lithographic soul
Al-Ahram Weekly

Born in 1957 in the well-known Al Arbain neighbourhood in Suez, Salah Al-Meligy moved at the age of ten to the village of Al Ayyat outside Cairo, his family dislocated by the 1967 War. He was thus emotionally influenced by two different environments: the seaside in Suez and the overcrowded urban context of

Giza. As a child, he loved to draw, and spent all his leisure time drawing still lifes, spending little time playing with his friends.
“I loved drawing in pencil so much,” he says, revealing a great talent for storytelling as he shares his childhood memories with a nostalgic tone of voice. “I have never imagined myself as anything but an artist.” His mother, a Moroccan named Karima, had long settled in Egypt and loved to sing Egyptian and Bedouin songs, and was herself a storyteller. “She also had the gift of curing children of illness by reciting Quran over their heads. She was a great lady who had insight into people and life in general... I was the only child among seven who opted for arts,but my parents encouraged me to take this path. I also owe a lot to my art teachers at Al Ayyat Prep School, they nurtured my growing talents in both poetry and drawing.”

As a teenager Al-Meligy found something similar between engraving on wood or zinc and digging for nutshells in the sand and fishing in water: the habits he used to practice in his home town.

“In Al Ayyat, my cousins used to tell me stories of certain superstitions. I was certain that all these stories were nonsense,” he smiles, “but I enjoyed listening to the drama, which stimulated my imagination. I love stories. I also love to read in Sufism and oriental mythology, and I used to read a lot even then, taking advantage of the Salah Salem Secondary School library in Ayyat... Another reason I chose to study graphics was my inclination towards black and white,” Al-Meligy went on. “For many years before I joined the Faculty of Fine Arts I used to draw with graphite pencils.” It was not until 1993, in fact, that he ventured into the vast world of colour, using oil pastels and acrylics.

One story he remembers is about a camel who decides to bathe in milk, and as a result is transformed into a mountain as punishment by God. Infinitely sadder were the real-life stories of the war in Suez: the shelling he witnessed in person, and the experiences of his family which he heard on returning to Suez for the holidays.

Aliens were the subject of his graduation project in 1980, reflecting an early infatuation. He would later move onto birds (1985-1991), with which he received his masters in 1993. The hoopoe in particular yielded two exhibitions: “I admire the hoopoe; it has religious significance in Islam, being the subject of interesting stories related to the prophets Joseph and Solomon; it comes across as a prophet in its own right. In folk traditions and African myths, it is a symbol of wisdom.” In 2006, he would return to birds with Sparrow Nest: a meditation on leaves, branches and birds. Al-Meligy also worked on magic symbols (1992-1996), surface rituals (1997-2000) and sea foam (2007-2008).

Also in 2008, Al-Meligy produced a hand-made book, Fi Al Layl (In the Night), in only five copies, with original drawings and poems by the artist. Al-Meligy is currently working on a second book, Risala fil Eshq (Love Message), for which he searched for actual messages of love carved into trees: “I took pictures of those rare messages of love in different parts of Cairo, some of which date back to the 1940s. Those emotional confessions engraved on tree trunks are amazing, they show the mentality of young lovers in simple and true words. This is the first time I worked from photos.”

Receiving his PhD on mythological visions in the work of Egyptian and European artists in 2003, Al-Meligy won the Drawing Award at the Autumn Salon for Mini Works held in Cairo in 1997 and the International Bronze Prize at the International Biennale for Graphic and Dry Point Art in Serbia in 2001, among many others. According to Al-Meligy, a good graphic designer should have the ability to digest a variety of graphic techniques and visual approaches and then reflect them on paper. All contemporary schools in graphics have had their followers in Egypt, including the Die Brücke (The Bridge) school initiated by expressionists in Dresden in 1905.

Abstract is the school Al-Meligy usually subscribes to: “But I find the abstract in nature, in the very small details of plants, for instance. One of my friends once mentioned a place north of Al Ayyat called Kom El Hawa, which means “Heap of Air”, advising me to visit. I remember I couldn’t sleep that day. I spent the night imagining such a place. Actually I spent a month and a half trying to visualise air, and then started working on an exhibition in 2001. It reflected my fascination with air as a natural force and an abstract element. The collection was one of my rare works using the dry point technique of lithography, which depends on the power and speed of engraver’s hand, without the help of any acids. I have not yet visited the place, however,” Al-Meligy laughs.

Of friends he fondly remembers being introduced to the pop legend Mohammed Mounir in 1986, and they have been close friends ever since. “Mounir and his music is one influential component of my cultural formation; he is one of the reasons behind my love for Egypt. He is is a big fan of my art.”

Al-Meligy cut short his teaching career on the outbreak of the revolution in 2011, denouncing the quality of art education at the faculty: “There are a limited number of qualified professors, the number of young professors is also very limited, and services offered presented to students are meagre. For example, the print house attached to the graphics department is dysfunctional and the students have to work in the faculty’s backyard. No nude models have been allowed since late the 1960s, and this is in itself is a terrible thing...”

In 2011, El Meleigy was appointed chairman of the Plastic Arts Department, part of the Ministry of Culture. “It was few months after the 25 January Revolution. At that time, all 25 museums under the ministry’s jurisdiction were closed and had been since that Van Gogh was stolen from the Mahmoud Khalil Museum in 2010. So I was very keen on installing new security systems... The challenge was how to raise the number of visitors, because not many people go. It is not just the responsibility of the Ministry of Culture, however; the ministries of education, information and tourism should also play a role and work collectively.” With the advent of the post-30 June interim government, he was happy to say, this policy is being adopted.

“It is really insane that most of our school children have never visited museums, and have no idea what a national museum is. Children in poor areas are completely deprived of cultural life. My aim is to culturally upgrade such areas, located on the outskirts of cities, where violence and religious terrorism find the perfect soil in which to grow. Many people in remote areas still believe that whatever is inside museums must be haram or prohibited by religion. Developing the artistic taste of school children and scheduling trips to different museums is the responsibility of all those ministries.”

According to El Meleigy, teamwork in the department has completed work in 11 museums that are now ready now for the public. “One amazing museum is artist Rateb Sedeek’s museum. It occupies the artist’s own house, which he donated to the government in 1994. Restoration work started two years ago. It took a lot of effort, because it was totally deserted. Sedeek was one of the founders of the Art and Freedom Association back in the 1940s. The museum includes a number of small ateliers designed for holding workshops in pottery, printing and photography, a new research centre for contemporary arts, a children’s library and a theatre.”

Al-Meligy also noted that the Hussein Serri Museum in Alexandria was among those inaugurated last year, after over 30 years of closure. Still, working with governmental organisations is no easy task: “There are persistent problems pertaining to the restoration of the Islamic Pottery Museum in Zamalek, as the Ministry of Antiquities insists on certain bureaucratic procedures...” Group exhibitions, cultural exchange programmes, an annual salon for disabled artists, a debut exhibition, among other activities, were all introduced last year. The Scrap Sculpture Biennale is another event that took place last year for the first time. “The cost of biennales has gone up, but we are trying to hold more such events...”

The irony is that the number of private galleries still exceeds those attached to the Ministry of Culture. El-Meligy says the Ministry boasts additional galleries attached to art centres and museums like the Ahmed Shawki and Mahmoud Mokhtar museums. “The problem is rather that the government galleries are not markets. What we really need to enforce is the participation of our national artistic treasures of in international art exhibitions and forums. This could be a huge investment and I am working on it.” El Meleigy also announced that the Alexandria Biennale will be back on track in April 2014, to be followed by Cairo’s International Biennale on December: two important cultural events that did not take place in the last two years.

Commenting on the new art hubs in Dubai and Bahrain, he said that impressive financial facilities are not everything. “We have the expertise. It is not the job of the government to establish art fairs.  However, I hope we manage to hold and upgrade a marketing space for fine arts in Egypt. It is important for businessmen and big companies in Egypt to invest in such a national project.”

Al-Meligy is the father of three: a girl and two boys. He is a modest, passionate man popular among artists, especially younger ones, always present at exhibition openings and keeping up with people and trends. His office, attached to the Mahmoud Khalil Museum overlooking the Nile, is always teeming with artists from various fields. “I don’t have long-term plans,” he says. “Ideas pose their own rules and a plan follows,” he answered when asked about future plans. “Practicing art is still the most interesting thing in my life. And, unlike most artists, who describe their art as a sort of reflection or a product of their own suffering, I find art a source of happiness and enjoyment that is part of the happiness and enjoyment of life. The few hours I spend in my atelier in Haram every week are simply the best part of my life,” he says, beaming.

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