Egyptian artist tackles revolution, before and after

Sara El Kamel, Sunday 18 Dec 2011

Renowned visual artist Helmi El-Touni's latest exhibition depicts Egypt's ongoing transitional phase in vivid folk colours

Helmi ElTouni

A little over a month before the one-year anniversary of Egypt’s January 25 Revolution, Zamalek’s Picasso Gallery is hosting an exhibition of prominent Egyptian artist Helmi El-Touni’s coloured stories, starting from Friday, 16 December.

Populating the walls are vivid, spirited paintings that carry an emotional rhetoric, depicting a country’s transition from autocracy to freedom. El-Touni’s artwork, which brings his satirical style and folkloric feel to the fore, drew sincere appreciation from the crowd at the packed opening on Friday.

One can barely make one’s way through the meandering Picasso Gallery on a chilly Cairo night, with the paintings hidden behind chatting art enthusiasts and cameras. Suddenly, one finds oneself on a treasure hunt, trying to make out paintings of smirking clowns and innocent girls amid the crowd. The artwork plays as a backdrop to colourful conversations – some discuss the artwork; others discuss Egypt’s current state of political turmoil.

El-Touni’s collection is divided into two themes. Some paintings depict clowns in striped and chequered suits, their faces a pasty white and their noses round in party pink. Their red lips are always stretched from ear to ear in a smug grin that leaves you feeling uneasy.  The rest of the canvases carry striking images of women and girls in bright colours, with the Egyptian flag always present somewhere in the composition.

El-Touni’s palette is rich and varied, pulling the viewer into the story, setting the scene like a stage.

For a moment, one feels one has fallen into a children’s book. Like illustrations from a riveting tale, one stares up at the paintings, trying to figure out if the clown is triumphant or simply trapped in his chair; if the beautiful girl is elated or lost, if she’s full of life or simply another version of the clown.

Like a mismatched story that pulls the viewer in different directions, one can’t help but to be intrigued. El-Touni previously wrote and illustrated a handful of children’s books, but “Once Upon a Time” is a book for Egyptians of all ages to read and enjoy.

“I’m documenting the transition of a country from chains to freedom,” El-Touni declares. “From 2010 to 2011, you can see remarkable change in Egypt – but the revolution isn’t yet complete.”

El-Touni’s displayed artwork reflects the overwhelming change he’s talking about. “The pre-January 25 paintings show the clown, the fool, a symbol of the ousted regime,” says the artist. “Back then, I was happy to express my dissent through art.”

Like many of his contemporaries, El-Touni had utilised his art to criticise the Mubarak-era state of political stagnation and social erosion in Egypt. The role of art back then was twofold, he explains: to depict life in Cairo, and to artfully express frustration with the country’s rulers.

Armed with paintbrushes and hidden behind a façade of colour and symbolism – relatively safe from the scrutiny of political censorship – many contemporary Egyptian artists had resorted to their artwork to vent their anger during the three long decades leading up to the January uprising. The political, social, even environmental, status quo was challenged on canvas, as artists painted muffled appeals for attention and reform. 

“After January 25, I started painting the Egyptian flag again after having forgotten it,” says El-Touni. “I had begun to hate the flag, because I felt abused by the old regime.” After the revolution, by contrast, El-Touni felt he wanted to “honour the flag.”

Like many other Egyptian artists who revelled in their nation’s liberation and who created a wave of celebratory post-revolution art, his recent paintings heavily feature the Egyptian flag. El-Touni chose to paint women and girls, a favourite motif of his, as a sign of new life for Egypt.

“I work the flag into my paintings of women and girls in a subtle manner to express our new-found patriotism,” the artist explains. 

El-Touni’s paintings are infused with symbolism and possess a folk-mythological character, endowing them with a life of their own. In one of his most powerful pieces, a jester towers over a young lady, covering her eyes with his proportionately tiny palms. The woman raises both her arms in surrender. The painting is dominated by deep blues and greys, but it is the clown’s pearly face that draws one in. 

The arrangement of the paintings is at times disorienting, with the pre-revolutionary clowns persistently turning up amid the more celebratory 2011 canvases. Perhaps this mirrors Egypt’s reality – busy and colourful, yet never entirely free.

The “Once Upon a Time” exhibition will run at the Picasso Gallery in Zamalek until Friday, 6 January 2012.

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