Young artist Shayma Kamel’s Roh (Soul), which opened at Tache Art Gallery on Friday, explores female existence in a male-dominated world, and provides artistic depictions of the soul that permeate the fabric of modern Egyptian society.
Keeping a close eye on the dynamics of social life in Cairo, as artists usually do, Kamel, who has no formal art education, captures the essence of the Egyptian persona mostly through large paintings that simultaneously haunt and enchant.
“The exhibition discusses the soul that we are starting to lose,” the artist told Ahram Online. “I am trying to confirm that this soul is alive, those beautiful people are alive, with their striking eyes and authentic Egyptian features.”
Kamel’s women have wide eyes that stare blankly at you, but their gaze is anything but blank. The eyes are very Egyptian, reminiscent of Ancient Egyptian sculptures and wall paintings, and of modern art masters such as Zeinab El-Sageny.
The artist’s work draws inspiration from society. “I am always working on the changes happening around us,” she says. “I am always wondering how our faces and features change.”
Shayma Kamel is also driven by the struggle of women and girls in Egyptian society. She pays attention to “the girl who wants to ride a bike in the street and run, and the girl who… is in love.”
In one painting, Embrace (2012), a man and woman are interlocked in a passionate embrace. In Framed (2007), a woman stands defiantly, her head popping out of a red frame. In Freedom (2009), a nude woman, her disfigured body tinted green clumsily sits on a bike. And in Morning Coffee (2007), a woman dressed in a white dress holds a coffee cup in one hand, her head tilted to the side as if in wonder, or silent surprise.
The portraits that line up the spacious walls of Tache Art Gallery are painted in a deep, earthly palettes, sometimes encased in thick contours. The artist juxtaposes her subject with flat, bright colors at times, and places them against a background of untranslatable symbols at others.
This collection is selected from eight years of work. There are paintings on display created by Kamel back in 2004 when she held her first solo exhibition. The collection reflects the lingering identity of the artist throughout the progression of her career. The woman remains in a central position and she is always transfixed in a stare, perhaps silently negotiating her place in society.
Kamel says this work is very personal. Strolling through the gallery is like marching into the artist’s journals. And this is rendered true as soon as you catch a glimpse of Shayma herself. The artist is a carbon copy (a more 3D one, yes) of her portraits. And just like that, the collection is rendered ten times more autobiographical.
As you glide from one painting to the other, you spot signs of her Egyptian identity – a tiny coffee cup, the undeniable curls, a shisha – even the stare is very Egyptian. Anyone who has walked the streets of Cairo would confirm that.
Kamel’s woman is no femme fatal. There is a sense of truth in the collection that renders it moving. In her eyes there is an undeniable flicker of agony. Is she longing for a lost love? Is she disheartened by society’s treatment?
She says she does not enjoy sufficient freedom and as an artist, her struggles are multiplied. At times she feels forced to negotiate her place in society both as a woman and as an artist.
A larger than life painting of a woman dressed in a black burqa draws attention from gallery goers. Kamel says she painted it in 2010, and that at the time she could sense the imminent Islamist takeover.
“The role of the artist is to sense the changes and mirror the problems in society, and perhaps even put forward solutions to them,” she says.
This exhibition presents an impressive body of work by Shayma Kamel. Her more work since 2007 is more successful in capturing the sense of wonder and constant questions posed by Egyptian women living in a turbulent and often repressive society. Her earlier works, which are more geometric and abstract, are slightly anti-climatic in the framework of this exhibition.
In Roh, Shayma Kamel emerges as a visual social critic, reflecting on the dynamics of contemporary life in Egypt. In that respect she belongs to a generation of artists who are currently finding ways to depict the struggle and transformation of Egyptian society through art.
Yes, the portraits on the wall haunt you, but why? Perhaps it is because their eyes reflect a deluge of words unsaid, but their lips are painted shut and you will never hear them speak. The loaded silence disturbs you, but also excites you.
Roh runs through 19 November
Tache Art Gallery
Sunday-Thursday: 10am-10pm, Friday-Saturday 12am-10pm
S-139 Designopolis, Km 38 of the Alexandria Desert Road, Sheikh Zayed City, Cairo