Art with a potent energy of mythic folklore flows through the gallery.
Mostafa El-Razzaz has revisited and reworked unfinished paintings to be showcased in this exhibition, as if sifting through the past and bringing it into the future. Infected with revolutionary hope, the artist has injected a jubilant persona into all his works. The white walls are absolutely bombarded with Razzaz’s subtly expressive canvases that range from fisherman representations to musical instruments to sculptures. Overpowered by the sheer colour emanating off the wall, you mistake your location for a moment or two, for an underwater trip.
El-Razzaz’s artwork is bedecked with a dream-like quality. He creates a vibrant ecosystem of magical creatures with wide, staring eyes. But walking and sifting through the collection, you cannot help but notice the artist’s versatility. The space is packed with paintings and sculptures of contrasting styles, to the extent that you start to wonder if you have stumbled into a collective exhibition. And in a way, it is. El-Razzaz has combined artwork from over the years, and added a revolutionary twist to them.
El-Razzaz tells Ahram Online that the idea behind his exhibition, materialised half a century ago. “In 1962, I learned of the story of a shop keeper who combined loose, discarded pages of books to create a book dubbed sweeping from the shop,” El-Razzaz reminisces. “Years later, writer Yehia Hakki also published an assortment of his literary works under the same title.”
The concept of combining discarded material to create a substantial body of work really appealed to the artist. While preparing for this exhibition, it occurred to El-Razzaz that he had many unfinished works in storage. Maybe, he thought, it was time to sweep the shop.
El-Razzaz says he is accustomed to painting a few paintings at once. Well how much is a few paintings? “Eighty. I usually rotate among canvases, working on different parts.”
The artist says he works on his collections simultaneously to achieve a sense of harmony. The multiple layers that characterise his artwork ensure a sense of cohesion among his themed exhibitions. A busy and chaotic studio comes to mind, an artist drenched in colour and surrounded by half-painted canvases.
“I found my note from 1962, in which I was telling myself of the shop sweep,” El-Razzaz says nostalgically. The artist started working on unfinished pieces, binding them together in this exhibition. The 70-year-old artist has painted fishermen, chess, musical instruments, and characters.
This time, he does not limit his collection to one theme; you spot elements from the artist’s beloved range of subjects around the spacious hall. The collection appears like a haphazard, yet comprehensive catalogue of the artist’s accumulated subject matters, painted in a wide array of techniques.
The artist’s sculptures in this exhibition are utterly fascinating. From a chubby bird to a graceful body seemingly dancing in the air, the artist moulds materials with spontaneity and evokes a sense of motion. The sculptures emerge as extensions of the paintings, bringing them to life. “I am very pleased with my progress in sculpture for this exhibition,” he says.
“This exhibition is unlike the rest. It is filled with exuberance, and hope,” El-Razzaz reflects.
It is inspiring to see the effervescent growth that lasts throughout an artist’s career. In a way, artists are forever a sponge, soaking up inspiration from the world around them, their skills malleable and flexible. El-Razzaz says he has been extremely inspired by Egypt’s January 25 revolution.
“I feel very strongly about the revolution,” El-Razzaz says. “I believe that despite all the obstacles, there is no way that the revolution will not survive.”
El-Razzaz says, “We, the older generation, represent the sunset, while the revolutionary youth represent the sunrise. We should not try to stand in the way, or ridicule the sunrise.”
El-Razzaz was born in Dekahlya in 1942, but his art and studies took him around the world. He joined the art world as early as the mid sixties, and has been a prominent feature of the contemporary Egyptian art scene ever since. He received his doctorate from the State University of New York in 1979. He was president of the Folk Society, chaired the Visual Art Committee and was the Dean of the College of Education.
El-Razzaz is not merely an artist; he is also a thinker. His work is catalysed by diverse aspects of Egyptian culture that he renders on canvas, in effect creating his own anthology of folkloric tales based on true stories.
‘Sweepings from the shop’ flaunts the artist’s versatility, and reveals the wide range of influences that influence his work. One painting is a Picasso-style abstract portrait, with sharp lines that dissect the visage. The colours are bright, and joyful. Another painting is a still life of a nude man in a boat, with pyramids in the vicinity. This one has a contrasting style, reminiscent of Salvador Dali’s timeless surrealist paintings. Further, his stretched sculptures are evocative of the works of Swiss sculptor Alberto Giacometti, with their elongated bodies and loose structure.
While the Egyptian draws on many foreign artists for technical inspiration, his work bears a distinct folkloric character. The gallery is bombarded with small-scale paintings with big stories. El-Razzaz’s beloved fish make a heavy appearance in this exhibition. One enchanting painting shows a large fish and a nude woman intertwined, captured in a fishnet. The painting is utterly gasp-inducing. The two bodies are intertwined to show their interlinked fates.
The exhibition is packed with wonders, an hour is hardly enough to take it all in. A few circular paintings are on the other hand anticlimactic. Painted in flat colour in contrast with El-Razzaz’s masterful etchings and layered colours, spheres show the same subject matter, men and women with horses and birds, but they appear stagnant. This overly stylised and ornamented pieces bring to mind Ottoman art, where patterns and horses figured prominently.
Despite the fact that El-Razzaz draws on life in Egypt for inspiration, his paintings and their mythical creatures are unfettered by reality. El-Razzaz presents worldly things, such as music, fishing, and nature in an otherworldly manner. And that, is art.
The exhibition will run until 25 March.
Picasso Art Gallery, 30 Hassen Assem St., Zamalek
Opening hours: 10:30am-4:00pm and 8:00pm-11:00pm