Al-Ahram Weekly Online   20 - 26 March 2003
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Yaser Gerab:

Pointedly vital, prim and proper

A touch of conscience

Profile by Youssef Rakha

(photo: Randa Shaath)

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Splayed figures lurk in flat space. A man and a woman play tug of war with the tapering ends of a giant crimson eye. The eye's solid black outline appears to grow out of their arms. There is nothing else on the canvas except the geometric implication of a room: wood floor and variously blue and violet walls and ceiling. The artist's meticulous restraint suggests that it is not so much the urge to distort as some inborn limitation of technique that makes for such simplistic art. Nor is simplistic, in this context, to be equated with naïve. Yaser Gerab's paintings have too much purposefulness to be spontaneous. His palette is as subtly coordinated as it is fanciful, the bold, carefully chosen colours making an immediate impact. And while impossible to locate, the figures are almost invariably engaged in some form of drama. Sometimes they evoke characters in a film -- the artist's dreamlike memory of a film. At other times they resemble decorative motifs, or collectively conceived icons. They have shape, colour and aesthetic function, but never an individual identity. Their surroundings too tend to reduce to swathes of textured colour, reflecting no particular aspect of the world. In Gerab's work everything is universal, nothing is random.

"It's always a buried feeling, an impulse," he elaborates. "One thing about the paintings that I rather like is the fact that it's always a moment of engagement, something lived, despite the sense of abstraction people sometimes speak of getting. A friend of mine, an intelligent and sensible man who is nonetheless completely unfamiliar with contemporary art, dropped by the other day and looked at the paintings on the walls. He said, 'I don't understand any of this, I don't see what it signifies.' And it seemed like a profound moment, a moment of reckoning almost, because this kind of complete disengagement is something that must be addressed. I think the artists themselves are partly to blame when their work, irrespective of aesthetic or historical merit, is so inaccessible it just perpetuates the viewers' alienation. So I try to make my work as accessible as possible without compromising the vision it is intended to embody. On that occasion I endeavoured to calm my friend. I said to him, 'Just sit down and relax, look closely. What do you see?' And the more calmly he looked, the more he responded. He would stare at a painting and there would be a spark of recognition. 'Ah,' he would say, 'that's a figure, but the body is part human, part tree. That's a very interesting idea.'..."

This business of calming people, of making them see reason, sounds like Gerab's prerogative -- an acquired skill with which he seems to balance the inclination to be antisocial. Of his divorce, a few years ago, he says, "We have maintained a very civil, indeed a caring relationship. It was very important to me that our separation should be undertaken properly. I am deeply grateful to God for the fact that, in interactions that have to be undertaken sensibly, He has invariably inspired the other party to be equally sensible."

Human relations make up a system of responsible exchanges in which emotions fit snugly into their prescribed slots: "I attend birthdays and weddings and funerals, yes. Older people tend to tell you that, where foregoing a wedding is no big deal, failing to pay condolences to a bereaved relation is inexcusable; and I tend to agree with this logic. But I feel that a human being's time has to be spent fruitfully. One must go to bed at a specific time every night. Friendships that endure tend to be the ones worth having -- the ones in which there is a sense of reciprocity, an appropriate balance of give and take."

He is, in his own words, sociable according to need. His second marriage, to take place in July -- "this time," Gerab supplies timidly, "she is an art education graduate, some 16 years younger than me and very understanding, at least on the surface" -- sounds more like a no-nonsense project than an emotional complex resolved.

So, too, with religion. "One doesn't like to be vainglorious," he says. "The need to believe exists. Human beings are creatures that need to believe in something all-powerful, something that doesn't have human attributes. And as religions go, practically speaking, I think Islam is a fine example of a belief system you could subscribe to."

The less appealing aspects of present-day religious practise Gerab designates as a result of overriding confusion. "It all depends on your individual balance as a believer. For my part I've never felt that minor errors in the implementation of a theory could possibly discount that theory. When you talk of amplified calls to prayer, for example, you're forgetting that we are surrounded by noise everywhere we turn."

As a code of conduct, Gerab insists, Islam is likely to induce positive behaviour or rectify personal faults. "All the rites and rituals," he says, "have a relevant point." Gerab is no extremist, though, he wishes he could be more religious. "But I am a believer and a Muslim and this is an important part of my makeup. Nor is it an emotional pitfall, as some people might interpret it. As I've been telling you, the role of religion is something I've logically worked out in my mind."

It is in the light of this focus, perhaps, that the aforementioned limitation of technique should be seen. Gerab's physical impediment explains not only his style of draughtsmanship -- maybe, also, his life-long, subconscious need to "scribble shapes on bits of paper" -- but his ability to keep emotions in perspective, his tendency to favour reason over impulse. "Thankfully," he recalls, "my parents did not put me in a special-needs school or any such institution. Instead I went to an ordinary school, which is how I grew used to the way people see me. And this enabled me to live very, very normally."

There is a touch of subtle awkwardness here. But Gerab's level-headedness makes the transition from this to the next topic a painless enterprise. Born to a Syrian father and Egyptian mother, in the Nasser- besotted Syria of 1962, he arrived in Egypt towards the end of preparatory school. "Syria is a beautiful country, it is easy to take the beauty of nature for granted."

Present-day disappointments include not only being separated from such beauty but the gradual, inexorable loss of "the elements of life in a traditional Arab society, the details", like high ceilings, of which living in Cairo has deprived him. After graduating from the Higher Cinema Institute's script- writing programme in 1985 Gerab's one film project was rejected by the censors because it dealt with "the structure of society", touching on issues like abortion and surgeries intended to retrieve a girl's virginity if she loses it prior to marriage.

