Bold young art emerges once again in one of Cairo’s most prominent contemporary art spaces. Ahmed Sabry’s solo exhibition, The True Story of Mohannad’s Death, tackles modern-day Egyptian politics daringly with painted caricatures that shed satirical light on familiar icons, eliciting the shocked giggles of viewers on the opening night 1 April, at the Mashrabia Gallery in downtown Cairo.
Sabry painted a series of identically sized frames in subdued colours, stringing text with caricature-style images to comment on the rise of Islamists, the remains of Mubarak regime and other hot topics. The young artist’s visual parodies highlight the comically chaotic post-revolution political scene.
The Mashrabia, which is located a few minutes’ walk away from Tahrir Square, now holds snapshots of a year of revolutionary repercussions. Sabry portrays prominent political figures and Islamists in thin contours and faded colours, adding a subtitle at the lower third of each canvas to make a witty, often offensive statement.
The pieces have a faded façade, like pages torn out of an old book. Sabry records the history of the transformation of Egypt on canvas, illustrating his dissatisfaction with today’s sociopolitical dynamics. His paintings are reminiscent of newspaper caricatures, loosely coloured yet sending a single, strong and chuckle-inducing message.
Sabry’s compositions resemble television screens, a feature of his previous solo exhibition at Mashrabia in 2010, which was titled El Prince TV and revolved around the media and its hold on people’s perception. In the present show, Sabry recreates widely circulated Facebook posts on canvas.
Sabry graduated from the Faculty of Art Education, Helwan University, in 2004 but he has been exhibiting in private and public galleries since 2002. The 30-year-old artist was born in Minya but now lives in Cairo. He belongs with a young generation of artists who are becoming extremely versatile; individuals who do not limit themselves to one medium or another, but rather delve into many different art forms such as graffiti, digital and video art and photography.
This collection is not unlike Politica, Ahmed Kassem’s recent exhibition at the Safarkhan Gallery in Zamalek, in which the artist illustrated the political scene through oversized board games such as snakes and ladders sprawling with familiar socio-political symbols.
At the opening of Sabry’s exhibition on Sunday evening, young artists such as Hany Rashed, video artist Ahmed El Shaer and sculptor Ahmed Askalany paraded around the gallery. This was the generation that produced Ahmed Bassiouny, the digital artist who was martyred during the first week on the January revolution. Since 25 January, artists have been fighting for freedom in Tahrir Square and beyond.
It is only natural perhaps that Sabry’s collection should be so utterly controversial and uncensored. He does not leave any red lines uncrossed; he renders political jokes in Quraan-like calligraphy, writes swearwords in the place of holy text, ridicules SCAF figures and Islamists. Nor is he coy about any of it.
Through his thick black glasses, Ahmed Sabry explains the idea behind The True Story of Mohannad’s Death. He was extremely irritated at a false news item he saw on Facebook, claiming that Mohannad, the star of a Turkish soap opera that has become widely popular in Egyptian society, was murdered. “My exhibition is about the strange behaviour of people, and their unreasonable reactions,” he says. “There is no Mohannad, and there is no news…”
Sabry reveals the story of one of his most shocking paintings: a number of smiling boys, outlined in red, stuffed into a plastic bag each, floating around against blue clouds, mingling with brown text depicting a colloquial swearword. “This was originally advertising material by the Salafist Nour Party,” he says. “The original slogan read, ‘Salafist children in the bags of truth.’” The artist gives a pained smile, commenting on the frightening image.
Sabry draws on the principal carrier for pop culture in Egypt today, Facebook, for inspiration. The artist admits that he is constantly logged onto Facebook, “inspecting the unfolding events through that lens”. He recreates one of liberal MP Amr Hamzawy’s star moments in parliament, for example, and a popular joke about the former PM Ahmed Shafik. Through bringing such familiar icons to the gallery walls, Sabry blurs the lines between art, culture, and politics. “Things are very chaotic right now, and people are dazed and confused,” says Sabry. “It’s normal for people to fail, and try again. That is, if they still have the will to do so.”
The artist’s voice is drained of optimism, and the paintings on the walls do not exactly foreshadow a better future. Yet the energy to criticise is there.
Mashrabia Art Gallery
8 Champollion Street, Downtown Cairo
Opening hours: Daily (except Fridays) from 11am to 8pm
The exhibition will run until 26 April