In search of unity: Souad Mardam Bey paints poetry at her solo exhibition in Cairo

Ossama Lotfy Fateem, Tuesday 16 Jan 2018

Inspired by a poem, Souad Mardam Bey's new solo exhibition Adam, at Zamalek Art Gallery, looks into religious, gender, social and conceptual divisions created by humankind

Souad Mardam Bey
Adam and Eve, a painting by Souad Mardam Bey, part of her solo exhibition "Adam" at Zamalek Art Gallery (Photo: courtesy of the Zamalek Art Gallery)

In her new solo exhibition, which opened on 8 January at the Zamalek Art Gallery, Souad Mardam Bey was inspired by a poem from the Syrian poet Mohamed El-Maghoot entitled Adam.

The brilliant poem, the name of which provides a title for Mardam Bey's exhibition, reads as follows:

I will beget a child and name him Adam
Because in our times names are charges in themselves
I won’t name him Mohamed or Jesus
Aly or Omar ... Saddam or Hussein ... Zakareya or Ibrahim
Nor David or George
I fear he will grow up a racist and get a share from his name
Foreigners would consider him a terrorist
Radicals would see him infidel
Sunni would call him Shiite or Alawi
And Shiites would count him as Sunni
I worry that his name becomes his passport
I want him Adam the Christian, the Moslem
I want him to know that the religion is for God and homeland is for everyone
I will teach him that religion is what lies in the heart not its name
I will tell him that Arabism is an illusion and make him believe in humanity instead
I will teach him that hunger is faithless, ignorance is faithless and injustice is faithless
I will teach him that God is in the heart not in churches or mosques
That God is love not fear
I will teach him what our parents forgot to teach us
That what we lack is what we have
I will tell him that I want him a boy because girls are still facing death for being females
And that Arab society is still flawed

Souad Mardam Bey
Adam, a painting by Souad Mardam Bey, part of her solo exhibition "Adam" at Zamalek Art Gallery (Photo: courtesy of the Zamalek Art Gallery)

The poem rejects the discrimination that exists in the Arab world, with the poet making intelligent use of given names to demonstrate that idea.

In her new solo exhibition, Souad Mardam Bey searches for a unity that rises above the religious, gender, social and conceptual divisions created by humankind.

The 35 masterpieces in the exhibition took about a year to accomplish and represent the artist's journey from the poem to her psyche and then to the paintings. The message is strong and the themes are creative.

The large paintings – no easy task for any artist – use dim colors, so as not to shock viewers with flaming, bright lights. This allows the paintings to slide subtly into the viewer's spirit.

The display is testimony to the artist's constant evolution in style, ideas inspiration and messages; her work shows a deep sense of culture and her passion towards her pieces.

The painting bearing the name of Adam was the most time-consuming piece to accomplish. Applying many layers of paint and color, Mardam Bey used the features of a regular man, adding a glare to the eyes, which are the painting's source of attraction.

The dark coloring is a reference to the material from which Adam was created, while the stern features suggest that he is carrying the burden of Original Sin. Adam’s penetrating eyes show a hypnotic strength – facing the unknown on earth after leaving Heaven.

It is a memorable masterpiece.

The rest of the paintings have no titles. Mardam Bey allows the viewers to decode the paintings with their own eyes.

Souad Mardam Bey
A painting by Souad Mardam Bey, part of her solo exhibition "Adam" at Zamalek Art Gallery (Photo: courtesy of the Zamalek Art Gallery)

We can see the theme of Adam and Eve dealt with in another of the paintings, with an angel enticing them to eat the apple from the Tree of Knowledge.

The act of seduction here is not perpetrated by a serpent or a snake. Mardam Bey's idea is that anyone or anything that beautifies wrongdoing would do so in their most attractive form – making an angel the perfect medium.

Adam and Eve in Heaven look worry-free, with Eve looking meaningfully at Adam as he simply enjoys the environment.

The center-piece of the exhibition shows four persons standing, facing in different directions. One is in profile, while the second shows a face above the shoulder, and the last two are by themselves, not touching. We cannot determine the gender of the four persons, an intentional move by the artist; the message is that we are all humans, we are all the same and yet different and unique.

The problems we face in life are similar, and we have more in common than we realize. The characters in the paintings have a half-smile as they face life in different directions. There is no fear, joy or confidence in their expressions.

The mystery of the gender adds to the beauty of the painting. The brush strokes are confident, showing great talent, expressing the painter’s ideas and message.

Mardam Bey also provides her own take on Akhenaten, the king of monotheism, showing him in a new light. The creativity in this painting requires some reflection on the concepts of religion, God and beliefs, which have been dealt with since the beginning of time – since Adam was created.

In portraying the one who unified all the gods, the artist maintains the link to the poem. Akhenaten is like another Adam, not attached to any preset religion, but simply looking for the good in life.

The crown on his head underscores that he represents the authority and power of the king, while the heart in the corner of the painting sends a blunt message of love.

It is a painting filled with hope: Akhenaten unified the gods; hence it should be possible for humans to be unified in support of the more noble values.

By adopting the Adam theme, Eve was strongly present in the exhibition.

Mardam Bey drew and painted Eve in different stages and situations: from being pregnant, to being seductive, to nurturing birds, all dressed up, with a crown on her head, dating her man and socializing with friends.

In these paintings, the artist's philosophy is clear: when there is Adam, there is Eve as well. And as such, Mardam Bey makes a stand against discrimination, unifying the human race in yet another way.

Souad Mardam Bey
Akhenaten, a painting by Souad Mardam Bey, part of her solo exhibition "Adam" at Zamalek Art Gallery (Photo: courtesy of the Zamalek Art Gallery)

The exhibition continues until 24 January at the Zamalek Art Gallery, 11 Brazil Street, Zamalek, Cairo

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