Under the title “Another horizon”, the celebrated Alexandrian artist Amal Nasr gave a hugely successful exhibition of 36 acrylic-on-canvas paintings at the Safar Khan Gallery in Zamalek between 15 March and 6 April.
Expressionist in style, the new paintings mark a shift away from abstraction and make for an immersive experience, with a subtle narrative linking them. A critic and professor of painting at Alexandria University and the mother of three, Nasr was born in 1965 in Alexandria, and her work has always showed the influence of folk and naive art, including cave paintings. Early in her career, a visit to Italy after she won the State Award for Creativity in 1997 also made its mark.
With academic and family responsibilities, Nasr says her life is too full. “Art is the only way out from this daily stress. I have always dreamed of new, imaginative horizons, a new world to live in, where creatures are more peaceful.” Each painting is a unique celebration of womanhood with female figures flying, swimming, meditating or dancing, enacting the desire to flee a constrained rigidity. There are winged women and birds with human heads as well as mermaids. “My fascination with the amazing art manifestations of old civilisations such as the Far East, which I studied extensively, is largely due to its free depiction of humans, birds and animals, with no barriers between different species, and its marvellous celebration of the nature.”
Nasr’s fondness for folk tales and legends dates back to her third year at the faculty, when she embarked on a study on the impact of naïve art on contemporary practices. For her Masters she was lucky to attend a course with professor Ahmed Abu Zayd, a famous anthropologist who contributed to her awareness of ancient art. Among other representations of ancient history, she depicts Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love and beauty, and draws on Islamic and Meso-American art, with landscapes that seem to conflate land, sea and sky.
“I strongly believe in the ancient kingdom that is now under the surface of the sea. Painting is a way to retrieve and rearrange its symbols and those of the civilisations associated with it.” Perhaps that is why she pays so much attention to composition, which benefits from geometry, with shades of blue and earth colours dominating her palette. “I don’t make sketches. After painting many layers onto the canvas, I step back and envision some incomplete figures. My memory is full of motifs that make a peaceful transit to the canvas, manifesting their new identity. It is kind of a game.”
In each piece there are many images. One powerful 80 x 80 cm painting features three tiny portraits of women alongside a portrait of an animal with a child’s head. With a hot-red background, it evokes humanity’s primitive core. In another, mysterious 100 x 120 cm piece, two small nudes in ochre at the centre are surrounded by many regions: a triangular sky above, indistinct dunes below, and two circular spaces just in front of them, where some apparent cataclysm has caused numerous tiny figures – animals, inscriptions, and humans – to fly all over the canvas.
“I love to travel – even to a close village to explore the beauty of motifs and colours. Unlike Cairo, in Alexandria you can easily watch the horizon, you can enjoy the endless expanse of sea and sky. May be this is somehow linked to the title of the exhibition,” she smiles. “Every female artist is a legend or a legend-maker, because she insists on living in opposition to patriarchal values and social traditions.”
*A version of this article appears in print in the 19 May, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.