Cinemania: Reminiscing about Egypt's past through reproductions of film posters

Injy Higazy, Monday 15 Jun 2015

Cinemania, an exhibition of film poster reproductions that opened at Darb 1718 is a journey aiming to re-mold the Egyptian cinematic past

Cinemania exhibition at Darb 1718 (Photo: Marwa Morgan)

In the lobby of theatres, people usually gather in front of film posters to kill time while waiting for a flick to start, but without really paying much attention to the ads lining the walls.

In this particular hall, however, the film posters also line the walls, but instead of remaining simply a background, the posters are the centre of attention.

Cinemania, an exhibition of reproduced film posters from the 1950s-1970s, looks into contemporary impressions and interpretations of vintage film posters.

Hosted in Darb 1718 and featuring the work of 11 young artists, the exhibition opening attracted dozens of young people.

Cinemania exhibition at Darb 1718 (Photo: Marwa Morgan)

Reviving the art of film posters in Egypt

Cinemania -- literally and metaphorically delineating the sweeping love of cinema -- is a journey that Hervé Pourcines, the project’s manager and curator, commenced over four years ago.

With the advent of the 2011 revolution, the exhibit Cinemania was put on hold as Pourcines shifted to revolutionary graffiti for a while, a project that culminated into his exhibition, Brain Damage, with 35 Egyptian artists held at Cairo’s Darb1718 as well.

“It was only a year-and-a-half ago that Cinemania was revived,” Pourcines tells Ahram Online.

Working with a number of artists from Brain Damage and other friends who were interested in the project, reproductions of vintage Egyptian film posters were made over the course of the year-and-a-half.

The creations employ various media tools such as photography, graphic design, and paint.

Cinemania is a concerted effort to shed light on the peculiar, and often sidelined, form of film-poster-making art.

By limiting itself to the three decades of the 1950s, 1960 and 1970s, the exhibition is duly focusing on poster painting in particular.

Its utilisation of mixed media in its recreation of a number of vintage film posters serves to situate the movies within a contemporary context as well.

Cinemania exhibition at Darb 1718 (Photo: Marwa Morgan)

Preparations for this project involved locating and collaborating with the few remaining painters specialised in film posters.

With his friend, filmmaker Kamal Abdul ’Aziz, Pourcines was able to meet with artist Mohamed Khalil, who passed away only a few months ago.

"Khalil contributed fourteen posters to the project, of which ten are on display at Cinemania,” Pourcines recounts.

Pourcines personally finances everything related to the project: from artists’ commissions to project funds and, finally, the rent of exhibition space.

“Cinemania is not a commercial endeavor,” he tells Ahram Online.

"The exhibition rather represents my attempt to shed light on this kind of art, film poster art, in Egypt, and to encourage Egyptians to value those posters for the artistic quality they retain."

Pourcines reminisces how those three decades – between 1950s and 1970s – mark the “golden age of [Egyptian] cinema,” years that granted Egyptian cinema an appeal that extended far beyond the geographical limits of the country.

“Cairo [was] the Hollywood of the Middle East,” Poucines believes.

Cinemania exhibition at Darb 1718 (Photo: Marwa Morgan)

Film Poster Art in Egypt

This fervent nostalgia for a bygone era of artistic production is embodied in calls to revive this era and its spirit, an era strictly juxtaposed to a contemporary one that is deemed to retain futile film production that lacks both artistic quality and intellectual stimulus.

Naturally, a resurgence of interest in this classic era’s film posters can be discerned as well.

The hand-painted film posters that belong to the time period that roughly extends from the 1930s to the 1990s are particularly the subject of such interest.

Those film posters constituted “an integral aspect of those classic films,” and treating them as memorabilia is exemplified in this recent exhibition, Cinemania.

An increased interest in the literature on the art of film posters in Egypt also sheds light on an intensifying admiration for poster art.

Two books authored by Egyptian researcher Sameh Fahmy, published in 2009 and 2014 respectively, are entirely devoted to collections of such vintage film posters.

The books, titled The Art of Egyptian Film Posters, presents an over-arching account of film poster art in Egypt and incorporates profiles on the artists who mastered it.

In the book, as in Cinemania, Egyptian film posters are dealt with as “[extinct] pieces of fine art.”

Given that those posters did not rely on contemporary media such as graphic design and photography, but rather on manual paint, adds to their artistic renown.

According to Pourcines, there are two kinds of film posters: an affiche and a billboard.

The replicas of vintage film posters made by Cinemania’s artists are displayed as both affiches and billboards.

An affiche, as opposed to the large-size billboard, is the window-sized film poster that had decorated cinema windows across Egypt. The originally French word affiche has made its way into colloquial Egyptian Arabic as affichāt, denoting a characteristically Egyptianised plural of the word and its popularity.

Cinemania exhibition at Darb 1718 (Photo: Marwa Morgan)

Egyptian film poster artists 

An array of artists who specialised in painting film posters have had their names become trademarks of poster-making in Egypt.

Mohamed ’Abd al-Aziz (b. 1912), Stamatis Vassiliou (b. 1920), Hassan Mazhar, known as Gasour (b. 1925), Anwar Ali (b. 1929), and Waheeb Fahmy (b. 1937) are among the most renowned painters of film posters in Egypt.

In the earlier decades of poster-making, the poster painters’ techniques generally consisted of manual painting and creative calligraphy.

In those decades, the painters employed precision in painting human characters, experimented with different artistic schools and movements, such as surrealism, and at many times added themes of mystery to the poster.

The poster was, after all, the sole advertising tool for films at a time when trailers were non-existent, as Fahmy notes in The Art of Egyptian Film Posters.

In particular, tracing the massive contributions made to Egyptian film poster art by Egypt-born, Greek artist Vassiliou substantiates Pourcines’ attempt to celebrate an era of cosmopolitanism in Egypt.

This was an era when, in Pourcines’ words, “Egyptian, Greek, Italian and Armenian artists collaborated” with one another and contributed to the evolution of film poster design in Egypt.

Artists Nagy Shaker (b. 1932), Mortada Anees (b. 1944), and Sara Abd al-Moneim are considered the hallmarks of modern film poster-making.

In contrast to the earlier decades of poster painting, contemporary film poster-making employs more technologically advanced media and is characterised by a striking departure from manual painting.

Cinemania exhibition at Darb 1718 (Photo: Marwa Morgan)

Commercialising Egyptian vintage film posters 

A commercial market for Egyptian vintage film posters is active, both in Egypt and abroad.

Transactions for those film posters are usually conducted virtually. A website titled “Egyptian Movie Poster,” run by a self-identified Lebanese entrepreneur, sells rare vintage Egyptian film posters through the popular e-commerce website, eBay.

Many such posters are high-priced, with the 1930s film, Al-warda al-baydā’ , for instance, sold at $15,000.

Therefore, the accessibility to collections of those posters, for enthusiasts, artists, and researchers alike, is at many times hindered by the fact that their commercial market is dominated, not by Egyptian vendors but rather, by Lebanese, and even German, American, and Jordanian ones, as Fathy notes in his study.

Vintage film posters are still sold in a number of small memorabilia shops in the narrow alleyways of Cairo’s Khan al-Khalili Bazaar.

Nonetheless, whether such small shops retain a serious and determined effort to collect those film posters, or a mere interest in collecting any kind of vintage material —of which film posters happen to be a part alongside a wide corpus of historic coins, magazines, and newspapers —is subject to question.


Additional reporting by Marwa Morgan

Cinemania exhibition at Darb 1718 (Photo: Marwa Morgan)

Cinemania runs till 31 July in Darb 1718, Kasr El-Shame’ Street, Coptic Cairo, Cairo.

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