Shayma Kamel’s Cinderella Tales: When fairytale princess meets burqa

Sara Elkamel, Tuesday 25 Feb 2014

In her latest solo exhibition 'Cinderella Tales' which opened 16 Feb at Mashrabia Gallery, Egyptian artist Shayma Kamel tackles disparities between representation and reality in contemporary Egyptian society

Painting by  Shayma Kamel. (Photo: courtesy of Mashrabia Gallery)
Painting by Shayma Kamel. (Photo: courtesy of Mashrabia Gallery)

In mixed media canvases hanging across the Mashrabia Gallery walls, Shayma Kamel attempts to capture contradictions between reality and childhood fantasies of fairytale princesses.

Kamel is a prominent, and prolific, contemporary visual artist based in Cairo with numerous participations in both local exhibitions and beyond. Her artwork continues to tackle societal dynamics and engage in conversations about such topics as freedom, female struggles and Egyptian identity on canvases bedecked with her commitment to experimentation with various mediums and materials.

In this show, Kamel wages war on societal expectations she deems unrealistic and which she holds Western media, along with the dismal state of national education, accountable for creating.

“What kind of woman does an Egyptian man dream of? He dreams of Cinderella,” Kamel tells Ahram Online. “But Cinderella has green eyes and blonde hair, and looks nothing like us. All these fantasies are therefore imported.”

Kamel finds that, due principally to their mindless consumption of imported television content, people grown up “with these ideas that are completely detached from our reality,” she says.

Throughout the show, the compositions mostly follow a simple recipe. “I have combined two images, one to represent reality, which you can see in the nude figures, and another to represent fantasy, which you can find in these fairytale [Disney] princesses,” explains Kamel. Symbols carefully chosen by the artist also appear to accentuate her argument.

The artist sets out to spotlight ironies and inconsistencies in contemporary society. “I tried to bring these two distant worlds face to face, the nude figures, which are unpalatable in our society, with these fictional characters that are somehow embraced as part of our culture,” she says.

Painting by Shayma Kamel. (Photo: courtesy of Mashrabia Gallery)
Painting by Shayma Kamel. (Photo: courtesy of Mashrabia Gallery)

One painting presents a large white nude against a blackboard-like backdrop, with letters of the Arabic alphabet on one side, and a series of Disney princesses lined up at the bottom.

“I combine these three elements in a somewhat crude manner -- and I did intend for it to be crude, because that makes people stop and start to think,” the artist says defiantly.

In bringing these distant worlds together, Kamel says she tries to draw attention to the juxtapositions that plague Egyptian society. By adding letters from the alphabet and placing books in the middle of her compositions, she seeks to demonstrate the fairytale education that inevitably affects individual identity.

The education theme recurs in another of Kamel's paintings. A group of boys, dressed only in red underwear, stand amid a green field while a nude woman lies dramatically on the ground below a large red book.

“I'm combining two different stages: childhood -- when ideas are planted -- and the reality in which we live [...] holding on to this imported childhood.”

Painting by Shayma Kamel. (Photo: courtesy of Mashrabia Gallery)
Painting by Shayma Kamel. (Photo: courtesy of Mashrabia Gallery)

Kamel’s use of flat colour, perhaps intended to mimic the cartoon aesthetics that she addresses, increases in this exhibition. In one painting, three Disney princesses float around against a scarlet background, as a blue, nude, pregnant figure stands in centre-stage, the contours of a black burqa outlining her body. Accented by vibrant colours, the artist presents artworks that pose questions about the conflicting influences that play out in contemporary Egyptian society.

As in the collage of ideas, the artist still uses collage mixed with painting in her pieces. Three square paintings hang side by side in triptych fashion, showing three portraits of women dressed in burqas against a backdrop of layered fabrics combined with vibrant paint. The paintings are ironically composed as if they were television screens. The fabrics that make up the background range from vintage red lace belonging to her grandmother to bed sheets patterned with cartoon characters.

Painting by Shayma Kamel. (Photo: courtesy of Mashrabia Gallery)
Painting by Shayma Kamel. (Photo: courtesy of Mashrabia Gallery)

“Fabric always plays a strong part in my work. Mixing old and new fabrics together has helped me create richness, dialogue and space here,” says Kamel.

The artist feels that, in this exhibition, she is able to communicate her ideas in a more concise, simple language. “Despite the busyness, colour, texture, my language is now simpler and I think that is a development in my work,” she comments.

Still, Kamel does not spell her messages out for viewers. As always, she relies on an abundance of symbols and a sophisticated technique to invite gallery dwellers to ponder both message and material. 

“I like to use different materials and collage so that people would stop and try to decipher how I made it,” she says.

Kamel's oeuvre demonstrates a keen interest in the struggles of women in Egyptian society. Daily life in Cairo plays her palette, presenting a range of issues and emotions for the artist to weave into her works. As a female figure is almost always centre-stage, the artist emerges as a form of spokesperson for the downtrodden woman.

Kamel says her departure from autobiographical subject matter is a sign that she is maturing as an artist. “Developing, I think, is the process of looking outside of oneself and starting to think differently about problems in society,” she says.

“Here, I'm not thinking again of Shayma Kamel and her family, her mother and sister. As an artist, you have a responsibility to contribute something, and this is what I’m trying to do.”

The Cinderella exhibition is certainly very different from her earlier works. While previous collections carried a potent intimacy and sense of nostalgia, this collection is satirical of contemporary society. Instead of creating the soul and reality that she felt were missing in Egyptian society, as she tried to do in a solo exhibition at Tache in October 2012, Kamel confronts the problems head on and decides to address them bluntly.

At times presenting odd images, such as Disney princesses with black veils half-covering their faces, this show is a sobering statement that brings the blurred lines between representation and reality into focus. 

Exhibition runs until20 March
8 Champollion Street, Downtown, Cairo

Short link: