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Experimental times: Mental game with Cairo's 'From H to G' exhibition

The Ubuntu Art Gallery held Hakeem Abu Kila’s exhibition between 4 and 25 April

Rania Khallaf, Sunday 6 May 2018
Artwork by Hakeem Abu Kila, part of “From H to G” exhibition at Ubuntu Art Gallery (Photo: courtesy of Ubuntu Art Gallery)
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“From H to G” is the tricky title of Hakeem Abu Kila’s new exhibition (4-25 April), a kind of mental game with larger-than-life as well as smaller paintings at the Ubuntu Art Gallery. H is the artist’s initial; G is someone whose identity he refuses to divulge. And the space between them can range from most of the Arabic alphabet to a sum of zero. That space is the exhibition, though.

“Just like the four seasons, letters have significance and are loaded with meaning. The circulation of letters is essential, like the characteristics of a plant or an animal,” Abu Kila, 29, says.

“Both the seasons and the alphabet are connected through contrasts and cycles, because life is all about waves and curves, ups and downs. We have to be satisfied at the lowest point, so that we can be ecstatic when we rise.”

But what does any of this have to do with these experimental and enigmatically titled acrylic and mixed media paintings (Cactus Dreams, Sorry, Three Thieves and One Dog etc.)? Though powerful and beautiful, each has too much going on to impart meaning in this or any other light, unless they are really representations of good and evil (H is for happiness, G is for genocide, say!)

The cactus is a focal and recurrent motif: “It is a wonderful plant: “solid yet fragile, soft, patient and yet thorny... like humans.” Paradise in a Guilty Man’s Eyes includes everything anyone might like to see in paradise: “We all have this evil side, which lives together with our good side. We have all made mistakes, the prophets not excluded.”

Abu Kila’s method is to set up the overall scene, leaving space for tiny details. The paintings look primitively and spontaneously executed despite the fact that they are mostly pre-planned. Abu Kila keeps the daily habit of roaming the streets of Alexandria, his hometown, to mentally capture and save images. Some paintings feature an endless number of tiny, deformed beings, devastated by the cruel speed of life in the city.

Two paintings, Sinking of the City and Idiot Escape are linked: the first shows the city gradually being submerged; the second shows a kind of Noah’s ark from which idiots are trying to escape: “There will eventually be a flood, which will destroy almost everything. So, please, people, try to be good.”

(Photo: courtesy of Ubuntu Art Gallery)

This is Abu Kila’s first solo exhibition in Cairo. In addition to showing his work in numerous group exhibitions in both cities, he gave three solo exhibitions in Alexandria in the last five years. He also participated in the Lyon Festival for Arab Revolutions, France in 2014 and the Turin Festival for Short Films in 2015.

A 2012 Alexandria University graphic art graduate, he specialised in printmaking. Taking mixed media to a philosophical extreme – he has been known to use fruit juice, coffee and tea as well as scraps of paper and vegetables – Abu Kila believes social, economic, political and scientific subjects are all the territory of art, and practises filmmaking, scenography and photography as well. He paints in the spirit of a playful child but draws on the experience of an adult Egyptian. Indeed some paintings (After Midnight, Satan’s Power) work equally well upside down: it is an exhilarating experience.

Abu Kila assigned four paintings to January, April, July and October, which obviously mark the beginning of each season. In the latter, the foreground features a pretty cactus in a transparent pot, with a puzzle-like reddish background that features human and animal parts. Sandra features two differently sized cactus plants with joyful vegetable and floral motifs all over the available space and conflicting colours: grey, black, green and red.

Sandra, Abu Kila tells me, is a Greek name, meaning a woman who defends human rights: “I once encountered a girl named Sandra. She was cheerful, with a nice voice, but she was sceptical about life and ideals. The painting features this relentless shift away from realism and perfectionism.”

(Photo: courtesy of Ubuntu Art Gallery)

This article was first published in Al Ahram Weekly

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