New exhibition at Medrar puts creative narratives under the microscope

Soha Elsirgany, Saturday 8 Aug 2015

The Good, the Bad and the Crimson Shoe, a duo exhibit that opened in Cairo's Medrar gallery, triggers questions about the function of art

Maghraby and Tawfig
Artwork by Maghraby (above) and Tawfig (below) at The Good, The Bad and The Crimson Shoe exhibit at Medrar (photo: Soha Elsirgany)

Curated by Mohamed Allam, the founder and director of Medrar gallery, The Good, the Bad and the Crimson Shoe exhibition opened on 2 August.

The exhibition brings together two artists with very different styles: Maghraby, who works with pen on cardboard, and Tawfig, who creates digital paintings.

Both artists go by a single name only.

“I saw something similar in both artists’ work. Although they have very distinct styles, they both have sort of narratives and characters,” Allam tells Ahram Online.

He adds that the initial idea for the exhibition was that each artist would have a section, with their work displayed in separate rooms. The merger of the works came later on, during installation.

The exhibition’s statement tells an intriguing story of a girl named Salma, who places things under a microscope for her inspection. She has an old painting of a crimson shoe. When she takes it to the shoemaker, he mysteriously has the original shoe. Placing it under her microscope, the shoe reveals a serial code, leaving Salma and the viewer guessing its purpose.

Each of the artists had worked separately on their projects, before the statement was written. As viewers we look for connections between the two projects, being given a single statement that envelops both.

Armed with this piece of fiction, these hints, this microscope, the viewer’s thoughts are given free rein to take in the artwork and make their own stories and connections.

The exhibition gives rise to a number of questions that the audience is expected to answer. How much should the artwork give us or keep from us? Where does the artist’s role end and the audience’s role begin? Where should they meet, if it is at all necessary to meet?

Nostalgic narratives

From Assiut, digital artist Tawfig was studying law before he shifted to applied arts, and is currently still enrolled at the Higher Institute for Applied Arts in the city of 6 October.

Tawfig deals with stories from childhood, his world bursting with colour and humour, creating caricature characters, revisiting emotions, and looking back on products and objects from different stages of his past.

One painting depicts a character wearing a colourful pullover, his hand in his pocket and leaning backwards as if in laughter, with fire flying out of his mouth.

“These pullovers were very popular back in the day. I had this exact one, and this other one too. These were what people were wearing,” Tawfig tells Ahram Online, pointing to other paintings where he depicted his own clothes on his characters.

In his works, the simplicity of the background is countered by his intensely expressive, sometimes monstrous-looking, subjects, some of which are green, blue, and white-skinned.

Another picture depicts a floating cow, and Tawfig tells a story he grew up with: “My father would tell me when a cow poops on a spot on the ground, plants grow in its place, and it is a sign of prosperity and abundance.”

In a smaller piece, Tawfig draws a tiny lit cigarette, its flowing smoke becoming a genie-like character holding an axe.

“That was when my father first caught me smoking,” he says with a grin.

A ghastly character looking like death sits at a desk in another piece, with a pile of papers in front of him, and a thought bubble above him containing a bike and a woman.

“If you pass your finals you get a bike as a gift,” he says, echoing a classic motivation motto many Egyptian students nationwide grew up with.

Tawfig is also a comic artist; working on his first issue of his comic book that is personally funded, and planned to come out later this month.

“In this context [of the gallery] his pieces are not comics, but artworks,” Allam says.

Allam adds that this presentation of Tawfig’s work is a balance between offering contemporary digital art, and what people consider as valuable, i.e. handmade work.

Tawfig is aware of the challenges surrounding his type of artwork, both the digital paintings and the comic books.

“I think appreciation within the art circle is growing, but has yet to reach a wider audience. I really hope it’s not a passing phase.”

Artist Tawfig with his work a Medrar's The Good, The Bad and The Crimson Shoe exhibit (photo: Soha Elsirgany)

Cyber space and virtual voids

As an architect, Maghraby deals with the idea of built worlds.

“I construct these worlds, and here I am exploring the virtual, parallel world of the internet,” Maghraby tells Ahram Online.

His small-sized pieces are like snapshots from a walk inside the internet. Using a blue pen on white-washed cardboard, Maghraby’s internet is a neat, clean world, with binary codes floating like suggested signs next to the drawings.

His subjects, like Tawfig, are wide-ranged. In addition to portraits, there are animals, including a bull and a rabbit, a cigarette pack, a robot, and a Converse shoe, that is not crimson.

The drawings are made in dashed lines as if the images are not solid and are still forming, or are shadows of things that have since disappeared.

“Part of my process involves using the architecture design program AutoCAD to insert photographs, especially the portraits, that get translated to these dashed lines and dots,” Maghraby says.

Maghraby’s virtual universe has voids, air and space felt through the whiteness of his chosen backgrounds. The drawings get more complex as you walk into the inner rooms at Medrar, finding larger works introducing colour into the pieces with paint.

Yet, the artist’s process was the opposite.

“The work with painted parts was made earlier, then as I developed the concept, I simplified, feeling the work had to have more of that void,” he says.

Artwork by Maghraby at Medrar's The Good, The Bad and The Crimson Shoe exhibit (photo: Soha Elsirgany)

Relying on the audience's perception

The statement was written by Maghraby for his own work, but Allam thought it reflected both projects, and touched on that element of narratives he had seen common between the two artists.

“I don’t like to show and tell. I prefer it to be an indirect relationship, a story in parallel that borrows elements from the work,” Maghraby says.

Thematic connections between Maghraby and Tawfig’s works are few.

One visual link is Coca Cola, as they both depict cans and bottles of the drink in some of their pieces. Disappointingly, this turns out to be coincidence.

Seeing as they worked separately, there was no collision of talents, no product of discussion between two creative minds interacting. If one was seeking a connection between both works, visually or thematically, that connection is in the audience’s mind, not a result of the artists’ doing.

The exhibition is a fine example of art being more and more dependent on the audience’s perception, regardless of what the artist originally wanted to express.

It is as if the artists and the curator deliberately want to break free of any expectations. Art is just a breath, a scream, a smile, not weighed down by explanations of what it should and shouldn’t mean.

“I’m the same as any other person trying to express something, a feeling or a thought. I just have these artistic tools and this language that I can use,” Maghraby says.

“The important thing is to create a space of interaction between the work and the audience’s thoughts, to give rise to questions,” he concludes.

The exhibition opened on 2 August and runs till 20 August
Medrar gallery, Apt 4, 1st Floor, 7 Gamal El-Din Abou El-Mahasen Street, Garden City, Cairo


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