In the most recent solo exhibition by veteran artist Samir Fouad, which he gives no title, three phases of a rich career peacefully coexist, overlapping on several occasions. The show, which closed on 16 January at the Picasso Art Gallery, combines abstract cityscapes with pop art and figurative abstraction.
The first collection I encountered on entering the gallery depicts the moment of collision of multiple objects. A fantastic scene, it is a portrayal of the aftermath and the horror we feel on registering the passage of time. The scenes recall demolition in fast forward mode, reflecting fast brushstrokes that suggest various ghostly creatures: a black bird with a long beak, a dead body... Black, white, yellow and red – the colours of the Egyptian flag – preponderate, perhaps symbolizing historical time.
The influence of Francis Bacon is immediately evident, but as Fouad himself reveals, it is also the work of one of Bacon’s own influences, the English-American photographer who studied motion, Eadweard Muybridge. Thus “cityscape”, as Fouad, 75, calls it: “Cityscape is different from landscape. Living in capital cities, Cairo and London, I am affected by the chaos of cities, overwhelmed by buildings and the movement of material stuff.”
He has done cityscapes since 2010, when he also started painting swings and old Cairo alleyways. They vary in both size (30 by 40 cm to 160 by 100 cm) and speed. “It was a hard mission. Because, at this old age, it is not easy to go out of your comfort zone, in which many painters are imprisoned.” Pointing to one painting, he confides that it is a great source of energy. “It is not for sale,” he whispers.
Fouad defines a phase as dependent on “individual incentive”, when the artist worries about what comes next and “fear of repetition” leads to different work. The richest phase takes place when the artist is young, he says, discovering the full range of colours and themes.
“When we get older, we try not to repeat ourselves, we try to see things from different perspectives, and if we revisit a certain theme or technique, we do it to check, with our new expertise, if we still need to add more.” For example, he added, watercolour was a special phase that ended 12 years ago. “I would never think to revisit that phase because I have nothing more to add.”
Movement and time have always been focal themes, but they too have changed. “Movement has now become more consistent. Lines and figures had always been running from left to right. Today, a radical change took place; movement could be noticed everywhere in the painting, circular and spiral, and in conflicting strokes,” he explains. “The change happened simultaneously with a significant change of mood. This is why you can observe more energy reflected by the paintings, compared to my previous works. I feel that the remaining time is far shorter than time that has passed. It is a struggle against perdition.”
Other than terrifying time, which passes irrespective of our will, portraits of women are among the themes that have persisted, a symbol of struggle against traditional values that shackle the society’s development.
Further into the hall are Fouad’s pop art paintings. One features an old advertisement of an old man sipping a cup of tea: Shai El Shiekh El Shareeb, which might be translated as “Connoisseur’s Cup Tea”. The medium speed of the brush, which partly tarnishes the man’s facial features, is a reference to the passage of time. Here as elsewhere pop art is more of a tool than a style, and Fouad approaches it with clarity and irony as Andy Warhol did.
In the third collection, figurative abstractions, the viewer is invited on a contemplative journey. One depicts a bus with open windows moving at speed, with the faces of delighted young women, waving their hands to the passersby creating doubled images. They could be girls on their way for a school trip, or female prisoners on their way to confinement. The windows take up only a third of the upper space of the painting, with the two lower thirds painted in baby blue and white.
A reflection of the sky? A glimpse of hope? It is about happiness and sadness, imprisonment and freedom, the mixed messages that life always sends us. “It is part of my character. My mentality is more into calculations and philosophy, due to my long career in digital engineering,” he explained.
Born in 1944, Fouad first went to Britain when he was 20 on a scholarship from the University of Ain Shams’s Faculty of Engineering. He then married a British woman, and lived between Cairo and London, maintaining a career in engineering and visual arts until 2000 when decided to devote himself to art.
Three paintings show a mannequin alongside a human figure, the mannequin evoking something different in each. Mannequins appeared in art even before surrealism in the sculptures of Giorgio de Chirico, but Fouad’s, which appeared early in his career, worked as lifeless objects against a vivid landscape. Here they have a light dress on and no facial features – like a part of oneself with which one has lost touch – a symbol for the other, or for the absence of sexual fulfillment.
“For me, a mannequin is equivalent to impetus,” he says. An impressive 160 by 200 cm oil on canvas features two mannequin busts alongside two women, one in a red dress and the other in a white wedding dress, with a clown and red roses in the background. The unsettling juxtaposition evokes depression and sexual frustration.
In another, 170 by 130 cm painting, a sad, pregnant bride stands helplessly in front of a headless mannequin in a black night gown, with the bride’s belly button shaped like a shooting target. A shocking feeling of imminent catastrophe results. Surrealism has been one of the main features of Fouad’s painting since 1999, when he used the wooden horse as a symbol.
“After each exhibition, I keep worrying about the next project. However, something popped up in my mind in 2012. It is complete in my head, but the challenge is to connect my head to my hand,” he beams.
How do you explain the absence of an Egyptian art school or movement through out the last fifty years, I ask him.
“In the Seventies, an art movement was about to develop. However, the Wahhabi current ruined everything. In addition, the fact that artists of different generations live in isolated lands and the absence of real art criticism have contributed to the abortion of an actual art movement.”
*A version of this article appears in print in the 23 January, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.