Adeem, the Arabic term for the earth’s crust but also a term for dark skin and the start of day or night, is derived from the name Adam. Entitled “Adeem”, Gamal Elkheshen’s last exhibition at Misr Gallery (14 May-1 June) featured 14 large acrylic on canvas paintings of male figures dependent on the earth for their livelihood. “I was inspired by watching the people of Upper Egypt, specifically Luxor,” he says. “I admire their connection to the land and the colour of their skin, which is the colour of the soil.”
Last week Elkheshen, a 2010 graduate of the graphic design department of the Faculty of Fine Arts who teaches at Al Galala University in Ain Sokhna, won a State Incentive Award last week for his art book Inferno, an interpretation of Dante in 15 lithographs. He has given and participated in numerous exhibitions, representing Egypt at 56th Venice Biennale. The current exhibition, he says, is “visual storytelling”.
The collection started with two male nudes in 2021. It is something Elkheshen does often, focusing on the male nude. One interesting aspect of the figures in Adeem is that their features resolve into an individual face with emotions only on close inspection, looking like indistinguishable generic faces with dark skin, thick lips and broad shoulders from a distance. “It would’ve been easier to paint them with clear features,” he says, “but I wanted the viewers to take their time looking at them, like someone digging into the soil with their hands to feel its warmth and depth.”
There is a bird’s eye view of a naked man inspecting his toes with his back to us. There is a man with his head on his arm and crescent above his head, the crescent being a recurrent motif, denoting holiness. There is also a white-clad man on his knees in a green soil holding two sticks – another recurrent motif, denoting balance – who looks the viewer straight in the face with an expression of sorrow that only becomes apparent at very close range. a few paintings feature more than one figure.
The multidisciplinary artist researches his concepts. In 2021 he participated in the Contemporary Art Salon with an installation depicting Adam’s expulsion from the garden of Eden. “Mastering a variety of tools gives me the freedom to use different techniques. I choose the optimal technique for each project, and yet each project could be done using a different technique: video art, painting, or installation.”
The artist used four models to avoid repetition, even though they look very similar. They are always motionless, in silent communion with mother earth. In one painting three figures stand shoulder to shoulder. In another, two figures are seen in separate frames, reflecting alienation and loneliness.
Elkheshen’s palette is limited to white, dark brown and greyish green with the occasional touch of red or blue in the background. “I am a quite person,” he says by way of explanation, “so my paintings reflect this yearning. I don’t dare use bright colours or leave any detail to coincidence. It is my passion for knowledge that drives. My next project will probably be related to the soil too. It is an installation about the golden age of cotton cultivation in Egypt, in the 1930s and 1940s.”
* A version of this article appears in print in the 1 June, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.