Egypt's jailed culture ministry official creates art behind bars

Sara Elkamel, Tuesday 19 Feb 2013

Former culture ministry official Mohsen Shaalan exhibits his artwork – completed during his recent one-year stint in prison – at Cairo's Gezira Art Centre until 28 February

Black Cat
'Held for Questioning' by Mohsen Shalaan

Charged with negligence and professional delinquency and imprisoned for a year after Van Gogh’s $55 million "Poppy Flowers" was stolen from the Mohamed Mahmoud Khalil Museum, former Deputy Minister of Culture and enduring artist Mohsen Shaalan, 62, rendered prison as his personal studio.

An exhibition entitled 'Black Cat: A Prison Experience' that opened 16 February at the Gezira Art Centre showcases the artwork Shaalan created behind bars. Prowling through the collection of large scale oil paintings and ink drawings is a black cat, a symbol for the feeling of injustice experienced by the artist.

Deputy Minister of Culture Mohsen Shaalan was the main defendant in the last major public opinion case, the theft of Dutch post-Impressionist genius, Vincent Van Gogh’s multi-million dollar painting. The artwork had been displayed in the Mohamed Mahmoud Khalil Museum in Dokki, home to one of the most significant collections of 19th and 20th century European art in the Middle East, including works by Claude Monet, Paul Gauguin, and Pierre-Auguste Renoir.

Careless security in museum

A press conference held on 14 February at the ministry-affiliated Gezira Art Centre, featuring current head of the Fine Arts Sector Salah El-Meligy, prominent artist Georges Bahgoury and art critic Salah Bicar set the stage for Shalaan’s "confession." The evening unfolded much like a therapy session, in which the freed man revelled in the chance to reminisce about the highlights of his career leading up to the Van Gogh theft, and surprisingly, his days in prison.

Mohsen Shaalan, who had been working for the ministry of culture since 1989, does not deny the lax security and wretched condition of the the museum. In an investigation carried out by the attorney general following the robbery, it was uncovered that out of the 43 cameras at the Mohamed Mahmoud Khalil Museum, only seven were functional.

Yet, the former official refuses to claim sole responsibility for the museum's hazardous condition, and discloses that he had repeatedly alerted former Minister of Culture Farouk Hosny of the need to invest in heavier security.

Shaalan recounts an incident in which Culture Minister Farouk Hosni invited a UNESCO delegation to the museum, only to be profoundly disturbed by the state of the curtains, unsympathetically worn by the sun.

"I told him, Minister, the cameras are also not working," remembers Shaalan. "But he replied, its okay, it’s okay no one can see the cameras, but something must be done about the curtains!"

When the Van Gogh painting was cut out of its frame, in August 2010, Mohsen Shaalan and 10 other ministry officials were accused of permitting the theft. Feeling that the case was “politicised” and that he was chosen as the ministry’s "scapegoat" in order to silence public opinion, Shaalan was distraught.

Art and freedom

The only fragment of freedom he could hold on to was art. After resistance and a brief refusal to get accustomed to life in prison, Shaalan adapted to his reality, and in any ways capitalised on it. His son, Ahmed, brought him art supplies in prison, serving as a trigger for an unexpected artistic endeavour that Shaalan exhibits in February.

The artist received a piece of priceless advice from friend and prominent poet Abdel-Rahma Al-Abnoudy, "Don’t be scared, (your time in prison) will provide you with a bowl of inspiration that will supply your artwork for a lifetime."

And fear soon took a backseat to art. Through paint and pencils he unleashed his frustrations, stifled cries and heartbreak, culminating in a series of oil paintings and ink drawings that simultaneously document the mundane details of the days he spent in prison and illustrate his anger and agony.

"Art gives you the freedom to use symbols that no one can take away from you," he explains, grateful for the outlet.

The prison cell became Shaalan’s studio, and the metal bars that kept his body confined did not have the same effect on his creativity. The artist’s retreat to prison catalysed some of his best work- a series of raw expressionist paintings that echo the fears and frustrations that ricocheted within.

Shaalan’s collection documents his days behind bars with infectious emotion. A graceful yet grim black cat appears and reappears in his paintings, haunting his compositions, "imposing itself" on his artwork. Shaalan recounts his experience with the black cat, which he saw everywhere, with a sense of nostalgia. For Shaalan, the animal symbolised injustice, treachery, and corruption, and in every painting the cat embodied a different sin.

Perhaps among the most compelling works in his collection are ink drawings that report the procession of the case and Shaalan’s serving of his sentence brought about by an unwavering imagination. In one painted, a black cat stares a man right in the face, daring him to yield to the sin it carries. In another ink drawing entitled 'Half Artist,' a man’s face is divided in two, half-human and half-cat.

Other paintings invited Van Gogh to the composition, such as the large oil painting entitled 'Held for Questioning,' which features three prisoners. The painting shows the vase with poppy flowers on one of the men's white t-shirt and a black cat visible from over his shoulder. 

While the 25 January Revolution unfolded and young artists painted the city walls to express their aspirations and frustrations, Shaalan was painting the cell walls. Upon leaving, he was sad to leave the walls behind. The artist was privy to an unusual seat during the revolution, fraternising with the enemy. He recounts how he found companionship in symbols of a regime that he deemed wrongfully imprisoned him, including Alaa Mubarak, Ahmed Ezz, Amin Abaza, among others during his stay in prison.

He admits that away from the ongoing investigations and criminal charges, the group of outcasts made delightful companions. He shared food and games of dominos with the shunned and imprisoned and became a personal friend to many. Despite the painting collection’s dark and agonised undertones, a flicker of light is seen in the illustrations of the inmates “hanging out” in prison. The prisoners would mingle from 7am to 5pm, at which point Shaalan would retreat to his cell and start to unleash the day’s energy, painting and writing into the night.

At the press conference, Shaalan was keen to highlight that he has long been a proponent and supporter of Egypt's cultural scene, and that he is not careless with art. For instance, he recounts how, until the eve of the robbery, he had participated in creating a museum for renowned Egyptian artist Inji Efflatoun (who was locked up, during the Nasser era back in 1959 for her communist activism, and also created expressionist artwork in prison). Shaalan worked to honour her legacy at the historical Amir Taz Palace, after the ministry of culture had abandoned her artwork and failed to deliver on a promise to her family to establish a museum for her.

Shaalan says he also restored or salvaged other museums from being taken over by commercial interests or falling in the throes of corruption. Venues he aimed to restore include Aisha Fahmy Palace, Rateb Sedeek Art Gallery, and 1952 Revolution's Heroes Museum, along with the Mohamed Mahmoud Khalil Museum.

Mohsen Shaalan had initially echoed the speculations of many art critics and writers including Farouk Gweda, over a scenario that left "Poppy Flowers" in the hands of first lady Suzan Mubarak. Yet, Shaalan has revised his speculation after meeting and befriending Alaa Mubarak in prison. Particularly, after he met with former first lady Suzan Mubarak during visiting hours, and she asked him, "If I wanted the painting, would I have needed a thief? I could have merely asked for it since we already have artwork in the palace loaned to us by the ministry."

The painting has not yet been recovered, but perhaps its theft served a great purpose for the Egyptian artist. The consequences of its loss, the imprisonment of an artist, served to exemplify the idea – you can lock up the artist, but art is immune to chains.

The exhibition, 'Black Cat: A Prison Experience' is a promenade through the agony of an artist behind bars and a lesson in survival.

'Black Cat: A Prison Experience' runs until 28 February
Gezira Art Centre, 1 Al-Sheikh Al-Marsafi Street, Zamalek, Cairo

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