Friday,20 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1183, (6 - 12 February 2014)
Friday,20 October, 2017
Issue 1183, (6 - 12 February 2014)

Ahram Weekly

The meaning of nostalgia

Rania Khallaf rediscovers the delights of wistfulness

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Al-Ahram Weekly

Nostalgia has been a recurrent theme in recent Cairo exhibitions. In 2008, Al Masar Gallery held a group exhibition entitled Nostalgia with works by some of the greatest early painters in Egypt including Ragheb Ayad (1892-1978) and Abdel-Hadi Al-Gazzar (1925-1966) as well as Youssef Kamel and Seif and Adham Wanly. Mohammed Abla had already given his version of nostalgia at the Zamalek Art Gallery in 2005, under the same title, questioning existence against the backdrop of a debate between private and public life. Last year at the Picasso Gallery, Samir Fouad expressed nostalgia in the theme of swings, and a few months ago Nadia Wahdan expressed nostalgia for 1960s cinema at the Gezira Arts Centre. And these are but a few examples...

Why is nostalgia so persistent in art? It’s a question that came to mind as walked into Al Masar Gallery once again, this time to see the latest exhibition by the veteran artist George Bahgory, entitled Nostalgic Dreams. It features Bahgory’s latest collection of paintings, inspired by political turmoil in Egypt but also showing fascination with popular culture. In one of the gallery’s smaller rooms, two adjacent portraits are so remarkable you end up spending more time here than you’ve banked on, pondering. The first, Farewell Nasser, is of the late Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel-Nasser beaming, his large fingers pointing to the flourishing future. The second, The Hero, depicts Field Marshal Abdel-Fattah Al Sisi, a faint smile on his face, against the red, white and black of the Egyptian flag—with the eagle springing from the figure’s chest.

Bahgory is well-known for his love of Nasser. Asked if he finds any resemblance between the two characters, Bahgory quietly says, “Yes, Al-Sisi has the same humble and honest look, his features are very Egyptian. I believe he can bear the country to a safe shore... I used to sit in a downtown cafe and make sketches of random people for free, you know. That’s how much I love the Egyptian people, whom I believe to have inherited the ingenious character of the Pharaohs, with just some changes of shapes and attitudes. I always like to depict changes in the facial expressions of Egyptians during different stages, I did so with special focus during the years that followed the Revolution. And I have always had this habit of sketching at Al Nasr Cafe on Maarouf Street.”

The attitude carries over into a small portrait of a woman in black, her face bearing a look of pride and originality; Bahgory calls her Egyptian Queen. “I’m homesick for the old times,” he commented, “people and places.” Horses, too: there is an abundance of them in Bahgory’s paintings. In one of the gallery’s larger halls, a huge painting depicts the “Battle of the Camel” of February 2011, when thugs on horse- and camel-back attacked the protesters in Tahrir Square. The horse is turned upside down, falling on a crowd so dense it looks like a single block. A smaller painting alongside, Future Knights, depicts a beautiful horse with boys kindly caressing it. “Horses are the best friends ever,” Bahgory says. “The beauty of the horse could be seen in its revolutionary nature.”

The oil-on-canvas collection was finished last year in Paris, where the internationally celebrated artist feels nostalgic for Cairo. “I spend hours in my atelier in Paris pondering on and recalling images of my beloved country. It doesn’t matter where my studio is, what counts is my nostalgic feeling. Music by Beethoven and Vivaldi is always on in my atelier, even when I’m not there.” Speaking of which, a number of paintings are tributes to Gauguin and Picasso, the main two influences on Bahgory’s vision. Two paintings entitled Bonjour Gaugin reflect the artist’s passion for the French artist and a desire to initiate a kind of dialogue with him. “Those paintings express my fascination with these artists, and their beautiful art. I love Gauguin’s infatuation with the East. And I see it too as a kind of nostalgia.” 

Khayamiya (or traditional tent fabric) maintains a strong presence in mixed media works like the huge Café: a jumble of tables and cafe goers of different ages and features; another unified block. The Bread Seller is the title of another interesting pair of an enormous heap of bread with rows of much smaller helpless people below it looking desperately up, and of people aiming for bread as a target. “Indeed,” Bahgory says, “bread is a symbol of dignity, and one of the main three demands the revolutionaries of 25 January. Society will never develop until social justice is established.” Nor does he forget the great diva Om Kalthoum—herself, of course, a symbol of the sixties and of the Nasserist renaissance—who takes up two brilliant paintings.

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George Bahgory graduated from the Fine Arts College in Zamalek in 1955; he also earned a degree at the Academy of Fine Arts in Paris in 1970. A prolific artist who lived for 30 years in Paris, he not only draws, paints, engraves, sculpts and creates marionettes but also writes (autobiographical) fiction and criticism. His works were selected by the Society of Art Lovers in Paris to represent Egyptian art at the Louvre in 1999. A Face from Egypt was given the Silver Medal award and his name was added to the list of great masters. Bahgory was also a prominent cartoonist of the two weekly magazines of Sabah Al Khair and Rose El Youssef. He was voted the No. 1 Artist of Portraiture in France, Italy and Spain. Some of his works were acquired by the Museum of Modern Art in Amman and the Museum of Modern Art in Cairo.

And, as if to confirm the achievement with auto-nostalgia, there are some self-portraits in the exhibition: a new dimension of wistfulness. The paintings look funny as they illustrate the crazy and wild look of the artist. One shows two portraits of Bahgory, with the same features but in different sizes, sitting on the same couch with broad childish smiles on their faces. Me, My Friend and the Mona Lisa is another interesting painting that depicts the elderly artist with an aging friend, their faces almost vague. It is right age to be so nostalgic?

The exhibition runs until 23 February.

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