"I was five years old when a neighbor invited me to his home. He closed the blinds and made the room pitch black. Suddenly I saw light projected on a white screen. This is the first time I saw the 35mm movie projector, the first time I experienced cinema. It was magical. The shapes and shades of white and black projected on screen fascinated me... I didn’t really follow the story, I was spellbound by the visuals created with light," Nagy Shaker, one of Egypt's foremost artists, explains how his love affair with light began.
Sitting on a bench in a garden of the Faculty of Fine Arts, Helwan University in Cairo where he still teaches, Shaker greets the students and other visitors coming to see his new exhibition Light Talk, a project which opened last week and will continue until 28 May. The exhibition is in line with 2015 being the International Year of Light and Light-based Technologies as declared by the United Nations.
Born in 1932, Shaker is best known for his contributions to Egypt's puppet theatre. In the 1960s, he was chief designer for El-Leila El-Kebira, Cairo's iconic marionette musical. Without being bound to one art genre, Shaker's experiments with puppets, theatre and scenography were soon coupled with an interest in film since "theatre and cinema are interlinked. All forms of art are connected," Shaker revealed in a 2011 interview for Ahram Online.
Over the decades of artistic practice, Shaker touched on many art forms, experimenting in visual theatre, cinema, paintings, sculpture, graphic work, even interior and architectural design.
Inspired by light techniques used by Rembrandt, and unveiling the concepts of experiment through cinema of a Scottish-born Canadian Norman McLaren among other artists, Shaker's work is a combination of knowledge, experience and incessant creative explorations.
However, he reveals that as he moved across the art genres, ever since he saw the magic coming from the 35mm movie projector, light was probably the main component that motored his journey all the way through.
In 1964, Shaker designed and directed The City of Dreams, a highly imaginary and experimental performance with black theatre and shadow puppetry as main characters. Using light techniques that were advanced for the time, the project resulted in a memorable visual on-stage performance, premiering first in Plovdiv, Bulgaria before it was shown on the stage of the new Puppet Theatre in Cairo, one year later.
Light Talk exhibition (Photo: Ati Metwaly)
"Light is the magic of theatre. I was never interested in stories, but rather in visuals created by light," Shaker comments to Ahram Online on his experience.
Today, exactly half a century later, Shaker's mind returns to The City of Dreams in an exhibition that once again explores light, though in a small hall rather than on stage.
Light Talk is a display of 14 installations or "paintings," as Shaker calls them, each incorporating unique light techniques to express the artist's dream. The rectangular blocks or boxes, rotating around the vertical axis or fixed, are illuminated from the inside. Different materials used create colours, bend, reflect or refract light. Music inside the hall complements the visuals bringing them a step closer to the theatrical experience.
"Those are all paintings. I just added to them the fourth dimension conveyed through movement and time. This dimension also crowns theatre," Shaker comments as he walks me around the dark hall and the illuminated works.
Though the display creates one fulfilling experience, each painting tells a separate story, each one is a "dream" as the artist notes.
Indeed, in Light Talk, the artist's dreams and accumulative creative practice breathes life into each work. It is here that he integrates his passion for light with knowledge of interior design, architecture, painting and colours.
"I did around 50 or 60 paintings and decided to put 14 on display. The room is small yet it also gave me an opportunity to be very selective," he explains, adding that some of the paintings required more complicated technology, others proved too big for the display.
In this personalised relation with stage and painting, the first work that the artist created was Wood from Fairytales, a simple rotating installation made of pieces of wood, lit from inside.
In a piece titled Mathematics, symmetry is explored through the regular lines within the light blue palette, while Ramadan Celebrations examines Arabic calligraphy as the light reflects the letters around the four walls of the box.
In another piece, Alexandria, we see the scent of the Mediterranean gem at dawn, when the colours of the sky are reflected in the dreamy city. In this painting, light reveals warm hues from the orange yellow colour swatches. "I imagined Alexandria during winter time, using colours of the rainbow, as I see it in my mind," Shaker explains.
Wood from Fairytales, painting form Light Talk exhibition (Photo: Ati Metwaly)
A bit further, a more visually dynamic work Rhythmic Squares is a vibrant conversation between the geometrical variations. By reflecting light in many angles, the architectural details placed inside the block create sense of movement enveloped within the solid and seemingly static structure.
A particularly interesting piece is Arabesque, where the artist combines the visuals with time factor. In this exploration of infinity, two cylinders covered with film are inserted inside the block, and as they rotate in two different speeds they project the never repeating Islamic motifs on the box's wall.
While some blocks have mirrors on both sides so the viewer can see it from different angles, others use screens suspended above the work reflecting light coming from within it. The latter technique is used in painting January 25 where the light extracts colours from inside the block and projects sensations of strong mobility.
The effects are reached using simple materials such as cartoon, paper, foam or pieces of a basket inserted inside one box.
"In theatre you do not need sophistication to reach good results," Shaker comments.
Though creating powerful imagery with simple tools can be a great challenge, Shaker seems to master the simplicity in its most alluring way.
The same simplicity is palpable in his scenography projects, displayed in the adjacent hall, right at the entry. A picture of stage design for Kafka's Trial – a project that was not materialised in theatre – showcases a few rectangular vertical panels, which can be moved across the stage. The design awaits movement, light and time factor to complete Shaker's creative vision.
Though occupying a small room, Shaker's exhibition incorporates values that trespass the walls of the arts faculty. Each box testifies to his journey with creativity and relationship with light, all together speaking of an important legacy of this renowned artist.
Called by Shaker to represent his dreams, the display is equally dream-inspiring to the viewer. As we allow ourselves to dream together with Shaker, we imagine that one day this sample of visual experiments gets translated into a visually captivating theatrical experience: a visual theatre that is well known around the world yet left unexplored in Egypt.
While dreaming, Light Talk becomes an inspiring encounter with one of the most important Egyptian artists, a small sneak peek into his captivating creative wealth.
Painting in which Nagy Shaker used pieces of basket to create shapes reflecting light. (Photo: Ati Metwaly)
The exhibition is on display until 28 May at the Faculty of Fine Arts, Helwan University
8 Ismail Mohamed street, Zamalek, Cairo
Exhibition opening hours: daily 11am-2pm and 6pm-9pm