The artist as storyteller

Rania Khallaf , Tuesday 28 May 2024

Rania Khallaf visits veteran Egyptian artist Evelyn Ashamallah in her Downtown Cairo apartment

Evelyn Ashamallah
photos: Nora Koloyan

 

Talking with prominent visual artist Evelyn Ashamallah is like visiting an old family home or remembering a cherished bedtime story. She has the air of a passionate storyteller who is excited about telling her own story.

I meet her in her apartment in Al-Borsa Street in Downtown Cairo. The walls of the apartment’s small reception area are covered with her paintings, making it seem that they are there to help her in telling her story.

She wears a gown with short sleeves, matching it with accessories. Her short grey hair casts a warm light on her broad face. Her hospitality is peerless. With her broad smile and welcoming words, you feel instantly at home.

Ashamallah was born in 1948 and is one of the most important of the 1970s generation of Egyptian artists. She is known for her unique surrealistic paintings, surprising compositions, and unusual sense of scale, combining a huge insect with a tiny girl in one painting, for example. Her artwork always looks fresh and captivating even if signed in the 1980s.

The artist was born to a Coptic family in the village of Biala in her grandfather’s house and raised in Dessouk, a city in the Kafr El-Sheikh Governorate. “My father Ashamallah Eskandar Hanna and mother Elaine Michael Hanna were cousins. My grandparents were originally from Upper Egypt, but they migrated to the North, due to religious issues at the time. My grandfather Eskandar was the manager of a large farm,” she said.

“Our house in Dessouk, located on top of a hill in an alley called Al-Mallaheen, was always crowded with uncles, aunts, cousins, and other relatives. In the late 1950s, it was the only house with clean water and electricity in the area, so our neighbours used to come to fill their vessels with water and connect up to our electricity supply when they celebrated weddings.”

Ashamallah’s face glows as she speaks about her childhood, sometimes bursting into laughter as she does so.

“Our relationship with our neighbours was very strong. I still remember the family of Sheikh Ahmed Al-Waraqi, a very kind man who was a graduate from Al-Azhar University in Cairo. I used to call him my grandfather the Sheikh. His two daughters, Soad and Hekmat, were like my aunts. They used to come to our house every day to assist my mother, who had seven children,” she remembered.

“Sheikh Al-Waraqi used to have a small cart which he used to sell very well-cooked foul. It was delicious, and the smell was amazing. I can still smell it today. This small and poor family was my first source of love and joy. We, Copts and Muslims, were like one family. There was no place for religious conflicts.”

“My biggest joy was when I used to play and dance with the other girls in the surrounding streets. I still remember the brella brella game and the popular songs we used to sing. The month of Ramadan, with its fantastic vibes, was an unforgettable experience. I used to listen to the beautiful voice of the mesaharaty and carry my fanous during Ramadan and ask for ediya in the first days of the feast,” she said, referring to the man who would wake people up to eat before fasting and typical Ramadan lanterns. Ediya refers to the presents children receive in Eid.

The impact of such celebrations on Ashamallah’s art is very evident. Her paintings celebrate all these magnificent aspects of life.

“Young women and girls used to watch the lively celebrations of the Moulid of Sidi Ibrahim Al-Dessouky from the rooftop of our house. The images of the procession and the colourful cover of the coffin and the dance of horses, the magician, and the belly dancers are still engraved in my memory. I am the outcome of all this beauty,” she said, referring to the birthday celebration of a local Muslim saint.

“My aunt Zahiya and my uncle Hanna, who was an agricultural engineer, lived in a small villa surrounded by fields in the village of Abu Ghanima, in Kafr El-Sheikh. I used to spend the summer vacations there and enjoy the surrounding nature. It was amazing to watch the growth of the trees and the secret life of animals and insects.”

Is this why lizards appear so extensively in your paintings, I asked. She nodded, laughing.  

Ashamallah’s interest in such animals is the outcome of this stage of her life. “My father had a very interesting collection of books and magazines. I was a little girl yearning to discover the world, so I used to read the books even if I didn’t understand the content. Bonjour Tristesse by the French writer Francoise Sagan was one of the books I read. All this encouraged me to develop my own philosophy.”

“My father was a traditional and conservative man, but sometimes he would express his love. He was a fierce fighter against circumcision, for example. I remember that he travelled to Cairo and the city of Al-Mahalla Al-Kobra to advise his relatives not to allow such operations on their daughters. He worked for the British Providential Insurance Company. He used to provide me with paper and pencils, always encouraging me to draw anything I had seen.”

“I also remember Mr Ramadan, our primary school teacher, who asked us to draw the Moulid. When I did, he liked the crowd I had created on the white sheet of paper and praised the painting as if it was an authentic piece,” she said.

