Tuesday,18 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1205, (10 - 16 July 2014)
Tuesday,18 September, 2018
Issue 1205, (10 - 16 July 2014)

Ahram Weekly

Into the folklore hole

Rania Khallaf wanders through in a totally new realm of Egyptian folklore

Al-Ahram Weekly

Seeing Hassan Al-Sharq’s new exhibition, Sha’abiyat (or Folk Motifs) — currently showing at the Doroub Gallery in Garden City — is a like experiencing Egypt’s folk heritage for the first time. Born in Minia, Upper Egypt in 1949, Al-Sharq realised he wanted to be an artist as a schoolboy. The environment of his village, Zawyet Sultan, with its rich folk heritage,  held him in its thrall — and, though in the 45 paintings on show here he manages to transform that environment, he has certainly remained under its influence.

The paintings are retellings of the artist’s grandmother’s versions of popular folk tales about Scheherazade of the Thousand and One Nights, Abu Zaid of the Hilaleya epic, and pairs of doomed lovers like Hassan and Naima and Antar and Abla. They exude a sense of the activities of the moulid or saint’s anniversary carnival: swordplay, fortune telling, horse riding... The palette is warm and happy enough for just such an occasion, with brown, orange and yellow in cheerful hues. Some paintings make use of Arabic calligraphy: verses of vernacular verse, mostly.

Al-Sharq lives in Minia, where he has established his own private museum: a tourist and local artist hub. Even Al-Sharq (the East) is not his surname; it is rather a reference to the location of his house on the eastern bank of the river. He has no formal education beyond a few not-for-credit courses at the Faculty of Fine Arts in Minia. The turning point in his career happened in 1983 when Ursula Shering, a German critic, was so impressed by his paintings that organised his first two solo exhibitions: first, at exhibition at Goethe Institute in Cairo; then, another in Germany. Before too long he was exhibiting all over the world.

Al-Sharq also gave many workshops in Egypt and abroad, the most notable of which was at the Supreme Art Academy in Bogota, Colombia. The artist’s unique works are acquired in many countries, including Germany, Italy, France, Switzerland, and Mexico. Al-Sharq, one of Egypt’s few spontaneous artists, managed to build a solid international reputation through which he never tires of promoting his country. This week, for example, he is participating in an international conference on traditional crafts in New Mexico, Santa Fe.

One of the exhibition’s most fascinating paintings is a fairly large image of cattle egrets — the traditional “farmer’s friend” in the Nile valley — in different directions, while symbols take over the remaining empty spaces. The birds look very loving, as if they were wooing the viewer. Here as elsewhere in Al-Sharq’s paintings the lines are strictly curved, which infuses a spirit of intimacy, joy and tranquility. The characters, who tend to the same round face and broad smile, are no a mere imitation of the archetypal Upper Egyptian face. Musical instruments are also recurrent in: the rababa, a two-stringed fiddle played upright, and the drum.

Human figures likewise have no specific features that differentiate males from females, but they reflect a deep awareness of Egypt’s ancient Egyptian history as well as Coptic and Islamic heritage. So much so that it takes the viewer some time before they decipher the details of the painting, rich in symbols. At first glance, the painting looks like a mosaic of connected colorful shapes. The artist leaves no empty for the viewer’s eye to relax or to escape even for a moment.

Another amazing painting done entirely in shades of brown, illustrates a wild cat with a naughty smile catching a fish with its claws. The home-made colours, another skill displayed by the artist, are amazingly bright and leave the viewer stunned and wondering, if Egypt is so culturally rich, why is it so economically poor?

Sha’abiyat is running through 12 July

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