Saturday,22 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1209, (14 - 20 August 2014)
Saturday,22 September, 2018
Issue 1209, (14 - 20 August 2014)

Ahram Weekly

Land of animated faces

Cairo is one of the world’s most crowded capitals, writes Rania Khallaf, and Khaled El Samahy's latest exhibition beautifully demonstrates its human diversity

Al-Ahram Weekly

Cairo Portraitsby one of Egypt’s prolific artists Khaled El Samahy is showing at one of the newest galleries in Zamalek, Art Lounge. It includes 30 portraits, all painted in oil, rich in colours and emotion. El Samahy belongs to the 1990s generation, yet he is one of the more traditionalist members who has excelled at the art of portraiture.

Instantly on entering the space, the feeling of being at home, a modest, colourful home, overtakes the viewer. You can rest on one of the couches and chairs scattered around, taking a minute or two to meditate on each and every portrait. Indeed the longer one stays the more like a group of friends these very intimately conveyed faces begin to feel. Yet it remains hard to figure out exactly what it is about these paintings that penetrates into you so deeply. Is it the spirit of the city or the sheer love with which the work is executed?

Born in 1970, El Samahy started painting in childhood, eventually studying painting at the Faculty of Fine Arts, Helwan University. “When I went to the School of Fine Arts," he says, "I was looking for a real mentor to teach me the classic rules of portraiture and still life. But in vain...I was so disappointed that I decided to quit the school, but on second thoughts, I decided, well, it is ok to educate myself, and enjoy the surrounding educational environment. It was then that I discovered the pioneering artist Ahmed Sabri [1889-1955], who studied art in France. He became a kind of godfather and my greatest mentor in the art of portraiture. He is the one who convinced me to continue studying.

"During my five years at the school, I had a long time to practice and study art, almost all by myself. And this created a teacher in me. When I finished my studies, I travelled to Doha as a teacher and worked at the Academy of Arts where I stayed for ten years. The Doha period was very rich as I mingled with different cultures, Arabs and Europeans. I had the financial means to travel to Europe, and then practice art with a more experienced spirit and tools. I learned to focus on feelings while painting a portrait or a still life composition.When I had the chance to watch the works of Rembrandt live in the museums, I realised that his excellence is not just about how skillful he was as an artist, it is about his feelings, and his unique perception of the objects he portrays."

Two years after his graduation, in 1995, El Samahy had his first solo exhibition in Cairo, an annual tradition he has kept ever since."I love the features of the human face," El Samahy explains his life course, impassioned. "I love to discover their feelings and ideas. It is through the art of portraiture that you can feel the richness of humankind; it is about the composition of the elements of the face, or organs of the body." His next exhibition, to be called Simple but Great, is scheduled to be held at the Opera next year. It is a celebration of workers, peasants, garbage collectors, servants and others in this class of people.

"I was influenced by the social realism I encountered on my last visit to Russia," El Samahy says. "The most spectacular scene was the depiction in huge paintings of peasants and workers in Metro stations. So I thought, why do artists in Egypt choose to portray leaders, or just beautiful subjects? We should give some love and respect to people who do marginal but indispensable work to affirm our own human dignity.”

One of El Samahy’s important exhibitions is Train Station, held in 2003. “It was a unique experience. The theme was based on my graduation project, in 1993, the time when I used to spend the night at the Upper Egypt train station to make portraits of passengers, sketching the luggage and the ambience as well. I hope to have another exhibition with the same theme in future. The idea is still haunting me.” It was but one stage of his development.As a child and teenager, El Samahy was raised in Al Daher, one of Cairo’s popular districts, known in the last century for a rich variety of Egyptians of different religions and nationalities. “As a child, I used to have Greek and Italian neighbours. This has greatly enriched my visual experience and cultural attitudes,” he said.

At a time of speedy change, and with new emerging schools of art, El Samahy is not worried about his traditionalism. "I practice experimentation in my field all the time," he says, "but I don’t show such paintings. There is some degree of realism pertaining the art of portraiture; it could be merely commercial, or a great work of art. I tend to paint my model according to my own conception of realism, adding or removing details,or restructuring the whole scene, not portraying it as it is in real life. You could call it selective realism,” he hastens to add. “My main focus is to portray poignant models and subjects. I don’t really care about following classic or ultra-modern schools of art. This is definitely outside my realm of interest.”

Still life paintings come second to his main infatuation with portraiture. “I like to do still life paintings, and it gives me greater freedom, but I like the kind of still life composed haphazardly, not intentionally,” he noted. “The contemporary art world today still welcomes work by artists who specialise in portraiture and still life, it has nothing to do with the spirit of this crazy, fast changing world."

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