Pop art pioneer Reda Abdel-Salam is an illustrator, painter, critic, and professor of mural art at the Faculty of Fine Arts, from where he graduated in 1977. For 30 years he was an illustrator for Al-Ahram and Al-Musawwar, creating images for work by such writers as Tawfik Al-Hakim and Naguib Mahfouz whose vision, he says, changed his outlook on life.
“My work has always been linked to social and political developments,” he told Al-Ahram Weekly at the Camera and Easel Gallery in Sheikh Zayed’s Hilton Dreams Hotel, where a retrospective of his work is currently showing. The exhibition features 140 paintings in a neo-expressionist style, many making use of collage, that testify to his experimental passion, his sense of irony and love of nature. As well as acrylic and oil, he uses watercolour, ink, pencil, marker, any number of media.
Born in Suez in 1947, Abdel-Salam grew up surrounded by the Red Sea and the Suez Canal. “The environment,” he says, “affected my character and creativity. As a child, it was a thrill to watch small fishing boats alongside giant container ships. I used to contemplate the waves for hours on end. It was magical. I made art as a child, but even then I loved to meditate. The 1967 defeat was a huge impetus. It was then I realised I wanted to move to Cairo to study visual art.”
As a vocational graduate he had been serving his army term when the war broke out. He had also worked at the Abu Redis Petroleum Company to help with family expenses, and as a conscript he experienced real battles.
Now, living in shanty towns and working-class neighbourhoods (the bustle of the city was the subject of his 2016 exhibition at the Picasso Gallery, “The Spirit of Places”), he shifted to general secondary education to qualify for art school. The knowledge and experience he accumulated had begun to show in his work by the 1980s. “In the 1980s, on casual visits home, I started to see Suez with an artist’s eyes.” And so container ships became among his trademarks. So did women in niqab, a phenomenon of the 1980s. “In the early 1980s, I started to examine the phenomenon of Islamic extremism and to think about its manifestations.” A black spot with a smaller white spot in the middle represented the face veil. “What is there to hide? I was wondering about that new extremist trend we had never seen before. My mother, a seamstress, had dressed in a modern way. I’d rarely seen a woman in a headscarf.” In “Girls’ Dreams”, another Picasso Gallery exhibition held in 2004, the nude figure becomes a way to explore the psyche in a cultural and political context. Female nudes are another specialty of Abdel-Salam’s, as the present exhibition also demonstrates. Often accompanied by men, they tend to be the dominant party. In one painting, a female nude sitting on a bench has a bearded man bent over to clean her feet.
Together with Hamed Nada and Zakaria Al-Zeini, late pioneering artist Mounir Kanaan was among Abdel-Salam’s mentors. “I spent many hours with Kanaan, who was at the time one of the most significant primitive and pop artists, at his office in Al-Akhbar newspaper, where he worked for over 40 years as the organisation’s main illustrator.” Abdel-Salam developed a passion for using different media. His work for Al-Ahram and Al-Musawwar is a key resource for his attachment to collage and decoupage. “Pop art originally emerged from Dadaism, and it responded with the emerging capitalist economy. We are currently in the same situation.” His influences include Jasper Jones, who was a strong presence through the 1990s. It was in this style that he depicted the popular saint’s anniversary in a 1998 exhibition at the Zamalek Art Complex. Pop art is both a technique and a cultural context.
Few in his generation venture out of their comfort zones to practise collage. “Actually, I consider myself the king of collage. I am not being arrogant. It is just that I use collage in a proper context, not just as a cut and paste process.”
The passion has persisted. One 2018 painting features drink wrappers of different brands. “I start each painting with no definite plan in mind; I let my feelings lead me to using whatever material I have.” Cubism, abstract expressionism, and pop art are all evident. He should know. As a critic Abdel-Salam has published seven books including The Visual Context of Ruined Walls and Egyptian Artists: Traditional vs Contemporary. He is currently at work on a new book entitled Aesthetic Manifestations of Feminine Beauty in Contemporary Egyptian Art.
He brings to art the danger and courage of an adventurer, too: “I was a member of the commandos, and I was trained to cross the Suez Canal and capture the Bar Lev line in 1969. I learned to be brave and persistent. The same applies to art; you need to be courageous, sometimes even violent, willing to go out of your comfort zone to experiment with other media and themes.” Hence the astounding variety on show.
“I never do sketches,” Abdel-Salam says. “I treat the surface of the canvas as a minefield and I have the duty to get through it peacefully. This is very enjoyable.”
Even Covid-19 has inspired him: “Artists usually choose to depict their own thoughts and inner selves. They are not used to being inspired by outside influences. By contrast, I have produced many paintings inspired by the impact of the virus on the customs of people and their religious routines. I was recently inspired by wild commercialism and people’s crazy attitudes at hypermarkets during sales.”
This will probably be the subject of his next exhibition.
The exhibition is on show on request.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 7 May, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly