Entitled “Passive constructions”, Islam Zaher’s new exhibition comprising 25 paintings in different sizes is a unique, horrifying, visual experience. It is inspired by the Pink Floyd song “Echoes”, featured in a documentary on the band’s Pompeii amphitheatre performance produced in 1972, the year Zaher was born. It recounts the 79 AD incident of volcanic lava burying the city, to be lost until 1748 when the mummified bodies of the victims were unearthed as statues.
“Their horrified eyes, crossed arms in front of their faces desperately trying to prevent the inevitable, and other scenes in the documentary have occupied my mind for years, especially while driving from Downtown to my home in Haram, where I pass scenes of construction and demolition of unlicensed buildings in slums. The struggle between demolition and construction might intensify to the point of such partly damaged buildings being inhabited by featureless people. It is as if fragmented residents are part of the incomplete scene.”
Islam Zaher’s painting
Born in 1972, Zaher graduated from the Faculty of Fine Arts, Helwan University, in 1994. He participated in many group exhibitions, giving five of his own: “Out of the Vacuum” in 2005; “Intuited Happiness” in 2010; “Space” in 2010; “Pink and Lamentation” in 2015; and “Remnants of Enchantment” in 2017. His unifying theme is human presence in nature, tackled from a range of psychological and philosophical viewpoints. Zaher is not as feverishly prolific as other artists. He gives an exhibition only when he feels a given project is complete.
“Back in college, I was not a big fan of traditional landscapes or cityscapes. I believed that painting was an expression of oneself and I had no connection with places like the streets of Islamic Cairo. So I sketched and painted my own neighbourhood. And I haven’t painted buildings ever since. There are many streams that triggered the scenes of my current collection, most importantly the lyrics and music of the song, pictures and screenshots and my cityscape sketches. Rock music is a synonym for resistance of traditional values, clamour and explosion, which normally affected my paintings. As for the title, I have always worked on such contradictory concepts. These dichotomies are the basis of any philosophical approach. The title combines contradictory meanings of vitality and apathy, the passive and the active.”
Islam Zaher’s painting
The pieces on show honestly and fiercely reflect the struggle between life and death, perfection and incompleteness. They tackle alienation and the meaning of human existence. It took the artist two years to complete the collection, which includes complete studies of objects as well as paintings. Using a dark palette and strong brushstrokes, the paintings look like designs for live scenes of a demolished city. In an expressionist style, it makes up a tour of a virtual city in the aftermath of destruction. Is it the end of the world, the termination of life, or more symbolically the defeat of good in favour of evil?
One 50cm by 70cm piece in charcoal and mixed media on cotton paper features the skeleton of a wooden chair in the middle of an empty space. The background is made up of heavy charcoal pencil strokes. Another, 120cm by 120cm piece in oil and acrylic on canvas shows a recumbent statue in white surrounded by brown debris — society collapsing. Four 35.5cm by 25.2cm pieces in charcoal and crayons on paper are studies of the same sparsely executed figure in a concrete space, perhaps representing the artist himself in his meditative process.
In Motherhood, a 50cm by 60cm oil on canvas, a mummified female nude with a tarnished rabbit-like face is hugging an invisible baby with debris and a distant, indistinct figure in the background. It is not clear whether this is an image of people dying or of people once they have died. Here as elsewhere Zaher makes an eloquent — prophetic — statement on the world’s ongoing apocalyptic state. Sadly, but appropriately, it is unclear when viewers might see these paintings next.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 26 March, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly