Egyptian painter Abdel-Hady El-Gazzar (1925-1966) occupies a unique position among artists of his generation.
Born in Alexandria in 1925, El-Gazzar moved to Cairo with his family in 1936 when his father became a professor of Islamic law at Al-Azhar University. He initially studied medicine at Cairo University but changed course in 1945 when his teacher Hussein Youssef Amin took note of his talent and encouraged him to join the Faculty of Fine Arts.
A decade later, he left for Florence to learn Italian, receiving a scholarship to complete his education at the Central Restoration Institute in Rome in 1961. El-Gazzar became the first Egyptian artist to have graduated from the institute. During his time in Italy, El-Gazzar had the opportunity to travel all across Europe, deepening his knowledge of Western art and culture through numerous visits to museums and monuments. Unfortunately, the artist did not live long after returning from his studies, passing away from a heart attack in Cairo in 1966. Despite the tragic brevity of his life, El-Gazzar left behind a sizeable oeuvre.
In Cairo, El-Gazzar and his family resided in the Sayyeda Zeinab neighborhood, where many lived in terrible poverty – something he refused to ignore in his work, which reflected the squalor of his environment along with a mythical sense of identity. In pieces like The Popular Chorus (1948), an oil painting that has since become one of his best-known works, he shows a line of Egyptians standing barefoot before empty bowls, their worn clothes and weary faces attesting to hunger and misery. The painting was understood as a critique of the rampant poverty that ravaged the country under King Farouk I, and so El-Gazzar was briefly arrested when he exhibited it in 1949.
His work was shown at the 2016 exhibition, Art and Liberty: Rupture, War and Surrealism in Egypt (1938–1948) that opened at the Centre Pompidou in Paris, and he represented Egypt three times at the Venice Biennale between 1952 and 1960.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 2 September, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly