“Shake a leg! Shake a leg! Off we head with it to our journey tonight. Oh, the blessings of my mother, father, beloved ones and the whole family. Our journey, God willing, will be blessed and sustenance will fill the buckets.”
The above lines, translated from Injy Amer's original Arabic, accompany a photo showing a felucca’s sail surrounded by four dark silhouettes in a blue sky. The setting is Lake Borolos in the northern governorate of Kafr Al-Sheikh.
Next to the photo is a painting, similar yet patently different. The felucca’s sail is again central, likewise the four figures, but here vivid arrays of color overwhelm the painting. The sail is electric blue, the back-lit silhouettes have vibrant features, and a yellowish background has replaced the once indigo sky.
We are at the opening of Fluka (felucca), an exhibition of ingenious collaborative work by photographer Galal El-Missary and painter Samah Emam. El-Missary's photographs of traditional Egyptian feluccas are molded into oil paintings by Emam.
The paintings are loyal to the photographs’ composition, but integrate lively colors and re-imagine the backgrounds, among other interpretative changes informed by Emam’s artistic vision.
The exhibition opened on 17 September at the Egyptian Centre for International Cultural Cooperation in Zamalek, Cairo, and will run until 30 September.
On the left lies Emam's reinterpretation of El-Missary's photo on the right. The painting experiments with an array of vivid colours. (Photo: Nourhan Tewfik)
Reinterpreting photography on canvas
“Most of Egypt’s governorates house either rivers or seas, so feluccas are everywhere. They differ in shape from one area to the next depending on the water depth. For example, in Lake Borolos feluccas are not so deep since the lake itself is shallow. In the sea it’s a different story altogether. While fishermen have long used motors to power feluccas, I was more interested in capturing the traditional ones,” El-Missary told Ahram Online minutes before the exhibition opened.
With a vast repertoire of photographs captured in places like Lake Borolos, Fayoum, Aswan and the fishing village of El-Max in Alexandria, El-Missary sought out artist Samah Emam after coming across her impressive paintings of boats at a 2013 exhibition.
The artists got down to business immediately. Emam selected around 20 of El-Missary’s photographs to recreate on canvas.
"Shake a leg, Abdelkhalek, and God will grant you sustenance," reads the caption of these works of art, which is written by photographer Inji Amer. (Photos: Nourhan Tewfik)
“I tried to retain the photos’ composition, but also employed my own vision. In certain paintings I eliminated some of the photo’s components, which is typical of the painting process, when you feel you can exclude some elements,” Imam explained.
To forge a continuity between the art mediums the photographs were printed onto canvas instead of the usual MDF.
One of the works shows a fisherman in action. Atop his boat, he is gathering the fishing net. In El-Missary’s photograph earthly colors dominate and capture the beauty of the moment. “This is one of the photos I love the most,” El-Missary said. “I took many photos of this fisherman because I really liked how the fishnet, and not the water, was beneath the boat.”
In Emam’s adaptation, color is sovereign. The background is in shades of deep blue and black, the boat is turquoise, and the net is a vibrant yellow and adorned with jaunty colors.
"The Sheikh of fisherman, stands for his men. He is in a state of contentment and stands with much poise," reads the caption of these works of art, which was written by photographer Inji Amer. (Photo: Nourhan Tewfik)
“I wanted to interpret the photo as a manifestation of the knot. You know when everything is so intricately complex around you and you try to solve it all? So that the fishing net symbolises not only seeking daily sustenance, but also the attempt to untangle life's riddles,” Emam explained.
“I prefer re-imagining the original work rather than merely copying it. With this exhibition I wanted to give something of myself in each painting,” Emam added.
Walking through the exhibition, we come across a photo of Sheikh Al-Sayadeen (The fishermen's Sheikh) in Lake Borolos. El-Missary’s shot brilliantly portrays the sheikh’s poise and state of reda (contentment).
Emam’s adaptation excludes some background detail and centres on the sheikh himself. The expanses of canvas embrace her layered colors.
“I use a palette knife instead of a paint brush, which allows me to spread colours on top of each other and add layers to each painting’s composition. I don’t like to be confined, so I prefer bigger canvases to let it all out,” Emam said.
Here, four fragments amalgamate photography and painting. El-Missary printed the photo on canvas, and Emam proceeded to add her own artistic vision on the set of photos themselves. (Photo: Nourhan Tewfik)
Felucca as a manifestation of life
That said, El-Missary and Emam’s vision of the felucca transcends its conventional uses as a source of income for fishermen or a joyous mode of transport on the Nile.
No, for these artists hail the felucca as a symbol of life and its stages. They take the audience through a felucca’s lifespan, from the onset of youth until old age and eventually being forsaken on the seashore.
A powerful feeling of senescence is communicated by a photograph of an old felucca lying by the water shore, abandoned and in terrible condition. Emam’s interpretation, showed alongside it, preserves the gloominess while introducing layered color, a lighter background and omitting background details.
“Life will never be steeped in eternal youth,” El-Missary commented on that piece.
“Here, you see the old felucca in a state of anticipation. It is waiting for people. It is looking for fish. At one point it was as beautiful as a bride, but now it lies abandoned, typical of life,” he went on.
A felucca captured by El-Missary is reintroduced by Emam in the painting to the right. The exhibition's photographs and paintings were printed on canvas, instead of wooden MDF boards. (Photos: Nourhan Tewfik)
An amalgam of photography and painting, Fluka also lends importance to written word. Lines steeped in tradition written by photographer Inji Amer comment on the essence of the work.
The following, in Arabic, accompanies the deserted felucca: “A boat brimming with life, I once was. But this life is a betrayer; it threw me by the seashores. It has left neither a friend, nor a companion.”
El-Missary and Emam’s collaboration hits a different note with a set of paintings divided into four fragments, depicting a group of fishermen gathering round a felucca readying for a long journey. Its brilliance lies in its unique union of photography and painting.
El-Missary captured the shots using the high dynamic range (HDR) imaging technique, and printed it on a large canvas. Instead of painting an interpretation on a new canvas, Emam added her own vision onto the photographs themselves.
As El-Missary put it, they “embraced a direct fusion between both forms of art.”
"A boat brimming with life, I once was. But this life is a betrayer; it threw me by the seashores. It has left no friend, or companion,” reads the caption that accompanies these works of art, and which was written by photographer Inji Amer. (Photo: Nourhan Tewfik)
“My aim was to conserve the blend. I didn’t add much paint but focused on emphasizing the fishermen,” Emam commented.
While El-Missary’s opus includes collaborations with other painters as well as a recent project with sculptor Galal Gomaa, such initiatives were not united by a single theme. Fluka marks El-Missary’s first joint project with another artist on the same subject.
This collaboration, El-Missary said, is important because “creativity in art doesn't just entail producing good-quality art, but also offering new ideas. We’ve surely depicted feluccas before, but what’s beautiful here is that we’re two different artists dealing with the same subject, each one of us interpreting it in their own distinctive way.”
The exhibition opened on 17 September and runs till 30 September
Egyptian Centre for International Cultural Cooperation
11 Shagaret Al-Durr Street, Zamalek, Cairo
For more arts and culture news and updates, follow Ahram Online Arts and Culture on Twitter at @AhramOnlineArts and on Facebook at Ahram Online: Arts & Culture