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Ali Fahmi layers multiple influences in his first solo of abstract paintings

The exhibition presents large paintings by the self-taught artist Ali Fahmi for the first time, selected from this painting practice over the last 30 years

Soha Elsirgany , Monday 15 Apr 2019
Solomon's Boat by Ali Fahmi in his solo show 'Scattered' (Photo: Soha Elsirgany)

Ali Fahmi’s first solo exhibition ‘Scattered’ is currently running in a downtown space on Huda Shaarawi Street.

The exhibition shows a collection of 13 large works of oil paint and charcoal, dated between 2011 and 2018, selected from the self-taught artist’s 30-year body of work.

Fahmi’s work combines the fresh naivety of a self-taught artist freed from institutional bounds and the sophistication of a sensitive observer of life.

Our experience of the space chosen for the exhibition adds a certain charm to the show and colours our perception of his layered abstract expressionist works.

The space

On the opening day, the stairs leading up to the fourth floor apartment are lined with small candles. There are geometric drawings on the stair walls that resemble alchemical symbols, with the last one indicating there is ‘one more flight to go.’ Together with the symbol, and ritualistic flames, the word "flight" feels more like the verb than the noun.

Strokes of beige and flesh coloured paint on the wall by the entrance – as if the artist used the wall for a palette – suggest that this exhibit is not only about what is framed, but everything surrounding it.

Fahmi’s artwork blends into the space effortlessly, both visually and thematically. Fahmi’s earthy palette dominated by browns, beige, and charcoal complement the crumbling wallpaper of the long-abandoned apartment.

“It also suited Ali’s practice that for so long has been rooted in downtown [Cairo],” says Rebecca Porteous, the artist’s wife, who together with artist Sama Waly organised and curated the independent exhibition.

To display Fahmi’s work in a sterile white cube gallery would have been to cheat the artwork, which pulls inspiration from the subtle and rich fabric of life.

The show is less about contrast and more about flow, through dark and light visual textures, through moments of peace or chaos, and through the many layers of influences that go into a single work.

A moment can be scattered into several actions, represented in mere brush strokes and the artist’s physicality as he creates them.

Every day, over several hours, Fahmi approaches his canvas as he would a friend, as if initiating a conversation that will then be built up in layers.

But like many relationships, it’s not always straightforward.

In the artist’s own words: “Sometimes you connect, sometimes you don’t, sometimes it’s instant, sometimes it takes many months to make a connection. You give it yourself and see what unfolds.”

These moments of connection are what he calls "situations." The abstract artist can initiate a situation with an expressive brushstroke, or responds to an external stimuli that moves him.

In his studio, one of the methods Fahmi uses to get his eyes into the realm of painting is to hang up a crumpled sheet of fabric.

It is not that he paints the fabric, yet something about this set up makes its way into his work. His charcoal lines begin and dissolve as fabric creases would, creating hills and valleys out of an otherwise flat material.

salamander falling from the sky
Salamander Falling from the Sky by Ali Fahmi (Photo: Soha Elsirgany)

The elements

By mistake or by design, different elements come up in Fahmi’s paintings, never directly, but present in his colours or in titles.

There’s a dash of blue water in 'Solomon’s Boat,' a gust of white wind in 'Breathe,' a pile of brown soil in 'Excavation,' and a fiery crimson in 'The Flight of Icarus.'

Across the exhibition, the titles are a hint at the wide range of influences, from something as cold and mechanical as 'Construction' to the poeticism of 'Maggie’s Landscape' and the surrealism of 'Salamander Falling from the Sky.'

Navigating the many rooms and corridors of the space, we find there are literal, emotional, environmental, and even musical influences.

The walls are peppered with printed quotes from many writers that have struck a chord for him and imbued his psyche.

Exhibited in a separate room, 'The Call of Cthulhu' is displayed with an audio of Metallica’s track by the same name.

The track was in turn inspired by 'The Call of Cthulhu' by H.P. Lovecraft, a horror story about a mythological monster unleashed.

Fahmi’s piece is just as dramatic as both the story and the music piece.

Dominated by a heavy network of dark lines against whites, blues and some ochre yellow, the piece is visually dense. Our eyes are drawn to a clear area close to the centre, which offers relative calm but also feels like the eye of a storm.

In 'Death of Sardanaplus,' Fahmi evokes the 1827 masterpiece by Delacroix, which was inspired by another work of literature; Lord Byron's 1821 literary tragedy 'Sardanapalus.'

Just as Delacroix captures the tragedy, chaos, and drama of the story, emphasised through his exceptionally sensitive colour palette, Fahmi’s abstract rendition of it is rich with a similarly impassioned sense of movement.

A spill of deep red in the lower left side is the only hint suggestive of the bloody history of Sardanaplus, as he deconstructs and reduces the scene to gestural strokes of paint.

Perhaps much like Delacroix, Fahmi has something of the Romantic artists, who concerned themselves with intuition, subjectivity, transcendence, and nature.

Pulled from a different place is a painting titled ‘Crows,’ which captures the essence of a moment Fahmi experiences often on his farm.

The artist doesn’t explain much in words, but shows me a video on his phone that does this for him.

The quick black lines here evoke the fluttering wings of a flock of crows landing onto a tree at sunset, suddenly disturbed by an invisible source as they fly back into the sky.

A single black feather is placed on the frame. We also find a similar one over ‘Breathe,’ which shares a room with ‘Flight of Icarus,’ the Greek mythological figure who flew too close to the sun with wings of wax. A chunk of wax is displayed on a windowsill, next to a small print of Sardanaplus.

This is all unintentional.

“It’s all about the alchemy,” the artist says, referring to the subtle connections he brings into his art, his personal process of transformation.

After having spent so many years with these works in a studio setting, the experience of seeing them on display is new to Fahmi, who feels a strangeness in this distance between them.

"Now that they are framed, I feel maybe they have lost a bit of truth,” he says.

That’s not to say he won’t be exhibiting again.

“I’m excited to work more and exhibit again, because it's also about communication, and that’s how an artist develops.”

Scattered runs until 13 April
29 Huda Shaarawy street, Downtown, Cairo

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