Young artist tackles Egyptian identity, women’s freedom in new exhibition

Sara Elkamel, Saturday 23 Feb 2013

In ‘Egyptian, I Am’ exhibition, the paintings and sculptures of young artist Maged Mekhail reflect a multi-layered Egyptian identity and advocate for women’s rights

'Bahga' or 'Joy', bronze sculpture, 2012. Photo: ArtTalks

A solo exhibit by the multi-talented, 31-year-old artist Maged Mekhail entitled Egyptian, I Am, features masterful sculptures, along with paintings and sketches that reflect symbols from the various ingredients making up the complex Egyptian identity, including its Coptic, Islamic and Pharaonic roots. The collection, currently showcased at ArtTalks in the art hub of Zamalek, also clearly depicts female sensuality in the young artist's attempt to enshrine the Egyptian woman’s right to freedom in contemporary society.

Mekhail, who studied under one of the top sculptors in modern Egyptian art history, Adam Henein, for four life-altering years after graduating from the Helwan Fine Arts Institute in 2004 tells Ahram Online that he did not plan for this exhibition to revolve around the components of the Egyptian identity. In retrospect, he realised that his heritage had worked its way into his artwork, and therefore the collection demanded that title.

Against the backdrop of monochromatic sketches and brightly-coloured paintings mostly depicting nude women, the room is populated with dramatic bronze sculptures that steal the spotlight. One statue, aptly called Bahga (Joy) embodies the emotion with flair. Worthy of a show on its own, this bronze sculpture of a woman's body, nude except for a ruffled mini skirt, propped up on a rotating sphere captures Mekhail's style and themes exceptionally well. He focuses on the female figure and gives her a platform on which she can move with freedom, all eyes on her, with a body perfectly curved, transfixed in a sensual posture.

The artist, who former culture minister Farouk Hosni dubbed "Mahmoud Mokhtar [father of Egyptian sculpture] in the making" on opening night, says his work has been irreversibly influenced by studying under prominent contemporary Egyptian artists such Adam Henein and the late Sobhy Gergis.

Mekhail cannot begin to enumerate the skills he acquired during his four year "education" under Henein, but discipline is one lesson that immediately jumps to mind: "He taught me to wake up early and work every single day," Mekhail says with a fond smile.

The young artist says working on his art is an integral part of his daily routine. After tea with milk and a piece of cake, Mekhail starts to create, unleashing a vision or an idea that had been hovering in his mind from the day before, in the medium it lends itself to. Despite the strict routine Mekhail has set in place for himself, he lets his artistic creativity flow and says the day’s work "depends on the energy."

The sculptures showcased at ArtTalks are packed with energy. The eagle, a long-time symbol held within the Egyptian flag, is sculpted to bear a rugged and textured appearance. Mekhail masters the eyes here, as the eagle stares on ahead pensively, and you can almost hear him thinking: "Which way now?"

Mekhail says he did not want his exhibition to document the revolution; a trend that has pervaded the Egyptian art scene for the past two years, but he admits he cannot always resist reacting to unfolding events through art. In one painting, the artist recreates the Maspero tragedy when a military crackdown on a demonstration against the burning of a Christian community centre soon turned into a chaotic bloodbath, reportedly killing 27 people on October 9, 2011. Painted on papyrus paper, the piece was an immediate reaction and a reflection of pain; the artist said he "had to paint it, to release the anger."

'Arouset El Moulid', bronze sculpture, 2012. Photo: ArtTalks

This exhibition, entitled Egyptian, I Am, amasses a number of symbols representing sub-cultures and religions in the currently perplexed nation. One sculpture, entitled Arouset El Moulid represents the doll produced in the celebration of Prophet Mohamed (PBUH)'s birthday. Tucked away in a corner is Nefertiti a gold leaf covered recreation of the ancient Egyptian queen.

Another sculpture renders iconic Egyptian singer Om Kalthoum, a recurring symbol of grace and modernity in the works of contemporary artists such as Khaled Hafez, Adel El Siwi, Georges Bahgoury, among others. This piece captures the singer's timelessness; regal in jet-black bronze, her posture still and silent, yet undeniably soulful.

Away from ancient Egyptian royalty and music icons, his sculptures of the everyday woman, including Sarah and Madam Iman, radiate grace and are almost a little risqué. They invoke a smile, a smirk, and a squint of momentary confusion as you try to understand the figure's parameters - but the point is, they move you.

At first glance, the paintings appear flat compared with the fluidity of Mekhail's sculptures. Yet in second, you are enchanted with the colourful mural-like pieces lined up across the white walls, bathing in the winter day's sunlight.

'Karioka', acrylic on wood, 2013. Photo: ArtTalks

The artist feels strongly and speaks passionately about the rights of women. His nude sketches and paintings ooze with femininity and sexuality. One portrays Aliaa El Mahdy’s legs, the Egyptian girl who posted nude photographs of herself on her personal blog in 2011, to public outrage.

Mekhail says women have been stripped of their rights in contemporary society, and that it is time they claimed their freedom. On one painting he scribbles, "I own my body, it is not anyone’s pride or property."

The three-dimensional quality that draws intrigue from onlookers, forcing them to twirl around the sculpture in order to get to know it’s curves and shadows a little better is lacking in Mekhail’s paintings, which perhaps appear flat, yet not less dynamic, than the figurines. It is perhaps unfair to show his two collections side by side; despite reflecting his diverse talents, it denies us the chance to appreciate each body of work on its own.

Currently open until Monday, 25 February
ArtTalks centre
8 El Kamel Mohamed Street, Zamalek, Cairo

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