Sarah El Samman’s paintings
My introduction to Sarah El Samman took place through a group exhibition at the Ubuntu Gallery a few years ago. Exquisite pieces, they depicted the simplest scenes – a cat on a fence, for example – in a fascinating way.
Afterwards, I looked for the artist’s name in every group (let alone solo) exhibition that came up, but she had disappeared into thin air – until I heard about “Parallels from Within”, her first solo exhibition. The show opened in April but a large part of it is being re-exhibited alongside the gallery’s annual summer collection to make up for quarantined time.
Born in 1983, El Samman studied art at the American University in Cairo, embarking on an interior design career before taking up painting with the late Magd El Sagini. She has developed her own unique style of mostly monochrome paintings in ink and acrylic on cardboard, mostly displayed without a frame, and sometimes cut to the contours of the of the female body in motion. It is a powerful new vision of Egyptian womanhood.
“I don’t like the typical form of framed paintings,” El Samman told me at the gallery. “I want my paintings to feel free, and for the viewer to find them more approachable. I started working on the exhibition a year ago. I had been overwhelmed by the concept of body language, movement and dance. So I started studying the movement of figures, paralleled by the body’s emotions.”
Her work involves the most complicated dance positions, as well as the simplest gestures of a body resting on a couch or sitting in a chair. She uses shades of white, grey and brown in her mixed-media paintings. In Leaving Our Differences Behind, 32 x 25cm, the movement of overlapping hands and arms is so expressive it invites the viewer to meditate on its very meaning.
“I was so intrigued by the idea that you can simply read your partner’s mind through their body movements, and I wanted to explore that through painting. My previous paintings, exhibited in two group exhibitions at Ubuntu Gallery, were more like a visual diary, involving the scenes and places I passed while driving to my parents’ or shopping for groceries in the streets of Heliopolis. Here I wanted to study the female form and its movement. And then, as an added level, I wanted to illustrate the overlapping of two or more figures. The overlap of figures creates a composition, a network of organs I really liked.”
Putting things in an unusual position, she says, calls for new questions about and a new perspective on routinely seen bodies. This show is the result of a dialogue between forms and the space they occupy.
“More precisely,” El Samman explains, “I wanted to examine this overlap between the inner and outer worlds.” She found inspiration in contemporary dance classes, which she personally joined while preparing for the exhibition. There, she scrutinised the free movement and the magic flow of the body. “Dancing is one effective way of the personification of one’s emotions and thoughts: shapes become flexible, they turn, fly, and fold into each other, collapse and reform.”
El Samman says she pays attention to the background as well, and considers it as significant as the figures. She is keen on striking a balance between negative and positive space. Sometimes she blends the two, giving her scene a much deeper perspective. She deconstructs and reorganises the figure to show its movement.
“I am fascinated by collage, it helps me to enhance depth and drama in my paintings. It also gives the painting a different texture, especially when used on cardboard. Generally, cardboards give me more freedom to add the textures I want. It is rough and quiet. Canvas is more intimidating.”
But, as part of a group of woman artists focused on the female body, one that includes Weaam El Masry and Mai Refky, does El Samman see herself as a feminist painter?
“No,” she says. “I pursue that path, but I take it to the next level.”
*A version of this article appears in print in the 6 August, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly