New exhibition displays diversity and talent of Egypt's young women artists

Sara Elkamel, Saturday 8 Feb 2014

In an exhibition running until 11 February in Cairo, seven contemporary female artists demonstrate the dynamism of young Egyptian visual artists

Artwork by Hend Samir. (Photo: Sara Elkamel)

An exhibition featuring the works of seven female Egyptian artists opened 5 February at Al-Hanager Arts Centre, located within the Cairo Opera House grounds, kicking off the second Independent Arts Festival.

Curated by Mohamed Abla, the exhibition showcases artwork by seven Egyptian artists: Hend Samir, Aya El-Falah, Wessam Koreish, Sara Hamdy, Nora Seif, May El-Shamy, and Souad Abdel-Rasoul.

The artists seek to “independently express their different worlds and to make their original marks on the art scene, yet they are tied together by a common desire to tell stories,” according to Abla's curatorial statement.

The seven mini-collections spread out across the vast, dimly lit exhibition space at the venue, providing seven radically different experiences for visitors.

Hend Samir presents a series of bright acrylic paintings carrying familiar Cairo streets inhabited by unfamiliar creatures such as dinosaurs and ponies.

Aya El-Falah exhibits a series of large-scale figurative paintings depicting men and women in their undergarments.

Wessam Koreish's series of small scale mixed-media drawings on wooden panels show figures against a desert-like backdrop while bright red and yellow pills making appearances in every frame.

Sara Hamdy showcases paintings of infants in ink and paint.

Nora Seif, meanwhile, exhibits monoprints depicting strange creatures juxtaposed with text in intriguing compositions.

May El-Shamy exhibits five abstract paintings that share a subdued yet graceful palette.

Finally, the hall concludes with Souad Abdel-Rasoul's mixed media project in which she draws on pages from animal anatomy books and old maps.

Strolling down the streets of downtown Cairo with her sister, Hend Samir tells Ahram Online she was surprised when a visitor hurled itself off the roof of one of surrounding buildings, landing right on her shoulder. The visitor in question was a large snake, the artist recounts with residual horror. The unlikely incident and the idea that wild animals would live among men in cities inspired the usual series of paintings exhibited at Al-Hanager.

“I started working on the idea of these imaginary creatures that were suddenly unleashed on the city, and started living with people in Cairo in harmony,” she said.

Samir's canvases, refreshingly vibrant, are composed of human figures and colourful creatures, co-existing against a backdrop of familiar Cairo streets.

Like pages from an illustrated children's book mounted on the wall, the paintings are comical and lighthearted.

Samir previously focused on political art, and one of her exhibitions featured monoprint works focused on elections. For now though, she says she has decided to go on open-ended sabbatical from political themes.

"I was always distracted as depressing events develop at a rapid pace, so I did not want to tie my work to those dynamics anymore, because that would stall my production," she says.

Samir's uncharacteristically droll series contrasts with Aya El-Falah's solemn paintings depicting women with their underwear over their clothes, and a bearded man dressed merely in his white undergarments. Coated in blue and white hues, the paintings bring to mind Pablo Picasso's blue period. The pieces also bear a resemblance to Egyptian artist Samir Fouad's portraits, which are characterised by almost trembling features, as if the paint has been inadvertently smudged.

The artist believes that society either completely sensationalizes underwear or otherwise, tries to pretend it does not exist. El-Falah strikes back through bringing those undergarments to the fore. By doing so, the artist says she attempts to question the cultural taboos and prescribed gender roles and expectations that she finds outlandish.

“My work is generally either strongly supported or strongly rejected by people, but I will continue to tackle subjects that touch me personally,” she says.

El-Falah says that two of her paintings were eliminated from the Youth Salon for being "obscene." The artist is pleased that the paintings could be shown at Al-Hanager though. “Showing my art to the public is a form of therapy, a release," she says.

Another captivating collection belongs to Souad Abdel-Rasoul, who draws portraits on pages from animal anatomy books and world maps. The artist explains that her project was inspired by two ideas: that human beings are composed of all the elements that exist on earth, and by questioning why human beings are considered sacred creatures, superior to all the rest.

Challenging this "sanctity" of human beings, the artist uses pens and acrylics to paint portraits and figures atop maps, or veterinary anatomy books, arguing that humans combine elements from the earth and the animal kingdom.

The exhibition captures seven young female artists at critical points in their careers; they are either breaking away from old subject matter, experimenting with new painting styles, tackling existential questions, or very personal ones. The walls of the gallery space, displaying absorbing and eclectic work painted on wood, on canvas, in acrylics, in oil, depicting babies and dinosaurs, show above all how much talent is to be found among Egypt's young visual artists.

Dedicated to Egypt’s independent scene, the Independent Arts Festival runs from 5 February to 15 May, and features a diverse line-up of events, including four visual art exhibitions held across three cities (Cairo, Alexandria and Luxor), six workshops, an independent film festival, theatre performance by more than 40 troupes, six musical performances, and the launch of a book that documents the developments in Egyptian independent theatre.

Exhibition runs until 11 February
Al-Hanager Arts Centre, Cairo Opera House grounds, Zamalek 

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