“This atmosphere created the artist in me and has enriched my spirit throughout my life.”

 

STUDIES IN ALEXANDRIA: For this young art-loving girl, studying art at Alexandria University was like a dream come true.

She remembers that she used to take the tram from the Raml Station to Victoria Station, watching the urban scene from the window and admiring the beautiful buildings. Studying art in the Painting Department, located in a beautiful old palace that used to belong to Mazloum Pasha in one of the districts in Alexandria, was a fascinating experience.

She recalled her mentor Rostom Ashry, a professor in the department, who used to like her drawings.

“He once asked me if I liked junk and bric-a-brac and whether I used to spend my time in an attic,” she said, so full of crowded objects were her pictures of the time. “I was amazed by the question because I loved to explore the messy old attic in our house and check out the stuff in it every now and then. He advised me to join the Painting Department. I also remember the pioneering artist Abdel-Salam Eid, who used to admire my work and encourage me as well.”

She was a rebel in the department and used to ignore the rules and make paintings and projects according to her own vision and techniques. What she learned she kept in her head and did not let it appear on canvas.

“I loved being a student at the Fine Arts Faculty. However, I always got C grades for my work, in fact, I didn’t care about my grades or how the professors perceived my work. Breaking the academic laws, especially in the still life classes, was my favourite way to express myself,” she said.

“For example, instead of a blank curtain in the background to my paintings, I drew geometrical icons, and instead of drawing a teapot, I depicted a weird being. In my first two years there, I used to commute from Dessouk to Alexandria by train, but in the third year I started to stay part time at a friend’s apartment in Alexandria. This nourished my passion for exploring homes and the way they are decorated. It gave me a sense of warmth.”

“When I was a student, I was also an activist and participated in student demonstrations in the 1972 sit-ins. By engaging myself in the world of politics, my character dramatically changed. Revolutionary ideas invaded my mind. Though I never joined any political party, I was convinced by the concept of justice, and I believe that justice is the motive for any revolution and the quest for freedom.”

“After my graduation in 1973, I felt that I didn’t want to go back to Dessouk, and I didn’t want to relive that kind of traditional life.”

Shortly after her graduation, Ashamallah moved to Cairo to work as a journalist at the magazine Rose Al-Youssef, which allowed her to make use of her creative writing talent. “The first salary I got was LE5 for an article,” she commented.

 She remembers working with writers Abdallah Imam and Mustafa Al-Husseini, but on the whole she does not have good memories of her time as a journalist. After a couple of years, she was appointed as a visual artist in the Cultural Palaces Administration affiliated to the Ministry of Culture.

“It was routine work, but it was the only way for me to earn a living in Cairo, and it gave me the liberty and the space to practise art,” she said. Ashamallah then continued her career in different positions at the Ministry of Culture. She served as the director of the Egyptian Modern Art Museum from 2000 to 2002, after which she has dedicated her time to her art.

In the mid-1970s, she married Mahmoud Youssry, a children’s book writer. “We lived in a small apartment in Shubra Al-Kheima, a heavily populated area of Cairo. The apartment was too small to host a studio, but I managed to maintain my career as an artist nonetheless,” she said.

 

In the early 1980s, the couple moved to Algeria and lived there for five years. “I fell in love with the amazing landscapes in Algeria, and I painted a lot. People there are very friendly, very honest, and very straightforward. I loved the Algerian people, especially their respect for women. I loved my life there and developed fantastic friendships. My friends Fatma and Hamdy, a wonderful Algerian couple, have recently come to settle in Cairo and have purchased an apartment in this very building,” she said in a happy tone, pointing to the ceiling.

She travelled in her capacity as a top official of the Ministry of Culture to many European countries, the US, and Canada. “I visited many international museums and galleries. When I was the director of the Mohamed Nagui Museum in Cairo, I travelled to Rome in I995. It was very impressive, like an open-air museum. It is amazing how they celebrate every tiny detail related to ancient Roman history. I wished the same was true here in Egypt.”

Ashamallah praised the recent beautification of Tahrir Square with its obelisk and ancient statues, which she says adds an historical spirit to the centre of the capital.

“What I have learned from my frequent travels is the unity of the universe and that cultural differences around the world are actually quite limited. I think I have reached a state of awareness where I feel connected with things, people, and nature.”

“I have visited Luxor and Aswan several times, falling in love with everything related to our ancient art. It is so magical. However, I don’t believe my own art is influenced by ancient Egyptian art. My art is unique because it expresses my unique self. For example, my depiction of a tree should be unique and different from other versions. Our ancestors had a great passion for agriculture, which requires a specific mentality. It is amazing to realise how at that early time in history they managed to make dyes out of seeds and various handicrafts.”