A series of reflective paintings hang on the walls of the Safarkhan Art Gallery in Zamalek, playing with your senses. Drips of paint seem to run down the walls, as if they were in motion. The bright colours take the evening opening into a daytime atmosphere. Hafez’s carefully assembled, heavily encoded icons of a revolution that soared only to plummet, reflect a sense both of hope and of frustration.
The artist’s latest solo exhibition infuses his style of multi-layered collage with a revolutionary narrative. The canvases do not feature overused revolutionary icons, but subtle symbols that could only induce a hopeful and dynamic mood in the art fans who strode into the opening on that chilly January night.
The prolific artist usually blends ancient Egyptian symbols with modern images, and his chaotic canvases creatively break barriers between the “past and the present, East and West, the sacred and the ephemeral,” as Hafez always says; he enjoys “playing games on the canvas”. The kinetic element is very apparent in his works. A multilayered person himself, Hafez’s artwork combines personal reflections with societal commentary.
His new series, placed at a distance from Tahrir Square, handles the game-changing January 25 revolution, a riveting ordeal that influenced Hafez both as an artist and as a human being. The artist becomes a citizen, suddenly hypersensitive to the colours and shapes of his patriotism. In 2011, he continued painting while protesting alongside the young, benefiting from the generational gap to enrich his artwork. It is no surprise that Hafez uses more layers of under-paint in his collages in this than in any other collection.
Symbols crawl across the canvases, tackling a range of themes from metamorphosis and fertility (tulips), to modern, progressive Egypt (Om Kholtoum), to his beloved ancient Egyptian gods. Yet the symbols are not accidental, they are rather carefully chosen to visually encode the artist’s ideas. Hafez explains that the idea behind the Codes and Symbols concept is trying to filter out what is authentic and what is a copy in a society obsessed with slapping labels on people and aspects of life. As for the Stockholm Syndrome, “it is when the kidnapped falls in love with their captor,” says Hafez. “The captor symbolises domination, control, power and the organisational skill that the kidnapped man or woman lack in their own ordinary lives.”
The Stockholm Syndrome idea came to Hafez during a conversation with a girl who spent 10 days out of 18 camped out in Tahrir Square, and was beaten on the infamous "Battle of the Camel" on 2 February 2011. The girl told Hafez that she voted for a former NDP member in the parliamentary elections after the revolution ousted the former regime. “Nothing much changed except for hope,” Hafez says. The artist feels that, despite its magnetism, the revolution was no formidable force; many are still hostage to old mindsets. “Sometimes, it is not only about collective will; sometimes environmental forces beyond our control make us change our paths.” Hafez goes on, “It is true that things are not the same, and I am not the same, but at the end of the day, the analogy remains. The question is: what does make a person undertake a revolution and then, in effect, regret it?”
Looking around the revolution-themed show at Safarkhan, it is pleasantly surprising to notice the complete absence of the red, white and black colours of the Egyptian flag; nor are crowds of protestors painted blatantly. Hafez’s series refreshingly wraps up revolutionary icons in symbols and colours, but it took him a while to refine his concepts. “There is a trap that many fall into, which is representing things literally, and this is very cliché.” Hafez himself admits to including unconcealed revolutionary symbols into his post-25 January work, painting policemen and army tanks and demonstrators. “But gradually, I phased off.” Hafez thinks it was completely normal for artists to regurgitate their thoughts on canvas or through different media after 25 January, yet he sees such overtly literal artwork as short-lived regardless of its technical quality, which may well be proficient.
He soon strayed away from the clichéd representation of events. “I knew that to do good artwork, you can’t merely represent what you see; there must be some reflection, you should represent your interpretations on canvas.” It is not enough to copy what is circulating in the news, he believes. Authenticity is a must. Over the past year, Hafez spent plenty of time with young artists; he invited them over to work at his studio on Fridays, went with them to Tahrir, and curated the annual Youth Salon for them. “I learn a lot when I work with young artists,” he says. “They led me to Tahrir Square when I had no faith in the power of protests to yield change.” But 2011 was a year of transformation, and he learned to be a citizen as well as an artist, queuing up to give his vote for the first time. “Now that I’ve learned how to be a citizen, I will never stop being one.” Yet reflecting on the role of art in a fast-changing society, Hafez says that realistically, art cannot change anything. “Art is a tool that changes attitudes and behaviour, which is impossible to change overnight. Art cannot change anything surgically. Forget about me creating an artwork that stirs change through the country. When Khaled Said is killed, the people will rise, when Ahmed Bassiouny is killed, the people will rise — this transcends education and is understood by all humans.”
Explaining the symbols that inhabit his canvases, Hafez says the runners represent flight, which carries the notion of escaping from one identity into another, relevant in the post-revolutionary context. Female emblems also feature prominently: women appear everywhere, as ancient Egyptian goddesses or as the legendary singer Om Kholthoum.
For Hafez, Om Kholthoum is a symbol of the modern, progressive Egypt, who used to dress head to toe (to her handkerchief) in Chanel and Nina Ricci. “The people in that age wanted to live, but now they want to die,” says Hafez. Tulips grow on many of Hafez’s canvases. Recreating the shape of the womb, the Greek symbol represents sexuality and fertility. Tulips also stand for metamorphosis and moving from one life cycle to another, evoking regeneration. The artist paints different ancient Egyptian gods to represent alternative facets of modern society in the light of revolution. Through his paintings, he presents ancient notions with a contemporary edge.
In “On Codes, Symbols and the Stockholm Syndrome”, Hafez drips many-coloured paint down his canvases, to represent the millions that flooded to Tahrir.