Inspiring rooms

Rania Khallaf , Tuesday 25 Jun 2024

Rania Khallaf sought out one of Egypt’s young promising artists

Rooms

 

Rooms are a common theme in art and literature since long before Van Gogh and Virginia Wolf, and the young artist Omar Sherif extends it with a debut show called Empty Rooms at Ubuntu Art Gallery in Zamalek. It comprises 25 larger acrylic on canvas and paper paintings.

Born in 2000, Omar is the youngest artist I have interviewed. He started private drawing courses at home when he was six after his parents noticed his talent. At the age of eleven, he was diagnosed with muscular atrophy and started using a wheelchair. Two years later, he stopped drawing when his art teacher died. He graduated with an American diploma from a private school in Zamalek. “At school, they didn’t take my art seriously,” he said in an interview in the gallery. He chose not to go to university.

“I didn’t like the education system in the Egyptian universities, and I knew that they wouldn’t welcome a young man with a disability. I didn’t need anyone to teach me how to draw, either. All I wanted was to practice for longer hours. When I started reading and browsing pages on contemporary art on the Internet, it was a great motive to resume painting. A couple of years ago, my mother encouraged me to take comics and graphic design courses.”

Sherif mentioned the American painter Jean Michael Basquiat, Frida Kahlo, and the Norwegian Eduard Munch as his most beloved mentors. He sees art as a way to express his desire to be free and different. One of his paintings, titled Upcycling, influenced by Munch’s The Scream, features a man screaming, with a unique block of patchwork underneath his body.

At 17, Sherief began to call himself Weirdo. “Everywhere I go, I was the only one on a wheelchair. I felt different and I thought I should embrace this weird side of me. I chose the theme of empty rooms in particular for my first collection to reflect on my personal experience. When I finished my diploma, I stayed for months in my room, I used to read, paint and listen to music, use my iPad. Everything was available inside the room, and I didn’t feel I wanted to go out.”

Although most of the paintings on show feature a knot of weird figures (vampires, black birds, weird beings with four legs), emptiness reflects the artist’s feelings of loneliness and isolation. In his introduction to the collection, Sherif defines isolation as “self-defense but at the same time self-sabotage. For able people,” he says, “isolation is a choice, but for the disabled, it is forced on them.”

Sherif started this collection last summer. “I started painting with no plan. It was as if I was playing freely. And then I invented Iso, a recurrent surreal character with four legs, whose name is derived from isolation. I have always liked characters with different body characteristics like the Sphinx.”

While working on the project, the artist resorted to new ways to explore the theme. One painting is the outcome of a conversation on the meanings of isolation with a young visual artist called Dalila, who draws things she finds in the streets on a daily basis. As he works on a wheelchair, it was difficult to handle large paintings.

“A friend of mine suggested I should use a long brush like Matisse did in his late years, so I made my own long brush by sticking one to a long and thin wooden stick,” he said, adding that such implements should be manufactured. All his paintings feature the outline of a room and are named after one: visiting room, high-ceiling room, white-face room…

Weirdo is among a group of young artists, including Omar Gabr and Ahmed Laithi, who managed to go after their own unique concept of art, employing a free, intuitive style. “I owe a lot to Gabr, who encouraged me to engage with the art scene, visit galleries, and develop my style.” For Weirdo, art is a curse that you can not run away from. “I never thought of myself as an artist. I definitely love art, but it has been like a love-hate relationship. I actually do art to express my feelings and themes that can’t be expressed verbally. I am grateful for my disability. Life is a lose and win game. My disability created the artist in me; an artist with a special experience and view of the world,” he said proudly.

The choreography of the exhibition is unique. The entrance of the gallery’s ground floor includes three paintings on the wall, with a carpet depicting one of the artist’s weird characters. In the corner, a black wheelchair dominates the scene: a declaration of the artist’s identity. One of the three interconnected halls is painted orange and the other is furnished with a green carpet. In the corner of each room, there is a small side table, a plastic sword and a power extension plug.

In one of the paintings, Vamp Weirdo Reflection, sized 100 x 100 cm, the artist sees himself as a vampire. It features a young man sitting on a wheelchair with his back to the viewer, looking in a mirror that doesn’t reflect his image, in a gloomy empty room painted grey. “I chose vampires as a symbol because they don’t eat or drink or even die.”

Some paintings including Arabic calligraphy reflecting the artist’s passion for writing. “I studied Arabic calligraphy lately. Although my schooling was in English, I’ve come to appreciate the aesthetics of Arabic letters.” Arab pop and rap songs are one of the artist’s sources of inspiration.

Another painting, Alone, depicts the artist playing with his Playstation, which for years used to be his only way to escape reality. Hyper Groovy Room shows two other characters, Mariam and Hisham, the artist’s friends.

For his next project, Sherif plans to work on landscape, based on his own drawings as a child.

“My passion for art exceeds painting. I want to study fashion and film direction. I believe all genres are connected. I want to change the mindset about people with special needs,” he paused. “We actually can perform art like normal people. We just need to be seen.”

 


* A version of this article appears in print in the 27 June, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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