Roses are associated with love and romance, but they take on a different meaning in “Cup of Roses”. In this collection of paintings by Emad Abdel-Wahab — currently on show at the Dai Gallery — roses are a metaphor that combines sensuality with loneliness, reflecting on the wilting beauty of women in an Arab society. The women are the roses, society the cup.
Combining acrylics and oils (often on the same canvas), these huge pieces feature free-flowing nude figures. In one, two women — one sleeping, one sitting on the ground — are partly covered by the same blanket. The one on the ground looks to the one who is asleep. Her face is not visible but a balloon-like shape full of red roses rises from her head, balancing out a cup at the bottom of the canvas and suggesting communication between them.
Here as elsewhere the cup and the blanket — or carpet — are the key players, with a background full of stains implying blemishes or passivity and an odd, bold, surprisingly harmonious palette: green, purple, yellow, brown and blue. The cup manoeuvres its way around each canvas, it is inverted at the top or it is transparent in the middle, always positioned in relation to the roses which variously adorn the women’s bodies or fly in various directions around them. The cover connects the women and protects them from both the cup and the roses.
As a young artist, Abdel-Wahab — who, after graduating from Alexandria University’s Faculty of Fine Arts in 1998, earned a diploma from Rome’s International Institute for Restoration in 2004 — was drawn to the grassroots: popular celebrations, children’s games and other manifestations of life in Egypt. He earned his PhD in the philosophy of art in 2006, and received the State Incentive Award in portraiture in 2007 (for a series of tormented faces). He has often worked on male-female relationships and conflict.
“I was the first Egyptian artist to participate in restoration works at the Vatican,” he says proudly, which taught him how to control colours and mediums. It was also an opportunity to learn and practise drawing live nudes, which is not possible in Egypt. It helped to liberate me from the conservative mindset and enabled me to have a different perspective on life. Among the things I’ve come to see is how our repressive, male-dominated society has in many cases forced women to let go of their femininity in order to deal with the schizophrenic double standards.”
This has been a constant focus of Abdel-Wahab’s since his provocative 2009 exhibition Al-Kasiyat (or The Clothed) at the Opera House, showing women in ultraconservative clothing with the details of their bodies showing through). His next exhibition, “Saffron”, focused on traditional — exorcists’, faith healers’ and quacks’ — treatments of women’s psychiatric and social problems: saffron-water showers, lice removal and many such senseless rituals.
“Roses are also a symbol of the duplicity of values now prevailing in Egyptian society,” Abdel-Wahab says. “I wanted to reveal these contradictions, so that in the end the viewer will see there really is no cup of roses.”
The flatness of the figures suggests the possibility that they are all aides of the same single woman whose monologue the exhibition exposes us to. The faces are always obscured, and where there are clothes they evoke the strange juxtapositions of Wahhabi societies, with ultraconservative dress codes undercut by very casual touches.
“Arab societies have fallen into a trap: they can neither switch to modern dress nor stick with traditional dress. But I also want to show how women are seen as sex objects and the role of religion in what women are allowed to wear — how niqab can be used to criminal ends, for example. The idea first came to my mind when I travelled to Kuwait four years ago. I found out that male-female relations and concepts of sex are much worse there,” he said. “The longer I stayed, the more the idea developed. I finally started this project last year. I wanted to restructure the connotations of words and concepts so as to find a way to turn these phenomena to meaningful dialogues. In the end, roses are just a symbol, it could be anything opposing the confusion.”
* A version of this article appears in print in the 15 November 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Withered roses
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