A Life Surrounded by Art

Sara Elkamel, Thursday 27 Jan 2011

Sherwet Shafei, owner of the reputable Safarkhan gallery located in Cairo’s glamorous art hub Zamalek, talks to Ahram Online about her journey along many remarkable Egyptian artists

Sherwet Shafei with her collection

Sherwet Shafei first encountered art in 1960 when she was asked to present a weekly television programme, entitled Jawlat al-funun (Journey through the Arts), dedicated to art and artists in the city. And she has been utterly captivated by art ever since.

“Art intrigues me,” reminisces Shafei. “Through deciphering the language of art, I immediately fell in love.” For 30 years, Sherwet Shafei wrote, directed, and presented episodes that played out a gripping, creative voyage through Egyptian art.

Shafei has preserved her colourful memories by compiling a private collection of 200 paintings over the years. Yet her elaborate assortment of paintings started virtually from scratch. “A French lady called me one day and offered to sell me paintings by the great Mahmoud Said,” recalls Shafei. She signed off on the deal over the phone, with a blind belief in Said’s work. “And from that day on, I could not stop acquiring art.”

Shafei has never picked up a brush, dipped it in paint and attempted to create art, yet she has never stopped appreciating the value of a painting. “Since 1960, my passion for art has never wavered,” she says.

Watching art so very closely over the past 50 years, Shafei now looks back at Egypt’s artistic timeline. “Egyptian art started loud and strong,” she says. “The pioneers, such as Ragheb Ayad and Mohamed Hassan, believed in the message behind art.”

The private gallery owner appreciates Egypt’s flourishing contemporary art scene as well. “Young artists are emerging left and right, contributing to a very healthy art environment,” attests Shafei.

Collecting piece after piece, Sherwet Shafei has acquired richness, not of pocket, but of soul. “Art has made me rich,” says the collector. “I learned the power of vision and the capabilities of the eye,” she reveals, as her eyes glimmer ever so slightly.

She has been enchanted by the visual memoirs of Egyptian artists. “I have discovered that magic is renewable,” says Shafei. Every day the paintings she has collected provide her with energy and happiness that transcends all other emotions. “Art has changed me on the inside, forever.”

With unique styles, each artist has been able to participate in painting a coloured timeline of Egyptian art history. The collector has preserved memories of her encounters with the artists that changed her life.

The inspiration of Mahmoud Said, who she met only once in 1960, has prevailed throughout the years. Ragheb Ayyad, a pioneer in expressionism, became Shafei’s dear friend. Hamed Nada, who Shafei believes to have left a significant imprint on the world of art, also befriended the collector.

Shafei admired Effat Nagui in particular, a self-taught artist who took art to the next level. “Nagui was what I would call an avant-garde artist,” says Shafei. “She travelled throughout Europe, and delved deep into Egyptian heritage.” The collector remembers her mixed-media pieces, in which she blends wooden antique fragments and semi-precious stones, to deliver truly dimensional, modern art.

Safarkhan gallery has proved to be a very valuable element of modern-day Egyptian art, creating a market for contemporary artists and providing art enthusiasts with a creative sanctuary. For Shafei herself, Safarkhan was just as valuable. “The gallery experience has been very enriching to me,” she says. While she presented a television show revolving around art for three decades, she had no real interaction with art-lovers around Egypt during her broadcasting career. Now, art fans walk right into her gallery, strolling around, taking it all in and ultimately exchanging a few words about art.

Recently, the American University in Cairo Press published Twentieth-Century Egyptian Art: The Private Collection of Sherwet Shafei a book by Mona Abaza, exhibiting an assortment of 200 paintings collected by Shafei.
The idea of assembling this book first came up almost seven years ago, according to Shafei. Her plan was to preserve Egypt’s rich artistic heritage, and present a guide for Egyptian art that would take it worldwide. The author Mona Abaza, was fascinated by Shafei’s collection and it took three years of colourful conversations for the book to be completed.

On page after page, we are exposed to masterpieces by a broad assembly of twentieth-century Egyptian artists, accompanied by insightful collector’s notes. Shafei lays out her private collection, an overwhelming 200 paintings by pioneers such as Mahmoud Said and Ragheb Ayad, and modern artists including Hamed Nada and Youssef Sida, as well as orientalists and foreign artists.

As we leisurely flip through the pages, captivated by art pioneer Mahmoud Said’s ‘La Fille en Rose’, an oil painting of a stunning Egyptian girl embraced by a subtle light and then Ragheb Ayad’s ink drawings providing insight into raw, rural Egyptian life.

Later, contemporaries steal the limelight; Effat Naghy’s ‘A Girl from Thebes’ fills an entire page bursting with colour, followed by the more earthly-coloured canvases of Tahia Halim, who provides snapshots of Nubian life. Among the most magnificent pieces in the collection belong to the versatile artist, Youssef Sida. His oil painting ‘The Kunafa’ is a colourful, folkloric celebration of the month of Ramadan, while ‘Nude’ is a breathtaking, washed-ink drawing of a seductive woman, wrapped in monochrome.
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