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Saturday, 07 December 2019

The world according to Swedish artist Fabian Edelstam

Speaking as his first solo exhibition in Cairo takes place, the Swedish artist reminisces about today's world and how history continues to repeat itself

Ossama Lotfy Fateem , Friday 22 Feb 2019
Fabian Edelstam
An artwork by Fabian Edelstam (Photo: courtesy of: Gallery Misr)
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“History does not repeat itself but it often rhymes.”

Swedish artist Fabian Edelstam believes in this famous Mark Twain quote and with it he delves into it in his first solo exhibition held in Cairo.

In Multipolar World, which opened in Gallery Misr earlier this month and continues until Sunday, Edelstam reminisces about today's world. 

As the artist notices, all creative minds are affected by the politics of the world and often express it through their work.

“I feel that the world now is re living the pre-World War I atmosphere, it is multi polar, there are various super powers that are competing to protect their interests and forming alliances against each other… exactly the fundamental reasons for the Great War, we have a Tsar in Russia, a Chinese empire in addition to the traditional western powers and they are all in rivalry instead of cooperating to live in a better world," Edelstam told Ahram Online.

This pre-war feel brings fear to the artist. “Populism is back, the right wing is on the rise everywhere; we have been down that road before. A wakeup call is necessary to have a different outcome, one hopes.”

He decided to express his worry and even anxiety in the exact opposite way: through joyful art work. He chose pictures from various periods in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries to elaborate his ideas.

“It is an escape to happier times, more romantic, with a bit of nostalgia to optimism,” Edelstam explained.

His technique is really simple; he chooses a picture of importance to him (it can be stamp, an old photograph, a bank note or any similar object), then he forms a rough idea of what he is going to do with it. Afterwards he decides the size he wants to put it in, puts it on the computer, prints it, chooses the canvas then starts to cut it into squares and reconstructs the picture.

Fabian Edelstam
An artwork by Fabian Edelstam (Photo: courtesy of: Gallery Misr)

“It is like reconstructing a memory; it is not perfect, with holes in it, a mosaic, some pieces fit, others are missing and some are in disorder. I imagine that is how our memory and mind work."

Edelstam found his creativity formula in 1990 and followed it in his work ever since, which brings up the question of how innovative his work is.

"Each new piece is a new process and the creativity between choosing the subject, the reconstruction and the nonaligned squares outside the picture original frame give each picture a different light, message and meaning,” the artist clarifies.

Edelstam's work could be confused with that of an illustrator but he is clear that this is not his role.

“I am not an illustrator I am a mixed media artist, my work is between painting and photography, I do not restore old pictures to their original state, I reconstruct them and actually after I am done with my work, it is a whole new object, it becomes something else; it is like recycling art,” he smiles.

Many of the 17 pieces in this exhibition are about Egypt and the Middle East, for example film star Omar Sherif, an icon for Egypt in Hollywood and Europe, King Farouk and Queen Farida on their wedding day, Mostafa Pasha El-Nahas, prime minister and the nation’s leader during World War II, as well as Om Kalthoum, Egypt and the Arab World’s most beloved singer, while applying his formula of reconstruction with missing squares with a layer of colour to add a new dimension to the original image.

The personal touch manifests itself in a picture of his grandmother Anniere Edelstam.

“She was the one to teach me in my early childhood the love for art and I can still feel her influence on me. I chose her picture because she looks like Egyptian ladies of the 1940s and 1950s.”

Fabian Edelstam
An artwork by Fabian Edelstam (Photo: courtesy of: Gallery Misr)

Indeed, she looks a lot like the famous singer Asmahan. The red colour that he covered the original picture with gave the picture a new look of authenticity, a beautiful woman that seems to belong to that era, the region and certainly to the exhibition. The same can be said about the portrait of Om Kalthoum with the yellow paint covering her famous picture with the sunglasses next to the Sphinx makes the viewers see the picture differently, maybe in a curious way as to what is the point behind changing the original picture.

"I simply want to give life to forgotten images, events and resurrecting historical characters.” 

The artist's fondness of reading biographies means that many of his pieces are about people that he finds interesting. The portrait of Duke Wellington is exactly that. Everyone knows Napoleon’s picture and what he looks like, but those who know the name and the face of his conqueror are fewer.

Edelstam’s relation to Egypt and the Middle East is long-standing. He spent his honeymoon in Egypt in 2001 where he visited Cairo as well as Luxor and Aswan. After that, his visits to Egypt became regular, and he was eventually able to set up his exhibition in Cairo.

The Middle East culture has been in his family for generations. He grew up with Middle Eastern artefacts; he comes from a family of diplomats who were assigned to various posts in Middle Eastern countries, bringing home all kinds of souvenirs and antiques. The region was always in his mind and stirred his imagination.

Fabian Edelstam
An artwork by Fabian Edelstam (Photo: courtesy of: Gallery Misr)

“Despite getting back in time and living the present I am always moving towards the future. I believe that my work carries curiosity, the spirit of discovering another side of the past, the other side of the grass if you want,” he said.

His mean to for inspiration is travelling. “I travel whenever I can where ever possible, I do that with open eyes, looking for new ideas, getting to know people from different areas of the world, discovering and understanding their culture first-hand and eventually inserting my experiences into my work,” elaborated Edelstam.

Carrying a specific message or expressing a concern in his exhibitions is not new to Fabian. In 2012 his exhibition in Brussels had the title “the Europeans” as he had chosen the theme of homage to Europe, underlining that the dream of a peaceful Europe has come true. After two world wars and several armed conflicts that lasted for centuries, Europe was able to unify and reach the final stage of no more war on the continent.

That exhibition had the purpose of honouring the founders of the European Union, and reminding the world of their vision and ideas. Unfortunately last year he put on another exhibition in Bulgaria titled Trans Europa 2018, where he revisited the Balkan area and felt the fear of breaking up returning to the minds of Europeans again.

Edelstam’s unique style granted him many commissioned works with various entities within Europe and the Middle East (banks, law firms, governmental units and others). His pieces are in their buildings adding artistic value to the business world. This led to commissioned portraits for many famous figures in our world such as Giorgio Armani in 2004 and Ralph Lauren in 2009, to name a couple among many. He did not get close to all of them, but he found out that someone like Ralph Lauren shares his concerns and worries about the world that we are living in and the possible instability that might occur and destroy the world as we know it.

“Ralph is a self-made business man who came from a humble background and built an empire. When the financial bubble burst in 2006, he had to terminate a lot of people in his factories and find other ways to sell his product,” said Edelstam. The fact that someone of Ralph Lauren’s status feels insecure about his empire shows that the danger is real more than we imagine.

Finally, an interesting fact about Fabian Edelstam: he is a descendent of a family of artists; he is the seventh generation artist, and his first exhibition in Sweden was to highlight that fact. It was a collection of work by each artist in the family from the time of Napoleon III until now.

Fabian Edelstam
An artwork by Fabian Edelstam (Photo: courtesy of: Gallery Misr)

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