In her latest exhibition, 'Retraced' Mai Refki approaches the human figure philosophically in 31 astoundingly original paintings that combine figuration with pattern, movement and vivid colour. The exhibition ran at the Zamalek Art Gallery to close on 20 October.
A unique mix of figures and patterns has characterised her work since her solo debut, “Woman and Child”, held at the Gezira Art Centre in 2006. But with classically executed figures and the patterns on their clothes and in the background, Refki had not yet developed the concept into the expressionist wonders they are now.
A 1998 graduate of the Painting Department at the Faculty of Fine Art, Refki also studied Islamic art and architecture at the American University in Cairo, later earning the Traditional Islamic Arts and Crafts Diploma from Jameel House of Traditional Arts in Cairo. In 2012, she attended the Maumau Art Residency in Istanbul, giving an exhibition, “Transient Chronicles”, on the experience in 2013. Now that Refki has mastered her craft, with a complete understanding of pattern composition, she seems to be retracing her career with that knowledge added.
One painting, 110x110cm, is entitled Circles/Squares: A Reconstruction. It features three monochromatic human fingers interwoven in a circular movement. As in all other paintings they are outlined in charcoal and pencil. The background is pale yellow with a semi-circular pattern, while the unframed canvas provides the square shape. As in other paintings, the monochromatic human figures contrast with vivid colour. The effect is hypnotic.
“My story with patterns started simply while I was a student,” Refki explains. “I was influenced by painters such as Matisse, Paul Klee and Klimt, whose paintings were inspired by Islamic and Oriental Art. I liked that magical mixture of multiple spirits,” studying patterns from Iran and India as well as Egypt. “I was fascinated to learn that Islamic patterns originated in the art of previous civilisations, including ancient Egypt.” She also liked figures, colour and movement, and her career is very much an attempt to combine all three interests.
In the even bigger, 180x180cm Orbit, there are four figures with their heads at the centre and their limbs scattered around, interspersed by floral and geometric patterns including an eight-pointed star, a check and traditional khayamiya tent designs. The patterns are very different to each other, but they work together to create a harmony of motion and a space for meditation. The “dismemberment” technique, which helps her arrange and emphasise various details, suggests wild feelings and passions that tear people apart. In the end does the interplay of figures and designs reflect a thematic duality such as old and new, life and death, etc?
“Yes,” Refki says, “but you could also read other meanings.” She never has a prior plan when she starts a painting, she says, but the various elements work together as it develops. “I enjoy developing new patterns based on the old, established ones; adding new colours, changing the rules, multiplying an element.” In some cases, as in the vertically tilted diptych named Half Empty, the design is half colour, half black-and-white. Here as in many other paintings Refki makes excellent use of light and shadow.
Some paintings like Twirl, another diptych, which features human figures from two different perspectives, seem to move faster than others. Feet or fists are separated from bodies and you can never tell which extremity fits where, or whether it belongs to a male or female body. The fists suggest rejection or self-defence while floral patterns and nude legs give an erotic impression. A single body, multiplied, seems to straggle both paintings. Refki speed-sketches her figures, making them androgynous and suggesting that gender doesn’t matter. But Refki’s sense of geometry goes further.
In Reflections, two pairs of paintings mirror each other, while In Four Acts features four female nudes one on top of another. The figure is identical in each case, but it is placed in different positions and against a different composition of shapes and colours so that each time they are rearranged they tell a different story. “Whatever your interpretation,” she beams, “it is a way to celebrate the awesome presence of the human figure.”
This article was first published on Al-Ahram Weekly.
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