Dream City, a solo painting exhibition by Alexandrian-born, Athens-based artist Farida El-Gazzar, opened Tuesday 28 April at Gypsum Gallery, presenting a fabled view of Egypt based on photographs from the past and present.
With three layers of narratives that merge together, family portraits, selected plants and heavy city buildings the exhibit acts as a personal account of the Fraida El-Gazzar's Egypt, while evoking collective nostalgia.
“It’s about bringing the past into my experience of the present, gathered from stories I would hear about family, mixed with these architectural elements, that are a physical, tangible representation of Egypt when I visit,” El-Gazzar told Ahram Online.
In small-scale, golden framed paintings, the portraits are based on El-Gazzar’s gathering of photographs from her own family’s archives.
“It started in 2013, with just gathering photos from different family members and scanning them for archiving, and I thought some day I want to make a project out of this,” she said, adding that some of the photos are dated back to her great grandmother, and include people she hadn’t even met before.
Stripped down to a white background, with figures delicate pencil lines, the figures float out of space and time, like staged scenes from a classic movie.
Owner and curator of Gypsum, Aleya Hamza, in conversation with Ahram Online, noted the non-linearity of time in El-Gazzar’s pieces.
“She flattened out everything, time and space. Like here (pointing to a piece), this woman who is her grandmother is depicted as a grown woman, and she’s the young girl is this other piece.”
Equally delicate, the small paintings of plants are painted in colour, also existing on a flat background tinted deep golden.
While the titles of the family portraits are quite direct, naming the family members, places or actions in the pieces, the titles of the plants’ are more metaphorical, like hints into the emotions they stir in the artist.
Sometimes plants make an appearance into the frames of the portraits, sneaking in from a corner or an edge, where they turn into monochromic white.
“The plants were always there, they can last for years and years, but you capture one moment of its life in a picture,” the artist said.
A tiny vase of red roses, titled gratitude, is an example of El-Gazzar’s approach to the plants, with a mixture of symbolism and reminiscence.
“There is the piece titled Childhood that was named after the plant in the entrance to my mother’s house,” she said.
Another piece titled Eternal, depicts the Yucca plant, a type of cactus common in Egypt and Mediterranean countries. El-Gazzar chose this plant for what it stands for- resilience- and how for her it is connected to Egypt.
“I think its my favorite piece,” Hamza says, “it feels like Egypt to me, and with the simple layout and framing, El-Gazzar iconisedit.”
Artwork by Farida El-Gazzar displayed at Gypsum gallery (Photo: Soha Elsirgany)
Steering away from memory lane, are the paintings of present-time buildings. These are in a different color scheme, with the boldest subjects in the exhibit.
Starting the project years ago with the portraits first, the intention was not to have colour, just white. Then when I brought in the buildings, I felt their colour was part of the mood of the landscape,” El-Gazzar said.
The artist adds that the portraits are more of a narrative, leaving much space for the viewer’s imagination. The buildings in comparison are “in your face, exactly what you see.”
It is this play between all three subject matters- portraits, plants and buildings- that creates questions around the work.
With the pieces carefully displayed in groups, sometimes pairs, the artist and the curator worked together in matching them up.
“I worked intuitively with the space, following my feelings with the connections between the works,” said the artist.
Hamza said that they “tried to create combinations of pieces that have a dialogue together.”
The small scale of the pieces draws the viewer into the miniature world depicted.
“With size you can create different moods. Large pieces would be more like pop images. The small is more intimate, and it zooms into the story,” El-Gazzar said.
The golden frames further enhance that value, as El-Gazzar runs a deep tone of gold into the pieces of Dream City, evoking the value the colour inherently carries with it.
“Gold is for honoring something. It is also resilient, an element that doesn’t wear off, and reminiscent of the desert, something I relate to Egypt.”
El-Gazzar spent her early years in Alexandria, and has attended residencies and research programmes in Cairo, yet the artist has mostly lived abroad, studying in London and Athens.
Though much of her work is closely knit to her relationship with Egypt, this is the first time El-Gazzar has exhibited her work here, and the first display for her project Dream City.
“At first I didn’t plan on showing it in Egypt. But I’m glad it ended up being displayed here, because its like the work is back to its origins,” she said.
El-Gazzar is currently represented by Kalfayan Gallery in Athens, and is living and working between Egypt and Greece.
The exhibition opened 28 April and will run till 26 May
Gypsum Gallery, 5 Ibrahim Naguib street, ground floor, apt. 2, Garden City, Cairo