In the first exhibition devoted exclusively to Helmi El-Touni’s graphic design career, the Sharjah Art Gallery is displaying a selection of his works, honouring 50 years of designs and illustrations.
Curated by Nagla Samir and Bahia Shehab, head of the AUC’s graphic design department, the exhibition shares the El-Touni’s legacy. Being displayed at a university, the exhibition also addresses students allowing them to explore and be nurtured by El-Touni's art process. As such, for the first time, the artist reveals the backstage of his craft, showcasing his pencil sketches, mockups, and the side notes he wrote when working on designs.
As you walk into the Sharjah Gallery you are embraced by the warm purple paint flooding the walls of the first hall and the colourful works hanging in small white frames. Resembling the valuable paraphernalia of a museum, a cube in the center of the room displays rough sketches and exclusive notes.
One is torn between stepping back to admire the juxtaposition of frames and their careful layout, and the desire to zoom in on each frame to relish the vibrant colours dancing between careful black outlines.
El-Touni’s work is frequently described as a bridge between past and present, and the exhibition indeed acts as a portal into a glorious fantastical past, with his primitive folklore style as timelessly relevant as the stories they illustrate.
An hour before the opening, curators Shehab and Samir excitedly lead El-Touni through the gallery. The artist did not choose the pieces on display; it was the curators’ challenging mission, selecting works from the artist’s private collection and that of Dar El-Shorouk, the largest publisher of El-Touni’s illustrious career.
With some pieces dating from as early as the 1970s, even the artist himself can’t help but be awed at the volume of his work.
“I’ve done so much!” El-Touni's exclamation is marked by his sense of humour. As he walks across the hall, he stops frequently and as if reuniting with old friends, he talks about the details in his decade-old designs.
“Looking at the old works I’m surprised I had that much patience and attention to detail. It gives me an energy boost for works to come,” reflects the artist to Ahram Online.
Indeed some of his more recent pieces, including portraits of political and cultural figures, have a different dynamism with loose and quicker strokes, unlike his older intricate designs.
El-Touni’s design career involves book covers, magazine illustrations and layouts. We also find picture books, logos, and political posters, some employing typography, others silent scenes that speak volumes.
Though not arranged chronologically, the exhibition allows the viewer to see this breadth and the variation in El-Touni’s techniques, and capture his faithfulness to his signature style.
With a devotion to preserve Egyptian heritage and culture, his work is serious yet always expressed with an air of fun. Simple lines depict elaborate stories; they are nostalgic yet pertinent.
A catalogue supplements the exhibition, with scans of the artworks and a comprehensive text by Bahia Shehab in which El-Touni is appreciated and dubbed an alchemist, a visionary, a patriot, and a storyteller.
Initially a student of Theatre Design at the Helwan Faculty of Fine Arts in Cairo, it was there that El-Touni was inspired by the pharaonic art after working on an Ancient Egyptian themed set and the poster design for Tawfik El-Hakim’s play Isis.
Later on, professor and editorial designer Abdel-Salam El-Sherif introduced him to the artistic side of journalism and design for publications.
And though the design field has greatly transformed since then, with increased if not absolute reliance on computers and digital production, El-Touni remains loyal to hand painting his graphic designs, stressing the importance of the human element in the creation of art.
“It’s like a live orchestra versus digital music. They can’t compare. Computers have no imagination. You can see why people still go to live concerts and plays,” the artist adds.
He describes his process as simple; reading through the text, and before long the images start materialising before his eyes.
“After that it’s all about selecting the right tools and medium for the subject,” says El-Touni, who works mainly on canvas paper and oil paint but would choose etching woodprints for older themed subjects.
This artistic flexibility is also embodied in how he reconciles the patience of painting with the practicality of publication design. El-Touni tries to bridge these seemingly disparate art forms, and borrows his painting technique in his design work.
“I also learn from the strong compositions required for design, which in turn lends itself to strengthening my painting,” he adds.
After going through the exhibition El-Touni recalls clearer than ever how he always believed in culturally relevant art, with a connection and belonging to one’s surroundings.
The third floor of the gallery hosts an amusing surprise, exhibiting the Graphic Design department’s student projects, inspired by Helmi El-Touni’s art.
Among this floor’s interesting projects is a collection of photographic portraits, mirroring and personifying El-Touni’s painted women characters. The display includes a miniature of El-Touni’s original piece placed next to the student’s photo remake of it.
A group of students collaborated to animate one of El-Touni’s picture stories ‘Hekayet Baladi,’ a poignant set of scenes illustrating the evolution of Egypt’s land, from pure desert and river, to suffocating concrete buildings, and the ironic cycle of man needing nature again.
The students used the artist's original collage imagery to add dimensions to this simple and powerful visual narrative.
The set up of the exhibition was also created with students involved, who painted enlarged golden emblems selected from El-Touni’s dictionary of symbols unto the brightly colored walls.
“This is possibly the highest quality exhibition ever organised for me,” says El-Touni, impressed by Shehab and Samir’s curating and their informed choice of pieces.
What the exhibition commendably succeeds in doing is drawing the viewer into the fantasy of folklore, an otherwise dying art form, with a fresh perspective, renewed appreciation, and a rare look behind the scenes of the creative process.
For a long time El-Touni has given journalism and design a priority over painting, responding to a public demand for directly addressing social issues, something he was able to fulfill more effectively by working with books and magazines.
Now that the artist has effectively become a household name, adorning the shelves of many Egyptian homes, El-Touni intends to give in to the luxury of the classic medium and re-prioritise painting.
Photo: Soha El Sirgany
Soha El Sirgany
The exhibition continues until 13 November
Sharjah Gallery, AUC, New Cairo