Omar Gabr is the youngest artist I have ever met, having noticed his work at two group exhibitions at the Ubuntu Art Gallery in Zamalek.
Born in 1999 to a working-class family in the densely populated Cairo suburb of Shubra Al-Khaima, Gabr was afflicted with cancer as a child, and art helped him overcome the pain. “Although I suffered a lot, I consider myself a lucky person. Cancer allowed the artist in me to breathe.”
Likewise the fact that cancer prevented him from continuing his studies in the normal way, and he earned a vocational degree instead: “I believe it was a good thing that I did not study art academically, which allowed me to experiment and work freely. When I was 16, I started taking workshops, then I was introduced by chance to the One Shot Painting group, whose founder, artist Abdel-Aziz El-Guindy helped me a lot.”
Gabr first showed his work in 2015 when he took part in a group exhibition at Cairo Atelier. In 2016, he participated in the Youth Salon, where his 144 by 144 cm acrylic on canvas self-portrait was warmly celebrated by the press. Featuring a dark-skinned young man sitting in his bedroom, bare-chested and absentminded, seems to show the effects of chemotherapy.
Though conservative simple people, Gabr’s family never stood in the way of his career. “They merely worried about finances, but when I started to sell paintings and I could invite them to the galleries to show them, that was exciting.”
Gabr’s work mirrors his environment and his portraits of disinherited people looking distressed are among the most outstanding I’ve seen. His first solo exhibition at the Easel and Camera Gallery, “The Phase” (2018), was a small works show featuring pop art portraits reflecting issues of identity and history in Egypt.
One painting shows a mummified woman giving the viewer the middle finger, another – on a sheet of paper from a notebook – shows a little boy surrounded by calligraphy performing the same gesture: “‘The Phase’ was a true reflection of my disturbances and my chaotic notions about art. It was a completely new field to me and I wasn’t sure if I was a real artist.”
More recently at the Ubuntu Gallery, Gabr contributed a cartoonish series featuring aubergines (a symbol of not only of resilience, being poor people’s food) together with Japanese sumo wrestlers (the desperate struggle for survival): “This work reflects an inner struggle, the sense of frustration that prevents you from working and your determination to keep going.” It is both sexual and social-economic.
“I do not do sketches,” Gabr says. “I prefer to experiment on the surface of the canvas. But I love to doodle; my sketch book is a playground.” Along with Gabr’s newest work, in this collection the artist makes fun of society’s hypocrisies and double standards. “I don’t care about art schools, but I believe I belong in the school of black comedy. I like to induce laughter out of tragic situations.”
He mentions Andy Warhol, David Hockney, and Emilio Villalba as influences. “My dream is to win a scholarship to study art in Europe. I want to exhibit in the famous international galleries and visit museums. Most of my previous work is derived from my own experiences. And the same is true of what’s coming up.
“I am planning a new project about wrongful medical practices in Egypt. It is inspired by the chaotic medical treatment I have experienced. I’ve already done some paintings, and I developed a new icon: blue gloves together with pots and pans. At home, I have a private room, which is also my humble studio, where I produce art and interact with mahraganat music and Louis Armstrong. Now that I’ve started selling art, I will be going independent. And this makes me feel good,” he beams, inviting me to look through his sketchbook with him.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 24 September, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly