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Friday, 16 April 2021

Scheherazade retold

Rania Khallaf explores a new vision of The Thousand and One Nights’ heroine

Rania Khallaf , Tuesday 26 Jan 2021
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The new, untitled collection of 18 oil paintings by leading artist Samir Fouad deals with Scheherazade and the stories she tells in The Thousand and One Nights. Once again Fouad manages to provoke both the mind and the imagination, forcing this viewer to rethink the idea of a folk tale. At the Picasso Art Gallery’s small hall in Zamalek, the many-sized images – ranging from realism to expressionism – retell the classic story.


One huge 120 x160 cm painting depicts four women in different positions, with one hugging a black mannequin, perhaps an image of masculinity, while staring defiantly at the viewer. Two devil-like male figures stand at the edges of the red background.


In another 120x160 cm, an odalisque-like figure lies provocatively on a divan, a fan hovering by her side. The background, in a magic olive green, a colour found in working-class homes and ancient Egyptian tombs, symbolises the good – paradise. “One of the lessons I learned at the beginning of my career is that there is no such thing as green or red. There are endless tones of green, mixed with a definite proportion of other colors, and when it neighbours another color it creates a different look too. It all depends on the mixture.”


These paintings were made under lockdown in 2020, and though they are infused with her presence Scheherazade was almost an afterthought. “The theme actually cropped up during the final stages of this project last November. The legend of Scheherazade is the story of the eternal conflict between good and evil, simple people and authority, and between femininity and arrogant masculinity, The most representative painting of the legend is the woman with a fan. It is inspired by the Olympia painting by Eduard Manet in 1865, which depicted a nude woman lying on a bed being brought flowers by her servant. The historical painting dealt with hypocrisy within his society at the time.” Fouad’s version follows suit: “The idea of owning a female’s body rather than considering her a partner is appalling,” he says.


Some symbols, like the mannequin and monkey, were used in previous collections by Fouad, but here they have different meanings. He has employed the monkey as a threat and as a humorous motif. Here the monkey symbolises victimhood. In another, beautiful painting, a woman defies a cartoonish soldier, and between them is a tormented baboon. This is probably the only painting with a male figure in it.


Another overriding element is silence, which Fouad feels reflects the moment of the pandemic. “We stay in our homes thinking that this will postpone our death. Similarly, Scheherazade used her storytelling skill to postpone her killing by Shahryar.” Here as elsewhere Fouad focuses on women as “the real fighters and bearers of cultural values, as I was once told by a tour guide during my visit to India”. A woman with a party hat on her head is another recurrent motif, used here to evoke the storytelling process.


A wonderful 95 x 71 cm painting, an homage to Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) and his chubby nudes, features two intersecting figures, abstracted, barely visible for the suffering they feel. A classical music listener, Fouad also admires Rimsky-Korsakov’s classic symphony on Scheherazade, in which two preludes reflect the difference between the powerful king and his seductive and resourceful wife. “Music is an abstract language, and I approach the spirit of this peculiar language whenever I turn to abstraction,” he says. The way the paintings are arranged stresses the movement from one mode to another.


Two remarkable paintings depict a single woman in a yellow gown against a blank green background: the first is vertical, semi abstract, and the second horizontal, depicting the woman lying on a couch on her side, her arms crossed, as if threatened by some evil prospect. It perfectly captures the anxiety felt by Scheherazade each day, her need to make up a new story to save her life.


The tour ends with a small painting featuring human flesh abstracted, which reminded me of the artist’s significant “Flesh” exhibition, held at the same gallery’s large hall back in 2010. This painting summarises everything. It is an image of the core truth about women’s physical fragility and the pain they suffer because of their continued struggle to survive in male-dominated societies. But Scheherazade resorted to both imagination and reason to keep herself safe, but for Fouad the power of the artist as they mature is neither imagination nor reason:


“It is our enthusiasm and passion for art and life that keep us productive. In my mid seventies, my great passion for classical music and my continued listening and research in this field is one example of this.”

*A version of this article appears in print in the 28 January, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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