The Human body as Art

Ati Metwaly, Tuesday 9 Nov 2010

Whether the representations of the body are spontaneous cave drawings or intentional academic studies, it remains one of the fundamental reasons for all artistic creations.

human body


Through the ages, the beauty of the human body has inspired painters, sculptors, photographers and  other artists. Whether the representations of the body are spontaneous cave-drawings or intentional academic studies, it remains one of the fundamental reasons for all artistic creations. It serves as a representation of its creator’s social and religious standards, it indicates cultural values, and above all: it symbolises absolute beauty.

The exhibition entitled “The Human Body – A Contemporary Vision,” which opened on 26 October in the Palace of Arts at the Opera House grounds, presents works of over 100 Egyptian artists,  which over a period of 60 years explore their relationship with the human body. “The idea of this exhibition goes back to 2007. This is when we informed artists about our plans and asked them to submit artistic works which would fit the theme of the Human Body,” comments Mohamed Talaat, director of the Palace of Arts and the exhibition curator.

“From the very beginning we set clear expectations looking for paintings, drawings, sculpture and photography.”  Installations, video projections, and performances are not included in the exhibition, as “they take lots of additional space, and they would distract the viewer from the particular angle that I wanted to present through the specific artistic expressions you see in this exhibition,” explains Talaat.  

The exhibition presents works from contemporary Egyptian artists, allowing the observer to examine a variety of perspectives and issues raised through representations of the human body. The journey in body exploration starts with Ahmed Nawar’s sketches on paper from the 1960s.  “In only the last decade, there has been a major development in many areas of life. Not only do we face rapid technological progress, but there are also many changes in social and political arenas. The exhibition demonstrates how Egyptian artists think about the human body and how they capture its link with the current and rapidly-changing realities,” Talaat asserts.

As we reach works created in the last decade, their number increases, as obviously the body returns as a strong messenger. Many works stress the social and religious contrasts in Egyptian society. Atef Ahmed presents two works incorporating paint and photography, one representing a woman wearing the niqab, (full face veil), and a woman in a dress from the 1950s. Yasser Nabil’s naked woman with niqab, kneeing next to a cross is equally controversial as are Shimaa Sobhi’s three large oil paintings, on panels which directly communicate the same contrasts. Ahmed Nasser’s dark canvases evoke vague human figures, almost phantoms lost in time. Fareed Fadel studies of a suffering man comprise a number of sketches and a painting expressing the same character with the body penetrated by several arrows.

Less provoking thematically, yet artistically inspiring are Nadine Hammam’s contrasting colours; purple, blue and black, in her three panels representing repetitive contours of nude women, plain and striking. Asmaa El Nawawy discusses maternity in modern blue perspectives. Eman Osama's simple black ink on white backgrounds underlines woman’s beauty in simplicity. Reda Abdel Rahman chooses representations of traditionally-dressed women, Islam Omer El Nagdy uses golden colours to present a simple character from an Egyptian ahwa (coffee/shisha shop), while Yasser Gad’s art reaches for Pharaonic inspiration. A static body is an ultimate communicator of ideas, its movement additionally links the artists to specific traditional landscapes, as is the case of the Tanoura dancers in Taher Abdel Azim’s canvases.

We find hope and inspiration in some sculptures, such as Rossana Corrado’s woman with no arms but with a wing-like structure attached to her shoulders.  An equal search for freedom is found in Mohamed El Ahawy’s woman pulled by a bird towards the sky.

“The body is everything. Body is art, as art began with a body,” Talaat goes on. “We are in an era beyond technological advancement and artists go back to thinking about the human body as an ideal means of expression.  The concept of the body is vast; it is not only a picture, it comprises soul and thoughts, it reflects the world, it relates to others, while others are bodies themselves. Everything that exists in this world is related to the body and taken as such, the body reflects the social, political, economical as well as artistic state of affairs in the country.” Talaat asserts that the exhibition gives Egyptian artists an opportunity to reflect on the Egyptian realities of the last decades, and  passes those thoughts on to a wider audience.

While some visitors may perceive a number of the paintings as socially and religiously provoking, artists see it as an actual proof of ideas presented on their canvases. Talaat insists that the works presented in “The Human Body” exhibition should not be viewed as a layer but rather as an idea. “A form or a scene is a superficial tool, masking deeper meanings which artists transmit to their audiences. I do not pay much attention to comments discussing outer layers; I care more about artists and their message.”  Talaat believes that the exhibition is an important step to further exploration of the views of contemporary artists and adds an important element to further developments towards this angle of expression.

Mahmoud Farid, assistant lecturer at the Faculty of Fine Arts in Zamalek underlines the important human and religious contrasts expressed in many works. “In the current rapidly-changing realities, where stress is put on appearances rather than values, it is important for artists to contribute their views,” Farid commented. He had visited the exhibition with a group of fourth year students from the graphic department, who are working on a project related to the human body.  One, Yasmine Gamal, admired the simplicity of some of the paintings. Menatallah Fathi and Nancy Essam Eldin consider that the body is the most expressive tool, but question some canvases as not being up to the expected artistic standards.  

But the exhibition is not only aiming to send a social message through the human body. It is also a good chance to re-examine the progress of Egyptian art and revise the works of many artists. Paintings and sculptures of the younger generation of artists introduce us to their thoughts and concerns related to their futures. Triggered by themes and ideas expressed by the most controversial canvases, the exhibition becomes also an assessment of Egyptian audiences today. Bearing this in mind, it is a pity that the exhibition has not received enough attention and is not sufficiently presented in the media to local and international audiences. The exhibition definitely lacks a comprehensive booklet, which would have helped visitors from a variety of social stratums reach a better understanding of the artists and their works.


“The Human Body – A Contemporary Vision”, a Selection of Contemporary Artists, exhibition is on until 18 November at the Palace of Arts, Cairo Opera House grounds

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