It is not common to find a hippopotamus as the protagonist of a multitude of sculptures exhibited by one artist.
This is however the case of a solo exhibition in a contemporary art gallery, Mashrabia, where the 'river horse' (literal meaning of the word hippopotamus, coming from the ancient Greek ιπποπόταμος), becomes the centre of works by Egyptian artist Ahmed Askalany.
Titled simply 'Hippopotamus amphibius', the exhibition opened on 13 March and will continue until 28 April.
Known for their charming appearance, beloved by children and adults, Askalany portrays the river horses through everyday scenes.
At the entry to the gallery we find a series of small hippos welcoming us to what seems to be their natural habitat.
Grouped mostly in pairs or three together, we soon realise how Askalany places them in clear social settings as they become symbols and mirrors of the changing technology and its impact on human beings.
Small friendly hippos carry cell phones and take selfies. Some animals are depicted within a family, amusing themselves in daily settings. We find a mother surrounded by children or a couple in love.
It is a monothematic display yet a variable representation of the animal that also draws parallels with humans.
"I like to experiment with the material at hand. The polyester is quite flexible and capable of absorbing the oxidised colour which is close to reality. This is how I begin working on depicting life and its mutations," Askalany comments.
The choice of hippopotamus as object of sculptures is not random. Through this large mammal, Askalany resurrects one of the sacred animals and symbols of fertility of ancient Egypt, while infusing the work with humour and irony.
The artist keeps playing with contrasts as he moves between the sacred and the modern, the real and the imaginary, juggles with what is likable on the one hand and worrisome on the other hand.
Without leaving his contemporary force, through this collection Askalany also approaches Egyptian folklore, and the ancestral history of the city of Qena in Upper Egypt, the homeland of the artist.
"Since Aswan’s High Dam has been erected, the hippopotamuses disappeared from Egypt. In ancient times, they lived on the rich vegetation on the Nile’s shores. We can find statues of hippos placed near the mummies from the Pharaonic times as they were announcing the rebirth of the dead person.
Today, the sacred connotations have disappeared. Equally, the way of living and the values that the society represents, have changed altogether,” Askalany explained, adding that through his sculptures he tries to find some parallels between the animal and today’s human being.
"The hippopotamus plays a similar role to that of a contemporary man. It has his own attitudes, moods, behavioral patterns, it can be indifferent or aggressive. The same emotions strike me on the streets, in the media, everywhere in Egypt.
My hippopotamuses have this real dimension. Their rounded, large silhouettes capture the sense of awkwardness, indolence, heaviness, all the qualities that are embedded in real life,” Askalany says, explaining the parallel between the hippopotamus and the society which with all its indifference and carelessness, still expects to create change and progress.
But this is not the first time for Askalany to touch on societal “bad habits” with a pinch of irony. Already in 2012, also in Mashrabia art gallery, the artist held another solo exhibition which presented sculptures of large formats, representing men with obese body and very small heads.
"Askalany always reiterates that people neither make effort to think nor to act in society. After a four-year break, he returns to these concepts now, with all his creative force. As he denounces the daily reality and without making direct political statements, in his work the undertones of a revolt are still palpable. The collection has a lot of intelligence and aesthetics, everything is well cared for and thought about, from colours to the shapes.
At the same time, Askalany’s has this supernatural quality- his protagonists forsake their savagery and present characters that are warm, peaceful and above all amusing. It is yet another delicate way to tackle problems of contemporary life,” comments Stephania Angarano, Mashrabia gallery’s founder and curator.
And continuing his explorations of a human kind, Askalany is already working on his upcoming project: a new series of sculptures, this time in black polyester. The artist reveals that the series will present human heads veiled in palm leaves, yet another way for the artist to denounce what is forbidden, addressing the taboos and restrictions on freedom of expression imposed by society.
The exhibition continues until 28 April
Mashrabia Gallery for Contemporary Art, 8 Champollion street, Downtown, Cairo
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