The world of Egypt's painter, illustrator Ihab Shaker captured in retrospective at Mahmoud Khalil museum
Nevine Lamei, Friday 5 Jan 2018
The retrospective solo exhibition by one of the most renowned Egyptian illustrators, painters and animators Ihab Shaker, unveils six decades of the artist's work


Until January 28, Cairo’s Ofok Gallery in the Mahmoud Khalil Museum will hold a retrospective exhibition dedicated to the renowned Egyptian painter, illustrator and animator Ihab Shaker (born in Cairo, 1933). The exhibition was inaugurated on 28 November 2017 with the attendance of Minister of Culture Helmy El-Namnan and Head of the Fine Arts Sector Khaled Sorour.

Revolving around a few major themes, the display allows the viewer to dive into the unique universe -- sometimes poetic, sometimes playful -- of the artist. It is a walk through the 60 years of the artist’s career, time during which this painter and illustrator documented the visual memory of Egypt.

We are in front of a creative epopee in a sense, one that begins in year 1960 and which the artist describes in the exhibition’s catalogue, stressing that he tries to show how to make our life more beautiful. He highlights aspects of our heritage that can help us better withstand the paradoxes of the world. With women and music coming on top of the list, a man dances with them following the desires of his heart.

The exhibition presents some thirty works, paintings, watercolors, pencil sketches, comic strips and drawings published in the press.

First, we visit Shaker's paintings representing musicians. The paintings which date back to the 2000s, show musicians in action, on stage or elsewhere. Some seem to sing very loudly, play their cymbals, sometimes lose their balance, interweaving tragedy and comedy apparent on their musicians’ faces.

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Some musicians are in ecstasy, in a state of trance with their instruments, among the backdrop of a gloomy and weary air. In a certain way, they resemble whirling dervishes, caught in the whirlwinds of the movement which the illustrator loves, enamored with everything that moves.

An old lute player is sitting with a red tarboosh on his head, a suit and a tie. He comes from distant times and indulges in Taqassim as the work’s title suggests, or improvisations.

Another musician bends over his lute, as if embracing it with love; he is in a state of Ensegam (harmony), as the title specifies. Then there is the mizmar (oriental flute) player, painted in watercolor, in a work titled Duo.

Opposing the rigorism of the twentieth century, Shaker infuses the real objects and people with a poetic dimension that is his own. He thus unleashes a "new realism," as he himself says, to denounce human mediocrity.

Shaker’s works thus constitute a form of refusal, a cynical declaration. But his refusal carries a lot of beauty, that of colour. It is a refusal which helps us to overcome the difficulties of life, to make it more cheerful. And when Shaker’s subjects become pained at times, like the clown in tears, the nostalgia takes over our emotions.

We also meet women, musicians, chubby, sensual -- they become a beautiful Source of Music, as title of one of Shaker’s paintings captures. In the artist's inspiration, women are seductive and erotic, and their dances represents “the movement as time,” as Shaker puts it.

In other words, Shaker’s musicians are all about life. The characters float to the rhythms of music that emerges from the painting and its very own composition.

Those are the stories that the artist offers to us, all with great skill and incredible imagination.

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The second major theme of the exhibition is woman, or the woman captured through time as she transforms from one canvas to another, depending on the circumstances.

The Virgin and the Child (1968), set in light and serene tones, is a peasant with the big forms that in many ways resemble those of Galette (2005), the Circus Acrobat (1958), the Mouled Doll (1987), or an African Holding Two Watermelons (1993).

Shaker’s feminine characters are always in search of a protector, a watchman, who is often represented in the form of a rooster, sometimes close to a lover or a husband. Regardless the animal, the perfect harmony is always well preserved.

We also see a more playful world, with drawings for the press and illustrations for children. This is the third major theme of the retrospective exhibition.

From 1956, Shaker was part of the team of the Sabah El-Kheir magazine, becoming one of the most prominent artists among the avant-garde designers of the time.

In Sabah El-Kheir, Shaker has released several cartoon strips targeting mainly children, including series such as Television Generation, Parabolic Generation, Electronic Generation and the Generation of Www.com.

"In order to create works for children, one must have an element of a child in his soul,” Shaker comments.

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The display also includes cartoons that he published in the Egyptian newspaper El-Gomhouriya between 1954 and 1957. It is there that Shaker created the Bahlawan Family, a family consisting of acrobats and jugglers, a metaphor of people struggling with everyday life and far from the circus arena.

Then, in 1960, he launched another series entitled Forqoeloz which he published in the weekly magazine Rose El-Youssef.

Not to forget his books and plays for children, whose posters and covers are also exhibited, such as a book Tom Thumb in the Kingdom of the Ants, and the play The Music Begins (1967), transposed to the stage by his brother, renowned Egyptian puppeteer Naguib Shaker.

In 1972, his play titled Ebtessamati (My Smile) brought international attention to Ihab Shaker. The work has been staged in French at the Châtillon Cultural Center in Paris. He subsequently represented Egypt as animator in four festivals in France.

Shaker also held solo exhibitions in Austria, Spain, Jordan, Japan, and other countries.

One of the paintings displayed at the gallery Ofok was selected by the Egyptian Modern Art Museum to be part of its permanent collection. The painting titled Oriental Melodies (2009) represents a violinist in a cubist style.

The exhibition continues until 28 January in the Ofok Gallery at the Mahmoud Khalil Museum, 1 Kafour Street, Giza.

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This article was translated from Al Ahram Hebdo (French) and edited by Ahram Online.

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