"We are a generation that caught a whiff of Arab nationalism but never lived it for ourselves," Gerab declares. His father's Nasserist ideology has evolved, in him, into a kind of situationist ardour, an almost didactic vitality that finds expression in his inborn primness. Issues that concern him include garbage disposal, general cleanliness and the imperative that "any person who is doing something must do it without losing sight of his or her conscience".

Politics reduces to day-to-day issues in which individual people are as implicated as the institutions that govern them. As soon as the pound was floated, for example, prices went up even though the present stocks had been purchased before the new dollar exchange rate could have affected their value. So called illiteracy elimination certificates, a requirement for many government posts, seldom indicate that their holders are actually literate. The fact that membership of a syndicate is obligatory for taxi drivers, if they are to practise their profession legally, is one detail that outrages Gerab: why should taxi drivers have to pay fees when the syndicate in question does not represent or protect their right to fair wages? His own bout of activism at the Cinematic Professions Syndicate, in the company of a Cinema Institute colleague, Sahfie Shalabi, merely compounded his despair. "Arab societies are suffering from a cancer, and things like this make me feel that we are at the critical, terminal stage of the disease."

Bigger issues form the backdrop to daily responsibilities, and though Gerab feels that they must not be broached until "we have sufficiently worked on ourselves," the news does bring tears to his eyes. "Due to my physical peculiarity and Syrian genes, I am not easily depressed, never easily broken. But when I see the kind of attention a few Israeli casualties receive following a suicide attack, as opposed to the utter abandonment of a Palestinian refugee camp that has just been bombed -- and often they both appear within minutes of each other -- it takes away the feeling that all is well with the world."

Drawing was perhaps his earliest method of dealing with this feeling, provoked, no doubt, by personal growing-up dilemmas he prefers to keep secret. "I couldn't claim that my work is entirely intuitive, nor could I possibly name any influences. It is true, though, I had not necessarily intended it as art. It just gave me a feeling of release, of peculiar comfort, the act of doing it. I would do it anywhere, in a cafeteria, on the train coming back from Aswan: the frame of a train window, revealing a scene that constantly shifts, moving away from you; that has always been something I really enjoy. Any available paper would suffice. All I know is that it expanded the psychic space surrounding me. It let me breathe..."

Privately sustained for many years, Gerab never thought of art as a bread-winning mechanism, either. Rather, he began to show his work to interested parties like set designer Salah Marie, another Cinema Institute connection, who in 1990 introduced him to artist Adli Rizkalla. "The latter, who was supposed to advise me on how to improve my work, said it was accomplished enough to exhibit. Mohamed Abla pointed out the psychological dimension, which he said was very important."

In 1991 Gerab had his first solo exhibition at the Cairo Atelier, a place he remembers fondly as the appropriate starting point for an artist. German cultural officials were impressed and another exhibition followed, at the Goethe Institute. "And since then I've exhibited once a year, on average. If there is a collective exhibition the cause of which is meaningful to me -- the one we held to raise funds for Ain magazine, for example -- I participate. I never seek an exhibition until I feel I have completed a new stage of my work."

Gerab's involvement in the Townhouse Gallery started when he was invited to exhibit in Germany, a journey facilitated by "the practical Germans" in 2000. Only on returning did he feel that showing at the Townhouse would not compromise his administrative position as one of its founders. Since then he has produced installations for the two Nitaq festivals and sold numerous paintings in Egypt and Germany. His office on the second floor of the gallery's main building is fast becoming a downtown arts centre in its own right.

He had met William Wells through his brother Nasser, a graduate of the Fine Arts College, some 18 years before. "Instantly almost, we seemed able to communicate. And from then on, every time he visited Cairo we would spend an evening in the old Cap d'Or bar. However informal, these meetings were occasions in which we invested our ideas. And when the idea of founding a gallery space finally surfaced we sat down and discussed what we would do very thoroughly, on paper. We had an initial five-year plan, and what we thought would take five years we've accomplished in two."

More recently Gerab took control of the gallery's outreach programme which caters to, among others, performance artists who need a space to rehearse and perhaps stage a show. He plans to organise special-needs creative workshops and to tour the provinces where he will be seeking handicapped young people who have not had an opportunity to express themselves and unknown artists, "people who might not realise that what they're doing is art", with the object of bringing them to Cairo. Townhouse responsibilities take up some 80 per cent of his time, he says; but although this hampers the pace at which he paints Gerab feels it is as it should be. "It's only fair," he insists. "No, no, it doesn't bother me at all."

His priority for the future is that "the ordinary public should have a role to play in the art scene." This, and the more general remedies for the aforementioned cancer. "An artist must think how to make his work more accessible, how to conduct a dialogue with the non-artistic other, not looking down on him but with a true encounter in mind. Because I feel that only the ordinary viewer is an unbiased, objective judge of any work of art. And there have to exist institutions to organise the art market, to encourage collecting and sort out the artists' finances, because an artist must not turn into a salesman if he is to continue."

The Townhouse outreach programmes have already produced postcards of many artists' works, and there are plans to expand the activity to posters. "It's important to try and convince large, profitable companies to fund the arts, too." Gerab's own work will develop, he says, but there is no telling how or when; it is only in response to stimuli like Nitaq that Gerab alters his orientation or choice of medium. "What's important is to be working, and whatever you do, so long as you do it with your conscience taken into account, it will end up being a valuable contribution to improving the life we live."

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