‘Birds of a feather flock together’: From Salah Jahin to Youssef Abdelke

Dalia Chams, Saturday 7 May 2022

The Syrian engraver and caricaturist Youssef Abdelke held an exhibition of his works inspired by famous Egyptian poet Salah Jahin’s (1930-1986) quatrains at the Mashrabia gallery last month.

Salah Jahin


The exhibition featured Abdelke’s rendition of Jahin’s sarcastic, existentialist, and political universe. The exhibition, which was simply titled ‘Quartets Salah Jahin’, closed on 28 April. 

In fact, Jahin and Abdelke are both versatile artists, hands-on, extremely cultured without pretence, and none of them takes himself too seriously. Both are very involved in people’s lives and in matters of public interest.

‘Birds of a feather flock together,’ they say. It was therefore quite normal for the second to fall in love with Jahin’s quatrains, which he wrote some sixty years ago.

Similar to those of Omar Khayyam, these short poems carry profound yet playful meanings, and always end with the disconcerted exclamation “agabi!” (‘How bizarre or amazing!’).

Jahin’s poetry has haunted Abdelke for 25 years. They are written in Egyptian dialect and play with the earthiness of the vernacular, offering a meditation on life, death, the absurdity of passing time, and its raison d’être.

In short, it is a poetry of simplicity and hope, finesse and harshness, addressing universal and imperishable themes, tinged with typical Egyptian humour.

In the large format engravings of Abdelke that were made in charcoal, we find the same reflection on life and death, as they conceptually overlap with Jahin. We see in Abdelke’s work the influence of the antifascist German expressionists Otto Dix and George Grosz, who depicted the atrocities of war, but also the absurd narrative figuration of the Argentinian Antonio Segui.

Abdelke was born in Qamechli in north-eastern Syria in 1951. In 1987, he began creating a series of ultra-colourful pastels and collages on paper which he named ‘Figures.’

For a few years, he portrayed his people as mutilated, deformed, bloodsuckers who enriched themselves at the expense of their peoples. This came as a result of his affiliation with the Communist Party and his political convictions, which earned him 20 years of exile in France.

In 1995, the artist gave up colour, pastel, and collages and devoted himself to charcoal and black and white still-lives, often large, with angry scratches and meticulously hatched surfaces, adding a filter of light to them.

After the 2011 Revolution, his paintings started resembling tombstones, paying homage to those who lost their lives.

Based in Damascus, where he returned in 2005, Abdelke continues to practice art despite all the inconveniences he encounters.

Silkscreen printed designs

The exhibition at the Mashrabia Gallery in Cairo presented 35 of Jahin’s quatrains drawn by Abdelke between 2015 and 2019 and printed on silkscreen.

They all echo the thoughts of the two creators as one simply reaches out to the other — a poet and a leftist-artist.

A fervent nationalist during the Nasser years, Jahin was greatly affected by the debacle of 1967. One of his quatrains expresses his disappointment and resonates with Abdelke: “They said that politics is trying in general, O son, its waters are troubled, nothing to do with the softness of ostrich feathers.”

“O closed door! When can I come in? I typed for years, and always the same voice came back: Who is it? If I knew, I was going to retaliate immediately.”

Abdelke’s characters arm themselves with patience, lying on the ground or sitting in a café or standing in front of a large, padlocked door. Sometimes they are left to their loneliness, sometimes they are in the company of a woman — naked or covered. We get the impression that we are seeing through them or that we are under their skin. In this mixture of his work as an engraver and a designer, as usual, no detail is left to chance.

The cross-hatching, the roughness of the pieces, or the very limited use of red create a certain balance in the work.

The solar disk that can be found on several canvases — including the one illustrating his favourite quatrain — is borrowed from Assyrian and Babylonian bas-reliefs.

It is an ‘antidepressant’ quatrain, addressed to all those who dream of societal change, saying: “It was I who was seduced by the impossible. I saw the moon, so I jumped in the air. I reached it or not, it doesn’t matter! The main thing is to have satisfied myself, my heart sated with passion.”

Abdelke kept Jahin’s 172 quatrains in the drawers for ten years. He knows them almost by heart after re-reading them countless times. This is the kind of work that should be left to simmer over low heat.

“I have texts by the Syrian poet Nazih Abu Afach, on which I have wanted to work for 40 years, and those by Muhammad Al-Maghout, which I have kept for 30 years. After having created 45 drawings inspired by the quatrains of Jahin, of which I have kept 35, I made 10 others inspired by the poems of the Iraqi Saadi Youssef. However, I did not print them, because I believe that they were very influenced by the experience of the quatrains,” Abdelke revealed.

On the one hand, it was necessary to find a good screen printer capable of transferring the designs onto a silkscreen using screen and ink while preserving the nuances and gradations of tones. And on the other hand, he himself had to translate the profound lightness of Jahin.

“The funny and light side of the latter is not easy to convey. He has the ability to express human tragedy without making us sink into the dark. Enough to make us accept his words despite their overwhelming nature,” continues Abdelke, who divided his exhibition into five groups dedicated to five creators who have impacted him, three of whom are Egyptian.

These include the sculptor Mahmoud Mokhtar (1891-1934); the painter Mahmoud Said (1897-1964); the singer-composer Sheikh Imam (1918-1995); the French artist and writer Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968); and the Japanese painter, engraver, and draftsman who coined the term ‘Manga’ Hokusai (1760-1849).

“Since my youth, my references have been mostly Egyptian. I read literary works, the books of Ramses Younane (an Egyptian surrealist artist and one of the founders of the Art and Freedom group) and the writings of Hassan Soliman on the plastic arts, which I discovered before his magnificent paintings,” says Abdelke.

Each of these artists encouraged him to rebel, to break artistic and aesthetic codes, to break taboos, to renew, to experiment, moving from one discipline to another.

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