The immigrant

Rania Khallaf , Tuesday 5 Sep 2023

Nostalgia is an overused trope in the Cairo exhibition circle, but in the case of Reda Abdelrahman’s new show at the Yassin Gallery in Zamalek – itself a new space which opened in August last year – the idea works real wonders.

Reda Abdelrahman


The exhibition (22 August-6 September), featuring  80 mixed media paintings in different sizes, was so busy it felt like a homecoming party for the artist, who has lived in the US for seven years.

Born in 1966, Abdelrahman graduated from the Faculty of Fine Arts at the University of Menia, and earned his PhD in mural painting from the same institution in 1999.

He has held more than 30 solo exhibitions in Egypt and worldwide; the latest, “I am Everybody” – at the Snug Harbor Cultural Centre in New York in 2020 – reflects the impact of ancient Egyptian history on contemporary Western culture.

His latest Cairo show, “The Donkey” – at Gallery Misr in 2016 – used the beast of burden to address the impact of political Islam on society, culture, and women’s status.

In January 2013, while the Muslim Brotherhood ruled the country, Abdelrahman exhibited a daring collection entitled “Myself in the Revolution” at Albab Gallery on the Opera House grounds, documenting the revolution and (in such pieces as No to religious fascism) objecting to the way the Islamists sabotaged it. In 2014 he followed through with an ancient Egypt-inspired collection at Gallery Misr.

 The present show took three years to finish. “During the last few years, I felt very homesick for people and places in Egypt,” he says. “This collection is a manifestation of my clinging to Egyptian culture but also my opening up to Western civilisation.”

The paintings are garrulous, rich in symbol and story, tracing unique paths in time and space. Made on canvas boards, canvas, and paper, the paintings reflect a unique mixture of ancient Egyptian and New York iconography.

“As I settled down in upstate New York, and started mingling with the art community, I always introduced myself proudly as an Egyptian artist, and this is warmly welcomed by American artists and gallerists and spares me many difficulties. I relied on the techniques of photography, and different formulations I learned from ancient Egyptian art. I thought of using tempera, the ancient Egyptian method of painting, in addition to acrylics.”  

Abdelrahman teaches art at SUNY Broome Community College. “Every time I work with my students in my academic studio, I experiment with a new technique or explore a new concept. This is how I ended up with dozens of artworks ready to be shown.”

One small painting, Queen’s Wig, is based on a sculpture of a queen wearing a wig which he saw with his students at the Metropolitan Museum.

Here as elsewhere, the style is expressionist and more and more abstract. Figures leave behind their mass to appear as thin white outlines against intensely coloured backgrounds. Perhaps this too has to do with being away from home: in memory, figures are reduced to outlines.

“A couple of years ago, I was deeply inspired by a book called The Art of Drawing among the Ancient Egyptians by William H. Beck, which makes the observation that the ancient Egyptian artist drew figures in their most abstract and essential form. I wanted to try implementing this method, to discover how a single line could represent a whole human figure.”

Ancient Egyptian symbols recur, with references to sacred offerings and images of cartouches and birds appearing side by side with the forests and lakes of New York state. Abdelrahman paints over the image repeatedly, adjusting and changing it, and the layers give the work remarkable richness and depth. In tempera and acrylic on canvas, the large My Beloved Thoth: Nile shows an Egyptian field of wheat superimposed on the New York landscape. The effect is one of cheerful sustenance.

The palette is brighter and warmer than previous work by the artist, with red and yellow alongside blue, and movement is a prominent feature of the work. In Red Fish, a small piece, for example, the underwater background is a warm green. Fish appear again and again, symbolising fertility and plenty, and reflecting the artist’s love of fishing in the lakes where he lives. In a large painting called Girls of the Nile, five figures run in different directions against a bluish background.

Manhattan Concert, another large painting, depicts dancing couples in a way that recalls ancient Egyptian art; the background is purplish red at the bottom and light blue at the top. Figures mingle in harmony with the City’s skyscrapers. The same theme is tackled in a group of small pieces that take up their own hall. A complementary collection, Nostalgia II, will be shown on 6 October at the Artisan Gallery in New York.

*The exhibition runs through 6 September.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 31 August, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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