The minute you enter the courtyard of the Mahmoud Mokhtar Cultural Centre, it feels like a party. The stage is set next to Isis Gallery Hall, where the Maghna Khan band of Egypt played all night long as people from all social standards and age groups across Cairo came to witness the grand opening night of two galleries of Egypt’s finest artists Mahmoud Ibrahim and Mohamed Mekawy.
Walking down the stairs to your right is the Nahdet Misr (Egypt’s Renaissance) Gallery Hall, where a massive exhibition of Egyptian artist Mohamed Mekawy, entitled "Villages of the Nile", was featured.
“The idea of 'Villages of the Nile' came to me first when I last visited Luxor and Aswan,” Mekawy tells Ahram Online. His collection featured impressionist oil paintings of many colours that reflect scenes from the villages of Upper Egypt. Some focus on a single colour that stands out in the painting while others grab the eyes with the construction of houses built inside — or as the artist himself describes, “engraved” inside — the hills that lie across the Nile banks.
“It was this simple construction of houses and small shops engraved inside each hill that caught my eye, and I was determined to feature them in my next project,” he says. The paintings he produced fall into the abstract of the impressionist school in a way.
Mekawy didn’t copy the exact natural portrait of the villages, but used his imagination to come up with artwork that best describes Upper Egypt. “I never copy nature. It is my intuition to paint the villages as I visualised them in my head,” he elaborates. “The images of the palm trees surrounding those villages, with the hills at the back and the Nile bank up front kept occupying my mind until the end of my project,” he says.
Going up back into the courtyard lies a small café serving finger food and soft drinks for the elderly who made it a point to come visit both exhibitions. Making one's way through the young crowd in front of the stage, to the left is the Isis Gallery Hall, a much smaller hall than that of Nahdet Misr yet with another vision, another school of thought and another mentality.
This exhibition of Egyptian artist Mahmoud Ibrahim talks about man’s oppression and his path towards finding freedom, according to the artist himself. The idea is intriguing, yet controversial. You don’t reach Ibrahim's intellect only by observing and analysing his work — that includes the animal kingdom and jungle — on your own. You have to understand Ibrahim’s thoughts to get his complex ideas.
Ibrahim started on this “freedom expression” back in 2007 and worked on it until 2010. “I was looking for equality and justice that I could not find in the human world and found it in the jungle, where all animals live in a very just and civil manner,” he told Ahram Online. “They follow the law of nature systematically … The jungle, where there is no oppression of any sort,” he states.
Feeling oppressed and censored during the former Mubarak regime, Ibrahim also included some of his past work during the 1960s and 1970s for viewers to see what the corrupt system neglected. “We suffered a lot during the past regime, especially from the Council of Fine Arts. They used to favour a few artists more than others for political reasons as we all know; so I seldom found resolution in nature and in other God’s creatures,” Ibrahim told Ahram Online.
One of the many controversial paintings the exhibition was entitled “The Departure,” where Ibrahim showcases a donkey in human clothing riding a bicycle heading out of the city. “This is how I view the animal kingdom; a more safer place to live in. The city is madness that should be escaped,” he explains.
“The Departure” is a few years old and received a number of critical reviews. “At first I started working on this piece in 2007, where I drew the donkey taking his son behind him on the bicycle and escaping the city; my colleagues and friends kept advising me to take the son out of the portrait,” he says. “In 2010, I listened to their advice and got rid of the son, keeping the donkey alone,” he says. Other pieces of this collection also mock human systems and showcase the superiority of the animal kingdom in terms of equality and freedom.
The only downside on the opening night was the live performance of Maghna Khan Band, one of Egypt’s alternative folk bands that rose up over the past seven years. In 2009, key members of the band including Nashid Al Ansary , Mohamed El-Fayed "Mamado" and Nour El-Deen formed the official band we have today. Nour El-Deen wanted to found a unique alternative music. Unique it is, attracting only the young crowd that came to the opening, but not all of them. The band was mainly surrounded by 50 of Egypt’s youth that represent their friends, chatting with the band over the microphones. It felt more like a house party than a professional performance.
Their songs talk about the daily life of youth in Egypt, featuring their thoughts and feelings, yet in a somewhat cheap way with weak lyrics. Their music also is rather standard. Maghna Khan Band have failed to find to their own signature style in music and songs.
The exhibitions of Egyptian artists Mohamed Mekawy and Mahmoud Ibrahim opened Monday night at the Mahmoud Mokhtar Cultural Centre and will run until 12 May.
Mahmoud Mokhtar Cultural Centre, 5 Tahrir St, besides El-Qahira Club, in front of The Cairo Opera House.