“Omar Al-Fayoumi in 40 years” is the title of an exhibition which took place last month at the brand new Tahrir Culture Center at the American University in Cairo old campus in Tahrir. Held at the Margo Veillon Hall — two spacious rooms and a small attic — the exhibition included some 95 paintings in acrylic and oil.
Al-Fayoumi’s usual themes — cafés, portraiture and street life — are clearer than ever now as they recur at different points in the artist’s career. But it is the vividness of his palette that continues to enthrall.
Born in 1957, Al-Fayoumi graduated from the murals department of the Faculty of Fine Arts in 1981, travelling to Russia to earn his PhD in 1991.
Ever since, his paintings have been showcased in many venues in Cairo. The artist’s early paintings, made in 1980s, reflect a passion for classic portraiture. Influenced by his mentor Hamed Nada, he started sketching popular cafés in 1980s.
According to the artist, with whom I had the opportunity to chat in Tahrir, his life’s work should be divided into before and after Russia. Before Russia, classic and experimental portraiture dominated. After, there were the cafés.
Omar Al-Fayoumi's work
In the 1990s, his passion for portraying life at popular cafés came to the fore. It was arguably his 2012 cafés exhibition that inducted him into the hall of fame of modern Egyptian art. But there are plenty of other subjects. “This was definitely influenced by the 2011 Revolution,” Al-Fayoumi told me. “It’s influenced by my mood and the political atmosphere.”
And there are plenty of other subjects. Women, for example. One acrylic and oil on board from 1998 features a romantic nude holding a bunch of flowers, while a conservative woman’s gaze dominates a 2016 painting featuring flower patterns on her nightgown and the wall.
Another powerful motif is cats, which he regards as spiritual beings. In one acrylic on canvas from 2010, two cats sit on a window sill. The black-and-white one turns away from the pane while the brown regards the greenery outside. In the more recent paintings, cats reappear as a companion or a partner of a female figure.
Omar Al-Fayoumi's work
A 2019 collection of male and female profiles struck me as somewhat carelessly executed, made to look like ugly and unfriendly dwarves, intimidating and repugnant — but could this be a new development in the artist’s vision?
Al-Fayoumi says so: “They reflect the impact of cruel social and economic conditions. I believe an artist should be wide-ranging enough to be able change his style, his themes.”
Nudes take up significant space in the exhibition. “It is something that’s been part of my career since the beginning,” he says. “But it’s been reasserting itself.” It was never erotic, however. In the past it was about beauty, now it is a way of portraying deformity.
There is also a pair of scrap iron sculptures. They depict a free-spirited figure, playful and cheerful. The sculptures date back to 1997, when Al-Fayoumi accidentally ran into some debris from a workshop. “I thought, why not try to form a figure? It was a good thing to play with. Isn’t art is about playing after all? I am seriously thinking about resuming this cheerful play with refuse...”
* A version of this article appears in print in Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Four decades later
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