Andy Warhol lives on in Egyptian contemporary art

Rowan El Shimi, Wednesday 22 Feb 2012

On the 25th anniversary of Warhol's death, Ahram Online speaks to local artists about the influence of the pop art icon on Egyptian artists

Photo: AP

Twenty-five years after his death, Andy Warhol’s legacy lives on. He not only revolutionised Western art; he left traces on generations of Egyptian artists.

Warhol was fascinated by consumerism and celebrity culture. In his first real solo exhibition in 1962 he exhibited works based on American brands, such as Campbell's Soup, Coca-Cola, and the dollar. Such images from popular culture would permeate his art for the rest of his career.

He changed the way people looked at art and what they considered art to be forever. He pushed boundaries and, most importantly, he always refused to give meaning to his art, maintaining an obscure persona and leaving others to interpret what he produced.

He was famous for the phrase ‘Art is anything you can get away with'.

In 2009 his ‘Eight Elvises’ painting sold for $100 million, a benchmark matched only by Pablo Picasso, Vincent Van Gogh and a small handful of iconic artists.

“He brought to our attention, probably for the first time in modern art history, the role of advertising in shaping and manipulating human behaviour,” Egyptian visual artist Khaled Hafez tells Ahram Online.

Throughout the 60s, Warhol’s work continued to shock the public and provoke critical discourse and debate. He normalised the use of photo transfer and silkscreen techniques, allowing him to turn art into an industrial process and involve others in its creation. One could say that this process in itself was an artistic message: mass produced art for a mass produced world.

“Warhol spat in the establishment's face,” comments Egyptian artist Nizar Shorbagi.

“In the future, everyone will be famous for 15 minutes" said Warhol. This comment came true in recent years with the emergence of reality TV shows, where people become famous – or even 'superstars' (a term coined by Warhol) – simply by appearing on TV.

Warhol was always uncomfortable with his appearance and decided to rebrand himself, donning  trendy clothes and eccentric wigs. He maintained an obscure and mysterious persona which fascinated the public and added to his fame. The question of his sexuality also attracted media attention. 

“He was a very controversial figure,” says Hafez. “For the first time people knew what the artist looked like... And while other artists at the time, such as Salvador Dali, did strange things to get noticed, Warhol’s persona in itself was fascinating."

Warhol made several films in his studio ‘The Factory’ which were focused on capturing humanity in a very real way. He did not lead his actors, he just let them be themselves. He was probably among the first artists to experiment with film as a form of visual art. His first film ‘Sleep’ featured a man sleeping for eight hours. 

Later in his career, he managed and produced for the rock band The Velvet Underground and designed the famous Banana album cover for The Velvet Underground & Nico. He encouraged them to cut loose, express themselves and lose control in their concerts, and introduced video projections at their shows. This later paved the way for musicians to experiment with their look and performance, and is especially notable in the Punk Rock movement that followed.

Many people say Warhol sold out during the 70s and 80s and became obsessed with earning money.

“Warhol sold out,” says Shorbagi. “But he was laughing at the establishment in the process.”

In terms of contemporary art, the influence of Warhol on the Egyptian scene is clear. Hafez often uses Warhol's quadrant painting style to depict Egyptian icons such as former president Gamal Abdel-Nasser, actress Souad Hosny and footballer Abu Treka. Whilst Nermine Hamam used photography and coca-cola advertising on canvas to discuss gender and social issues in her 2008 series ‘The Sea’. 

Hafez attributes the use of pop art in Egyptian contemporary art and the boom in consumerism partly to Warhol's influence. Consumer society developed greatly in 1950's America, a time when Egypt was a tightly controlled socialist state. Consumer culture hit Egypt over the past 20 years and a new visual culture developed with the splurge of advertising and the ubiquity of digital printing.

“He changed the art world, arguably as much as Marcel Duchamp, by making things and presenting them as art - but I would say that those he directly influenced came in the generations working straight after him, or even alongside him – those who actually saw his exhibitions or his work,” visual artist Taha Belal comments.

Belal argues that even if one cannot draw direct links of influence, it would be difficult for any artist today to say Warhol had not influenced their work in some way. However, the effect is now diluted across the generations of artists, each one forming a stepping stone.

“Warhol contributed to the fact that today there is little (if anything) that could be considered unusual as an artwork,” he added.

Reflecting on Egypt's graffiti boom, Shorbagi says: “Egyptian graffiti artists are definitely influenced by Banksy [the renowned but secretive British artist]. Then again, Banksy is very influenced by Warhol.”

There are many similarities between the styles of Banksy and Warhol, not to mention their desire to defy the norms of the art world and the establishment. Like Warhol, Banksy deals with themes such as consumerism, and he recreated the Marilyn Monroe Diptych with top model Kate Moss.

The line of influence between Warhol and contemporary Egyptian artists may be blurry and indirect but it cannot be denied that Warhol changed the way we perceive art. His influence lives on in contemporary culture and the work of generations of Egyptian artists.

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